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Pitching for sustainability in agriculture

TWO FILMS made by Krishnendu Bose and sponsored by INTACH, which were shown in New Delhi recently, make a pointed and absorbing examination of a current agricultural dilemma -- how do you achieve productivity without paying the ecological price of the Green Revolution?

The films attempt to go beyond the debate on sustainability in agriculture and hint at the need for social, political and cultural sustainability. The discordance of a culture that perpetrates unsustainable systems is symbolised by sudden sepia flashes of scenes from Ayodhya, Bosnia and Bhopal in an otherwise cogent thematic narrative. Bose may consider this a brilliantly subtle touch, but I'm not sure the technique works.

A parody of success Revolution and After begins with a parody of a typical Doordarshan film on the successes of the Green revolution. It then changes gear and goes on to examine the achievements and ecological costs of the imported miracle seeds, which are the hallmark of the Green Revolution. Another change of gear, and it goes off into an examination of alternative farming strategies through case studies and interviews.

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The second film, The Good Earth, which is subtitled "An Insight into Sustainable Agriculture", examines arguments in favour of organic farming -- which does not use chemical fertilisers and pesticides -- and looks at three or four experiments in such farming. The format is innovative: Sceptical questions are posed, which the film attempts to answer through the people it interviews. Bose anticipates the possible criticisms against organic farming and tackles them through questions asked by an animated character on the screen.

After examining some farming experiments, the animated character asks, "Fine, you managed to dig out a couple of people who've done organic farming. But can you feed 900 million people using this method?" The reply comes from a spokesman for the Gloria Farm in Auroville, Pondicherry, who reels off figures of how much the farm produces on 39.9 ha, to substantiate his argument that organic farming is viable on a large scale, provided there is a proper transit plan.

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Even so, the arguments are a little too rosy. It would have been more useful to have proponents of organic farming describe its limitations, and how these could be overcome. Lack of interest The film makes the point that traditional farming knowledge is not in wider use today only because the state has not shown any interest in funding research in this area. As Anil K Gupta, a professor from the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, says in the film, "The state has not been able to generate institutions and mechanisms, which add value to what people know." And commercial forces, which generate hybrid seeds and pesticides and market them, would have no interest in investing in increasing the applicability of organic farming.

The film also drives home the message that alternative farming, which in many cases rejects even tilling and weeding, also represents an alternative value system that stresses self-sufficiency rather than surpluses and profits. But, during the film's screening in the Capital, sceptics questioned the ability of such an approach to feed a vast and growing population. They suggested patronisingly that perhaps both "modern" and organic agriculture were needed in the present context, thereby

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implying that what is holistic and natural cannot be "modern".

In a note on himself, Bose explains his intention was to make "politically angry" films, which question the "basic development ideology and progress paradigms of the state". Fortunately, despite such intentions, the films are not overly strident, nor do they preach. However, where Bose fails is in not interviewing people on both sides of the fence; he confines his interviews to the critics of modern, chemical-intensive agriculture. If he had interviewed some notable proponents of the Green Revolution, and then provided counter-criticisms to their arguments, it might have made a more sound case for sustainable agriculture and alternative farming.