Raipur: In Chhattisgarh's Rajankatta village, 68 km from the state capital Raipur, 38-year-old Lakshmi Kanwar starts her day at dawn. Her first task takes her to the family's animal pen, which consists of four bamboo poles holding up a roof thatched with dried palm leaves.

She frees her cows and goats, and collects the dung they leave behind in a straw basket and dumps it in a hole in the ground some distance away from her hut--a noisome task that has to be finished before she has a bath. Such dumping pits are known locally as ghurwa, and it is here that the accumulated dung composts through summer.

"Just before the rains, we burn the weeds growing on our land," Kanwar explains. "We then till the land, and mix in the burnt weeds and the dried compost into the soil. Once the land is prepared, we plant kodo (millets), a little rice, and black lentils. We sell the millet crop, and also some tubers that grow in the bari (kitchen garden)."

Kanwar is one of many farmers belonging to the Kamar tribe, who live in Chhattisgarh's Gariaband district and practice sustenance farming. Those from the scheduled tribes (STs) make up around 30% of the state's population, and live in and around the forests that cover 44% of Chhattisgarh's land area.

"Our ancestors didn't practise farming," says Kanwar's father-in-law Lacchman Kanwar, 60. "We used to be nomadic, settling in any one place only seasonally. Millets are sturdy plants, so back then we would grow millets which, along with forest produce, was our sustenance. It is only over the past few decades that we have adapted to farming completely."

Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel of the Indian National Congress, who took office in 2018 and identifies himself as the son of a farmer, declared that the focus of his government would be Narwa Garuwa Ghurwa Bari (NGGB), meaning Irrigation channel, cattle, compost and kitchen garden. This also included the construction of gothans or cow shelters. Then in July 2020, the government announced the Godhan Nyay Yojana (which means a scheme that identifies the benefits of a cow) which would ensure that gothans are self-sustaining. The government decided to procure cow dung at Rs 2 per kilogram (kg), which would then be converted to three grades of compost at the gothans by women from self-help groups, and sold at a starting price of Rs 10 per kg.

The scheme was aimed to promote bio-fertilisers and pesticides and encourage natural farming, in a bid to reduce the use of high-cost chemical fertilisers and pesticides and make farming more sustainable.

"Natural farming is an age-old tradition that we had to bring back," said Pradeep Sharma, an aide of Chief Minister Baghel, who is tasked with the planning and execution of the Godhan Nyay Yojana.

Vijendra Ajnabi of the non-governmental organisation Van Adhikar Manch, that works under the international nonprofit Oxfam, points out that those from STs taking to natural farming is an offshoot of their nomadic roots. Cattle is the mainstay of nomadic life, and it has "been an important factor, as the dung and urine can be utilised in many ways, along with herbs, leaves and tree bark found in forests", Ajnabi points out. "From pesticides specific to seasonal flies to a concoction meant to increase soil fertility, tribes have managed without intervention from outside. Granted, this was never farming on a commercial scale--they never felt the need to maximise production."

As part of our ongoing series on natural farming, we visited Chhattisgarh to understand how the Godhan Nyay Yojana, and the shift to natural farming in the state, has fared. You can also read our other stories as part of this series, on why it is difficult for Punjab to move away from artificial chemical-based farming, on women leading the move to natural farming in Andhra Pradesh and seed banks in Odisha.

Farming in Chhattisgarh moved towards high-yielding rice varieties

The Tropic of Cancer runs through Ambikapur district and the state has a tropical climate characterised by hot summers and a monsoon season supportive for agriculture.

A governmental push aimed at making the region self-sustaining saw the yield of rice increase from 4.39 million metric tonnes (MMT) in 2008-09 to 8.05 MMT in 2016-17--the highest recorded in the state. Production fell to 4.93 MMT in 2017-18 but rose to 6.7 MMT in 2019-20 and 7.16 MMT in 2020-21.

The state is colloquially known as the rice bowl of central India for the thousands of rice varieties that, if not preserved, could disappear over time, according to researchers.

Most women from the family undertake farming activities in natural farming, while men go out for work as daily labourers.

Government estimates indicate that in 2022, paddy was cultivated across 3.3 million hectares in Chhattisgarh. Much of this growth in production is owed to high-yield rice varieties and a significant spike in the use of chemical fertilisers. Pockets of natural farming however exist, particularly in the plateaus of the south and the hilly region to the north--and much of this is driven by the ST population, say experts.

"Under the previous BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] government," said Sharma, "there was a push to maximise production that resulted in chemical fertilisers becoming the go-to for even the smallest farmer. In order to wean people off such cost-intensive methods, we decided to bring back cow dung compost, but in a more accessible and economically feasible way."

