Why Protection of Traditional Wisdom in Agriculture is Extremely Important

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It is well recognized that not all traditions are goods. Some widespread aspects of many traditional societies like discrimination and inequality  at various levels ( such as caste, gender and class) need to be rejected completely. However there are several other aspects relating to the wisdom accumulating over centuries regarding farming and allied activities, forestry, water conservation, crafts and related issues which need to be protected and valued greatly.

This traditional wisdom  evolved from people, spread over several generations, trying to cope with meeting  their needs, often in adverse conditions, overcoming many local adversities on the basis of local resource-base, and hence has invaluable lessons in terms of skills and solutions which are specific to local conditions and needs. The skills, the talents, the wisdom, the initiatives, the efforts of so many generations are captured in this traditional wisdom, and we can ignore this only at our folly, and at tremendous costs to our and future generations.

Traditional wisdom survived for so many generations, for thousands of years, because one generation could inherit this from the previous generation, with due grace and respect. But what has happened more recently is that this respect and grace are increasingly missing, and there is instead a tendency to uproot and displace whatever is represented in traditional wisdom, and call this progress. Unfortunately such tendencies have been seen not just in most capitalist societies, but also in several communist societies, and this too is a cause of much concern.

In several regions farming could be practiced for not just hundreds but even thousands of years, and yet the soil health was maintained, The organic content of the soil  could be maintained, the earthworms and micro-organisms of soil could continue in abundance,   the water balance was maintained, a huge achievement from which much could be learnt. But as soon as traditional wisdom was uprooted and displaced, within a few decades, just two or three decades in some places, all this was badly disrupted, soil health and water abundance were gone, organic content of soil as badly ruined, earthworms perished in billions.

This realization has re-emphasized the need for protecting traditional wisdom but powerful authorities guided by narrow interests whose only goal is to earn money and acquire dominance are not listening. Climate scientists are telling us how important it is to protect organic content of soil not only for the already well-known reason of protecting and enhancing natural fertility of soil but also for capturing carbon , badly needed in times of climate change.

So it is time to wake up and take many-sided and strong efforts to protect traditional wisdom in farming and allied activities. This is true of most human societies but all the more so of tropical countries like India which have been blessed with more diverse crop varieties and retained agriculture as the main source of livelihood at a time when many western countries were fast industrializing.

Even during the days of British rule in India, several British and European experts who had been called to study traditional Indian agriculture spoke glowingly of very rich traditions and scientific basis of the cultivation practices pursued by Indian farmers.

In 1889, Dr. John Augustus Voelcker, of the Royal Agricultural Society of England was deputed by the British government to study Indian agriculture.  Voelcker toured the country extensively for over one year.  His report was published in 1893, and since then has often been cited as an authoritative work on Indian agriculture of this period.

The essence of what Dr. Voelcker said can be summarized in the following extract from his report :

“ I explain that I do not share the opinions which have been expressed as to Indian Agriculture being, as a whole, primitive and backward, but I believe that in many parts there is little or nothing that can be improved. Whilst where agriculture is manifestly inferior, it is more generally the result of the absence of facilities which exist in the better districts than from inherent bad systems of cultivation…. I may be bold to say that it is a much easier task to propose improvements in English agriculture than to make really valuable suggestions for that of India… the conviction has forced itself upon me that, taking everything together  and more specially considering the conditions under which Indian crops are grown, they are wonderfully good.  At his best the Indian raiyat or cultivator is quite as good as, and in some respect  the superior of, the British farmer, while at his worse it can  only be said that this state is brought out largely by an absence of facilities for improvement which is probably unequalled in any other country… I have remarked in earlier chapters about the general excellence of the cultivations, the crops grown here are numerous and varied, much more indeed than in England.  That the cultivation should often be magnificent is not to be wondered at when it is remembered that many of the crops have been known to the raiyats for several centuries, rice is a prominent instance in point.”

More specially he stated, “To take the ordinary acts of husbandry, no where would one find better instances of keeping land scrupulously clean from weeds, of  ingenuity in device of water-raising appliances, of knowledge of soils and their capabilities as well as of the exact time to sow and to reap, as one would in Indian agriculture, and this not at its best only but at its ordinary level. It is wonderful, too, how much is known of rotation, the system of mixed crops and fallowing. Certain it is that I, at least, have never seen a more perfect picture of careful cultivation, combined with hard labour, perseverance and fertility of resource, than I have seen at many of the halting places in my tour.  Such are the gardens of Mahi, the fields of Nadiad and many others.”

An important asset of traditional Indian agriculture was the well-developed irrigation system, “Irrigation by wells is at once the most widely distributed system, and also the one productive of the finest examples of careful cultivation…..Further as regards wells, one cannot help being struck by the skill with which a supply of  water is first found by the native cultivators, then by the construction of the wells, the kinds of wells and their suitability to the surroundings and means of the people; also by the various devices for raising water each of which has a distinct reason for its, adoption.  All these are most interesting points with which I am not called upon to deal, for I see Iittle to improve in them which the cultivator does not know perfectly well.”

Another aspect, less widely realized, was that of a scientific rotation system. Voelcker pointed out that it is quite a mistake to suppose that rotation is not understood or appreciated in India. Frequently more than one crop at a time may be seen occupying the same ground but one is very apt to forget that this is really an instance of rotation being followed. It is not an infrequent practice, when drilling a cereal crop, such as jowar (sorghum) or some other millet, to put in at intervals a few drills of some leguminous crop such as arhar.

There are many systems in ordinary use which are far more complicated than the above. “For instance, not only may there be rows of crops, side by side, as noticed above, but the alternating rows may be made up of mixtures of different  crops, some of them quick growing and requiring both sun and air, and thus being reaped after the former have been cleared off.  Again, some are deep rooted plants.  Others are surface feeders, some require the shelter of other plants and some thrive alone. The whole system appears to be one designed to cover the bareness  and consequent loss to the soil.”

Voelcker, moreover, was not the only agricultural scientist to point out these assets of traditional   agriculture in India. There were several other scientists, other experts and scholars who did so.  Here we quote from only two others—J.Mollison and A.O. Hume.

J.Millison, who later became the first Inspector General of Agriculture in India, published in 1901 a volume, “Text Book of Indian Agriculture.”  Like Voelcker, Millison stressed the suitability of the implements used traditionally in Indian conditions,

“I believe that the implements in ordinary use are entirely suitable for the conditions of Indian agriculture.  This statement may be objected to by other authorities, but if such is the case, l am afraid, I cannot change a deliberately expressed opinion. To those who are skeptical I can show in parts of the Presidency cultivation by means of indigenous tillage implement only, which in respect of neatness, thoroughness and profitableness cannot be excelled by the best gardeners or the best farmers in any part of the world. That statement I deliberately make and am quite prepared to substantiate.”

A.O. Hume, writing in “Agricultural Reform in India,” (1878) wrote about weed-control by Indian farmers at that time, “As for weeds, their wheat fields would, in this respect, shame ninety-nine out of hundred of those in Europe. You may stand in some high old barrow-like village site in Upper India, and look down on all sides one wide sea of waving wheat broken only by dark green islands of mango groves — many square miles of wheat and not a weed or blade of grass above six inches in height to be found amongst it.”

Hume’s tribute to the grain-storage practices of Indian farmers is no less glowing, “They are great adepts in storing grain, and will turn grain out of rough earthen pits, after 20 years absolutely uninjured.  They know the exact state of ripeness to which grain should be allowed to stand in different seasons.”

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Man Over Machine and Protecting Earth for Children.



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