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Traditional agriculture in India : High yields and no waste
by Bharat Dogra

This article on traditional agricultural techniques and indigenous high-yielding seeds appeared in 'The Ecologist' way back in 1983. Since then, the argument and justification to revert to traditional and non-chemical methods of farming have only grown stronger and more imperative.

Look for the links to related pages on this website at the end.


Today in India, as in many other developing countries with a rich agricultural tradition of their own, the words ‘improved agriculture’ and ‘progressive agriculture’ have become synonymous with the spread of HYVs (High Yielding Varieties of Crops) grown with ever-increasing doses of (often imported) chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Wherever the new crop varieties have spread, time-honoured crop rotations, inter-cropping patterns and other important features of traditional agriculture have been harshly uprooted (this choice, however, has not been made willingly by most farmers, rather it has been forced on them by a package of government policies, subsidies and selective price incentives).

At the back of this trend, and the official policies which support it, is the belief that traditional agriculture is ‘backward’ and incapable of meeting the desired objectives of agricultural planning, i.e. making adequate food available for the Indian messes and improving the living conditions of the peasants who constitute the overwhelming proportion of the Indian population.

But is this belief, widespread as it is among several international ‘experts’ and India's own development planners and policy makers, supported by hard facts?

In 1889, Dr John Augustus Voelcker, the Consulting Chemist to the Royal Agricultural Society of England, was sent 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. For instance, the Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture (1928) said of the Voelcker Report, "Although thirty five years have elapsed since this work was written, the ability which Dr Voelcker displayed in his comprehensive survey of the agricultural conditions of India, in his analysis of problems they present and in the recommendations for their solution, still renders it a book of the utmost value to all students of agriculture in India."

How did Dr Voelcker view Indian agriculture as it existed nearly a hundred years back? Did he consider it backward and incapable of giving a good yield? The essence of what Dr Voelcker said can be summarised 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 may parts there is little or nothing than 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 form inherent bad systems of cultivation . . . I make 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 especially 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 respects, the superior of, the average British farmer, while at his worst it can only be said that this state is brought about 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 cultivation; 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 especially he stated, "To take the ordinary acts of husbandry, nowhere 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 along, but at its ordinary level. It is wonderful, too, how much is known of rotation, the system of mixed crops and of 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."

Voelcker did not believe that the existing ploughs and other implements used by the farmers were useless and ready to be replaced, "It has been said that if the native cultivator had ‘improved’ ploughs he could dispense with he many ploughings which he gives to the land, and that he would thus save himself the cost of going over the field again and again, crossing and recrossing. These ploughings are always three or four in number for ordinary crops, and eight, twelve and even as many as twenty, for sugar cane and other special crops. But the answer is that the end is achieved in time, a finer and better tilth is obtained and the moisture is not lost." Further, "If for ploughs of new designs there be but little room, still less is there for more expensive implements, such as seed-drills, mowers, reapers, threshing machines etc. The native seed drill will strike everyone who sees it at work as being wonderfully efficient, and leaving little to be desired . . . Anyone, who has watched the clever devices of the native cultivators in the implements which they use, for harrowing, levelling, drilling, raising water, etc., will see that if anything is to replace the existing implements it must be simple, cheap and effective. He will indeed be a clever man who introduces something really practical."

An important agent 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 little to improve in them which the cultivator does not know perfectly well."

Another aspect, less widely realised, was that of the scientific rotation system. Voelcker pointed out, "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 vulgare) or some other millet, to put in at intervals a few drills of some leguminous crop, such as arhar (Cajanus cajan).

"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 themselves be made up of mixtures of different crops, some of them quick growing and reaped early, others of slower growth 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 will thrive alone. The whole system appears to be one designed to cover the bareness and consequent loss to the soil, which would result from the soil beating down upon it, and from the loss of moisture which it would incur."

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

J. Mollison, who later became the first Inspector-General of Agriculture in India, published in 1901 a volume ‘Text Book of Indian Agriculture’. Like Voelcker, Mollison 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, I am afraid, I cannot change a deliberately expressed opinion. To those who are skeptical I can show in parts of the Bombay Presidency cultivation by means of indigenous tillage implements 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."

Mollison gives the following account of the practice of artificial warping in Bombay Presidency, "Artificial warping differs from the natural formation of alluvium only, in that the water of a turbid stream may be diverted from its course, and held in a particular area sufficiently long to deposit a large amount of sediment, and if the process is often repeated, a soil of considerable depth may be formed on rock or any other sterile area. Many of the small rice-fields on the Western Ghats have been formed by throwing bandheras across the turbid hill-streams and either diverting the water or allowing a small lake to form above the weir. In this way the current is so obstructed that suspended earthy matter is deposited and in time the silt layer becomes so deep that a rice-crop can be raised thereon. The lower terraced rice fields of the Ghats are annually warped and improved by the silt carried down by the drainage water of the uplands."

Speaking of the soil-mixing practices, Mollison writes, "Mixing is not unknown in India. Clay is often carted from rice-fields in sufficient quantity to add a layer one to two inches thick on sand land. The addition changes the consistence of the sand, so that it becomes better suited for sugar cane and other garden crops raised under irrigation. The cultivator appreciates the value of tank silt and in those districts where these water reservoirs are common they are cleaned out with the utmost care and regularly each year. The silt which has collected in these tanks being the washings of village sites and cultivated fields, has some manurial value, and applied as it is at the rate of 40 cart loads or more per acre, adds considerably to the body of the soil."

A.O. Hume, 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 hundredths of those in Europe. You may stand in some high old barrow-like village site in Upper India, and look down on all sides on 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. What is to be spied out creeping here and there on the ground is only the growth of the last few weeks, since the corn grew too high and thick to permit the women and children to continue weeding."

Continued, click here for the concluding part


Pages on this website relevant to chemical agriculture, the need for organic farming, traditional agriculture and related issues :

18 ways how "modern" farming affects our world

Natural farming succeeds in Indian village

Why organic farming?

Hunger, and why technology cannot feed the world

Dr. Richharia's story

Indian farmers rediscover advantages of traditional rice varieties

Use of indigenous seeds

Hybrid seeds

Diversity and productivity

Traditional knowledge systems

You may also like to read on this website :

Myths and fallacies about organic farming

Organic farming and you

Organic food

Organic farming in India

About Monsanto

Techniques and practices in organic farming

On the effects of pesticides :

The REAL effect of pesticides

Pesticides in your food (and water)

For general information on organic farming, click here

For information on other issues related to organic farming, click here

To order satavic.org on CD, click here

Click here for the concluding part of this article

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