A senior BJP leader and an erstwhile member of the state's legislative assembly (MLA) said that the BJP government, when it was formed in 2003, worked to increase the state's low farm productivity and to set up systems for commercialised agriculture where there were none. "Since paddy was a common crop, the BJP ensured that every paddy farmer got their due by working on increasing yield and ensuring accountability in farming through village-level societies. We set up the systems that the Congress government is now using for its schemes."

To push natural farming, and move away from fertilisers that harm the ecology to natural fertilisers like cow dung, the Congress government began the Godhan Nyay Yojana, in 2020, with a budget of Rs 175 crore, for the construction of composting tanks and gothan structures. As many as 2,200 gothans had already been built at this time under the NGGB scheme and 2,800 more were under construction.

According to the budget speech delivered at the assembly by CM Baghel, in 2021, Rs 127 crore was transferred to the bank accounts of dung-sellers and Rs 31.34 crore was paid towards the various SHGs working at the gothans. In a response to a question in the assembly, the state government stated that Rs 928 crore was spent on construction of Gothans under various financial heads by December 2022.

By October 2022, according to government records, they had paid over Rs 340 crore to cow-dung sellers, compost makers and the management committees running the gothans. As of December 2022, the government had approved 11,288 gothans, of which 85% have been constructed and are functioning. The government is procuring dung from 9,631 gothans, said Sharma of the Chhattisgarh government. Of these, 4,372 have become self-sustaining.

Gariaband's Lakshmi Kanwar says the scheme is beneficial for landless farmers, for farmers with no cattle, and for those that are farming after a gap of some years. "If someone can't make their own manure, it is available for purchase," she says. "It is good to ensure that the ease with which farmers used to reach out for chemical fertiliser will now be curbed by this better, more organic product."

Fertiliser shortage and political quarrels

The government's push for bio-fertilisers and natural farming has triggered a political row. The BJP, the principal opposition in the state, has accused the Congress government of a scam. According to former chief minister and BJP leader Raman Singh, the government's numbers are only on paper.

"The only ones benefiting from the scheme are the dairy owners and animal farmers," Singh said. "The cow dung is also watered down and polluted leading to a poor quality compost, which farmers are being forced to buy. Most gothans are either under construction or non-functional. The self-help group women that the government claims to be supporting have also not all been paid."

Government officials deny these allegations. "Very rarely, due to some cases, payments are delayed. This is happening in less than 10% of all the SHGs working at thousands of gothans. To alleviate this issue, we are working on developing the gothans into self-sufficient business models," a senior officer from the Godhan Nyay Yojana department said.

A wall in a cow shelter. These cow shelters or gothans are imagined to be rural industrial units, and
women's self-help groups undertake various activities here, including the conversion of cow dung to waste under the Godhan Nyay Yojana.

Saurabh Singh, BJP MLA from Akaltara constituency, takes these accusations further, and says, "the government created a faux crisis of the chemical fertilisers supplied by the Centre in order to push its cow-dung compost on unsuspecting farmers," and at the same time maligned the central government by blaming them for the fertiliser shortage.

A central government press release dated February 18, 2022 says Chattisgarh had requested 11.75 lakh metric tons (LMT) of chemical fertiliser for the kharif season in 2021, and was allotted 14.44 LMT. For the rabi season in 2021-22, the state had requested 3.61 LMT fertilisers and was allotted 4.11 LMT.

"Despite this, the state government let rakes of fertilisers sit at the railway points for months, not letting the fertilisers be sold at the time when farmers needed them, and instead pushing their compost on them," Singh said. "Those under the farm-debt waiver and registered under societies bore the worst brunt of this. In Chhattisgarh, all farmers mix cow dung in their soil, one way or the other. To make them pay money for what was once free is a scam and is not benefitting anyone."

The ruling Congress party dismisses the allegations as politically motivated, and points out that the Godhan Nyay Yojana has been praised by the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] to which the BJP is affiliated. Further, they say that similar schemes have been launched in Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh after Chhattisgarh's success.

"The BJP can't digest the fact that the Congress government has managed to do what they couldn't do despite being in power for 15 years," Congress party spokesperson Sushil Anand Shukla said. "If they really believed in saving cattle and traditional ways of farming, they would not have messed up the agricultural practices in the state so much. Now that we are doing something productive, they are finding imaginary flaws in it."

But some experts say cow dung sales are a bad idea for natural farming

Politics aside, not everyone is enamoured of the scheme--and the data support some of that disenchantment. When the pandemic hit and cash flows became tight, there was a rush to sell cow dung. However, the purchase of dung appears to have decreased as the number of functioning gothans began to increase. The BBC had reported in October 2022 that between July 2020 and March 2021, the state had bought over 45 lakh quintal of cow-dung. However, between April 2021 and March 2022, the procurement was 21 lakh quintal or less than half of the previous year. The government procured 41.18 lakh quintal of cow dung between December 2021 and December 2022.

