After playing a key role in the implementation of natural farming in Himachal Pradesh, Prof Rajeshwar Singh Chandel, a noted entomologist with over 25 years of experience in education and research, has been appointed Vice-Chancellor of Dr Y S Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry (UHF), Nauni in Solan district. Chandel faces the challenge of reducing the hesitancy of higher education institutes in taking up natural farming besides better management of varsity with a role in propagating better horticulture and forestry practices in the state.
He is actively engaged in policy making with NITI Aayog to start natural farming at the national level and his initiative on Sustainable Food Systems for Natural Farming (SuSP-NF) for Himachal Pradesh has won international acclaim. Besides, he is a member of the Government of India’s committee constituted to develop a Natural Farming based syllabus in the Agriculture and Forestry Universities in the country.
Chandel talked with Sanjeev Kumar about various challenges in propagating natural farming which may help the government in achieving the target of doubling farmers’ income and better practices in horticulture and forestry.
Q. What are the major challenges you face as Vice-Chancellor of the UHF?
A: My first challenge is to take students, farmers and other professionals who visit us out of the four walls of the university to the field as the course curriculum only suffices their degree requirements. We have to reduce the extra work or redundant work of staff or divide it so that they can focus on their main work i.e. teaching. Another priority is how agriculture is taken and more focus is laid on increasing production only since there are reports that soil degradation has reached a high level in India with Himachal being one state most affected by the issue. There is also the issue of scarcity of water for farming activities. As we shifted from traditional culture to monoculture and hybrid, the area under traditional crops has fallen significantly which affected vegetation patterns. Though this benefited farmers in terms of money which led to the richness, not prosperity it also led to various health issues and an increase in the cost of cultivation. We need research-oriented objectives to tackle these issues and natural farming can be an alternative as has been emphasised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And promoting natural farming is my priority and I will try to make UHF the first university in the country to justify the success of the method on the basis of scientific data. At the UHF, we will try to adopt learning by doing techniques for students, experts and all other universities and a model of natural farming will be introduced in sur- rounding eight villages in association with the state agriculture department.
Q. In recent visits to the UHF, Governor R V Arlekar and Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur pointed out that the research and innovations aren’t reaching the farmers. How would you like to change the present scenario?
A: Sometimes we aren’t able to show our good work and besides, it is a perception that universities are also responsible for extension work while it is the duty of concerned departments. My first priority is to produce the best students who will become messengers in spreading new innovations among farmers. There shouldn’t be a gap between preaching and practising and to reduce it, as mentioned earlier, we will adopt the surrounding eight villages to develop a model of natural farming so that everyone could see the results to mitigate various factors. My three-year target will be to develop UHF as a knowledge centre for Himalayan states and countries on natural farming- ing for which we are in the process of generating scientific data. In addition, the UHF has a glorious past with many alumni working at top posts in the country and it was also called the nursery of Indian Forest Service officers. The varsity will connect with all to take interest in its activities and bridge the gap.
Q. Does the UHF contribute to making policy for afforestation drives in the state as there are reports that it isn’t benefiting the local population as well as the environment?
A: There have been gaps in this field and besides, this comes under the domain of the forest department. But we can develop the best models for afforestation on which we can work with the department. There have been incidences of forest fires owing to pine trees and other issues, including the shortage of fodder. Our domain includes research and we can jointly work with the forest department on the possibilities of carrying out the work of multiplication of plant species to reduce incidences of forest fires and also cater to the needs of the local population as well as ecology.
Q. There has been talking of certifying farmers for natural farming. How is the department planning to do so?
A: There have been debates on the certification of natural farmers and after long discussions, a decision has been taken to develop an app which is in the final stages of completion. The app will provide for farmers to fill information on crops for inputs used and areas under natural farming which will be available in the public domain. The information has to be verified by five locals including a local official. We are opting for a social audit method as locals can object to any wrong information and besides, the state government will also conduct random checks. Based on the information, the farmer will be rated as one star, two stars etc.
Q. Can natural farming help the government in achieving the target of doubling farmers’ income?
A: As per our initial data, the input cost of farming under natural farming has been reduced by 57 per cent while the farmers have registered a 27 per cent growth in their income. The components used in natural and chemical farming are quite different as prevalent farming methods require pesticides and fertilizer while the former uses homemade components of cow urine and dung. In addition, the incentives provided to farmers by the government contribute to and fill the gaps to double farmers’ income. In fact, the United Nations has appreciated this method and stated that it will be able to sustain farming and farmer’s income. In addition, there have been several changes in cropping and vegetation patterns in the state as well as the country which led to falling in the area under staple crops. The farmers have now shifted to vegetable and apple cultivation in Himachal which has led to a growth in income. But the heavy use of chemicals has resulted in several species of birds getting extinct with negative effects on soil and the environment and this has been reported in various studies and intellect groups. We can change this scenario with natural farming.
Q. Is the UHF planning to introduce traditional crops in Himachal.
A: Yes, we will be working on it as multi-cropping is an important component in natural farming but there is a lack of seed banks. Earlier, we had over 180 varieties of rice in the state, be it red rice or brown rice that is grown in select pockets in Himachal; now only 80 varieties are being grown in the state. We are trying to track the groups of farmers growing these crops and increase the number of farmers under traditional crops.