• climatelancaster

Plant Your Love and Let it Grow

Updated: Jan 30

Mr Rahul Banerjee

Environmentalist, Activist, Engineer

I grew up in Kolkata and then went to the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur to do engineering after finishing my schooling. So, my upbringing was totally urban and I had no consciousness about the way in which urban life was destructive of nature. However, while in college, forty years ago, I read an article by the American author and environmentalist, Wendell Berry, in the Humanist magazine about the tremendous therapeutic value of farming and living in rural surroundings. That was the time I was reading Gandhi and the Upanishads also. The net result was that a few months down the line I decided that I would also live in a village and do farming. So, eventually after my graduation I landed up in a village and from there in another village and finally in Alirajpur district in Madhya Pradesh among the Bhil Adivasis. However, since I had also been reading Marx, Proudhon, Bakunin and the like in college, even though I ended up living in a village, I could not do much farming. Most of the time I was into grassroots mass mobilisation for the rights of the Bhil Adivasis. So, like in the famous Grateful Dead song "Casey Jones", all the time there was trouble ahead and trouble behind. Consequently, farming was the last thing that crossed my mind as I was high on, not cocaine, but revolutionary spirit, often laced with the local Mahua!!
As things would turn out, a decade later I married a farmer's daughter, Subhadra. She too had drunk of the revolutionary spirit and that too of a feminist flavour and so we continued our dangerous political train driving, a la Casey Jones, spending our time in and out of prison and crashing head on into the oppressive train being driven by the Government!! But that became increasingly risky and after a particularly painful clash against the Government in 2001 in which we lost four of our mass organisation members in police firing, we gave up on militant mass mobilisation and retired to the city of Indore to pursue sedate service delivery work and research. This was also necessitated by the fact that a son was born to us and given the abysmal condition of schools in rural areas and our inability to home school due to both of us working, we really had no other alternative.
This, however, presented a big dilemma for me as I had taken a vow while leaving college that I would never again go back to a city. Before this for a decade and a half I had lived in villages in mud houses with no electricity most of the time and so my ecological footprint had been very low. Therefore, to compensate for the huge increase in ecological footprint, Subhadra and I decided to live in a house in Indore that had many conservation measures. We planted a lot of trees, plants and creepers in the garden and even grew some vegetables on the roof. So, we have a dense natural green look to our house and it is consequently blessed by butterflies, bees and birds of many kinds whose chirping adds to the nature friendliness. Not only this, all the rainwater falling on the house is either harvested in an underground tank of 15,000 litres below the garage or recharged into the ground to enhance the water availability in our borewell from which we source our potable water. Indeed, even the rainwater falling on the road in front of our house is directed into our garden for recharging. The wastewater from the bathrooms is treated and reused for gardening and flushing our toilets through a dual plumbing system. The wastewater from the toilets and kitchen are treated and recharged into the ground. Finally, we have 1.5 KW of photovoltaic solar panels which not only provide us with electricity during the day but also the excess energy generated is exported into the grid from which we import electricity during the night. However, overall, we are net electricity exporters. Our hot water is also from a passive solar water heater. For transportation we use bicycles most of the time and use motorised vehicles only when we have to go far which is very rarely since we have mostly been working from home from long before it became a norm in recent times!! Thus, even though we are living in a city we are both water and energy positive.

Then in 2012 Subhadra decided she wanted to do farming. Staying in the city of Indore was becoming more and more claustrophobic for both of us despite our own home being nature friendly. So, we began searching for land. Thus started a wild goose chase. We wanted land close to a forest in hilly terrain and in an Adivasi area where there was one of our active mass organisations and it had to be close to Indore with phone and internet connectivity. These were too many parameters to satisfy and so we could not get land easily. Finally, in 2015 we did get our land in Pandutalab village in Dewas district that satisfied all our conditions. It has been six years since and now we have a farm and farmhouse self-sufficient in water, energy and food through various soil, water and energy conservation measures, situated on the edge of a dense forest.
However, while Subhadra dived into farming with gusto along with the Adivasi couple we had engaged to help us, I still used to live and work on the farm off and on in a desultory manner and so could not test Berry's claim that farming has a therapeutic value. But in the month of June last year, the Adivasi couple left and so I had to put in long stints of living and working on the farm as it was not possible for Subhadra to do all the work on her own. Farming is hard work both physically and intellectually. There are so many variables that have to be taken care of that one is on one's toes all the time. This is especially so in the case of organic farming which we do as all inputs are from the farm itself. Normally, this results in considerable tension for the farmer these days. However, we are not normal farmers. Berry, in that article that I had read forty years ago, had given a sage piece of advice that one should not be dependent for one's livelihood on the farm. We have followed that advice and so we earn our money from other activities, which is possible because there is internet available on our farm, and do farming for the food and the physical and mental rigour and the peace and satisfaction it provides.
Consequently, my mental and physical health has improved considerably. One chronic ailment of mine has been completely solved. For some fifteen years, now, I have had a skin condition called psoriasis which results in scaling and itching of the skin. In all these years I have tried, allopathy, ayurveda, naturopathy and what have you but the problem has persisted. One dermatologist even told me once that I would have to reconcile myself to living with psoriasis till the day I die as if it was my second wife. When I told Subhadra this, she said that it was my third wife because the Adivasis were my first love and she was effectively my second wife!!! But now this longstanding problem has vanished completely. No scaling of the skin and no itching whatsoever even though I have not been applying any medicine at all. So, both in the city and on our farm, we lead ecologically sustainable lives in harmony with nature.

Subhadra of course takes farming very seriously as a mission. She began farming again because she found that the women with whom she worked for their reproductive health were all anaemic because they were not eating properly. In fact, India as a whole is right at the bottom of the world hunger rankings because its agriculture is in serious crisis. Delving into the problem she realised that it is the unsustainability of farming in this country that is at the root of malnutrition and disease. So, she is on a crusade to bring farming and women back to health. For me, however, farming has become a labour of love. Something that I had first dreamt of doing about forty years ago in college has now been actualised. As the lyrics of a famous song by Eric Clapton go -
"Standing at the crossroads, trying to read the signs
To tell me which way I should go to find the answer,
And all the time I know,
Plant your love and let it grow"

Links to videos regarding our house and farm –

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