One of the reasons behind the Godhan Nyay Yojana was to reduce stray cattle on the road.
But cattle still loiter on roads, including on state and national highways.

Natural farmers in the state find the idea of selling dung risible. According to Om Chauhan (34), a gothan samiti adhyaksh [head of a gothan committee] in Bijapur, the sellers are almost always from the Raut or Yadav communities, and not from the STs. "Even if farmers send their cows to the gothan, there is a communal cattle herder who collects the dung and sells it. The farmer doesn't sell the dung they save at home, because they have multiple uses for it. Right from using it as a plaster layer for the walls and floors of the house, to preparing various solutions to be used as pesticide and in religious rituals, cattle waste is important for the farmer."

"We have never used chemical fertilisers; we have always used cattle waste in various forms," says Kishorilal Thakur (58), a third generation farmer in Dhamtari who grows over 150 varieties of rice and other products like flaxseeds, lentils and vegetables. "We treat our seeds with saptaparni, a solution made by boiling seven types of leaves in cow urine, and we use fresh cow dung while tilling. Compost treated with neem is used as fertiliser."

Thakur, who owns over 30 cattle, says he wouldn't dream of selling the waste. "It is the Rauts, the traditional cow herders, that sell cow dung. Any farmer who wants to do non-chemical natural farming will never sell their compost."

Ramgulam Sinha, who heads Prerak, an NGO working on participatory development of marginalised communities, and Siyan Sadan, a farmers' collective that operates an old-age home and encourages natural farming practices, has been working for over three decades in the field of sustainable and natural participatory farming. He believes the scheme is largely ineffective on the ground. "The idea might have been perfect, but the reality on the ground is that not all functional gothans are buying cow-dung, even if villagers want to sell. In fact, it is leading to more socio-economic conflict, as the ones benefiting are mostly from the Yadav or Raut community, as they are traditionally herders, instead of the farmer."

According to government officials, the compost produced at gothans was sold through the established systems for chemical fertilisers. "Just like chemical fertilisers were given to those who had registered with local agro-societies for loan waivers, we started giving them compost," a senior government official explained, requesting anonymity. The major chunk of the sale in December of around 16.4 lakh quintals (64% of the total vermicompost sale), was sold via this medium.

Many farmers say they don't buy the cow dung compost since they have been making their own for years.

"Our tribal members are not becoming part of the scheme at all and the compost, graded as normal, super and super-plus compost, is not proving to be effective enough for farmers to move away from chemical fertilisers. The government needs to work on saving more traditional practices and crops, like millets. To make gothans successful, more items need to be prepared from the dung and marketed properly," Sinha from Prerak said. Lamps, paint, pots, holi and rangoli colours are also made at the gothans.

Experts from the farming sector say that while there is debate on the exact nature of natural farming, it is certain that the practice needs zero output from outside the immediate environment of the farm itself. "The top-down method of distributing cow-dung compost is problematic and can't be considered natural as it is the product of an outside intervention," Jacob Nallinethan (60), an agricultural expert working in Chhattisgarh, said.

"Currently, when a tribal gets his land patta, he is registered with a society and gets high-yielding varieties of paddy seeds, encouraging him to go in for commercial farming," said Ajnabi of Van Adhikar Manch. "If the government really wants to save traditional farming and encourage natural farming, the existing schemes need to be tailored to factor in the traditional farming practices."

"This is then further continued by the government only procuring some items under MSP. There is a need to shift the approach and encourage diversity, including a focus on local varieties, if one has to bring a change in ways of farming," adds Ajnabi. "In order to regenerate soil damaged by years of chemical usage, first the locals have to be made aware, and their traditional practices should be respected and brought into the mainstream."

Sharma, aide to the chief minister, is aware that the scheme does not have universal acceptance, and he says the intention was never to reinvent the wheel of natural farming. "There's nothing new in what we are doing, except the scale of it. A need to institutionalise the traditional practice was felt in order to save it, to minimise the nuisance caused by stray cattle, and to ensure that healthy practices take root in the system."

The Kamars of Rajankatta mostly practise subsistence farming; the women spend more time on the farm, while men often work as daily wage workers. "We don't intend to give up the way our ancestors have been farming, even if it means not making more money," says Lakshmi. For them to expand their farming such that it helps them go beyond subsistence while continuing to use natural farming methods, would need an external push, experts say.

While Lakshmi doesn't want her per crop yield to increase, she does want to grow more crops in a year, so that it provides her with financial stability all year round. "What we want from the government is to create a market, so that our produce, which is better in quality, can be sold at a valid price. If the government creates a market for our madia and kutki (kinds of millets), we will go in for a second crop too."

We welcome feedback. Please write to respond@indiaspend.org. We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.