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Urban Wastes, Farm Resource

by Padma Rajagopal

For the last fifteen years, I've been an organic farmer. My husband and I farm a 4 acre plot near Mysore city, maintaining a diversity of activities. We rear cattle, free-range chickens, dogs, cats, and earthworms, grow fruit, fuel and fodder trees, and vegetables for our household as well as to sell at an organic market held in Mysore city twice a month. On our farm, we use no chemical inputs - neither fertilizers nor pesticides - but collect every scrap of biodegradable material we can set our hands on, to make vermicompost which we use to enrich the soil that grows our crops.

The texture of the soil which was badly degraded – stone and clay pan when we began, has been slowly changing year by year, and the size and quality of our farm produce improving. Pests and diseases, too, bother us less and less as the soil becomes richer. Like any other life forms, healthy environment and a balanced diet creates healthy plants. The taste of our produce is drastically different from what we can buy in the market place, and using no toxic chemicals, they harm nobody.

But though organic inputs and vermicompost show wonderful results, it takes a lot of work to collect enough organic matter to make all the compost we need, and high labour costs make it expensive to collect enough leaf-litter to dilute the biogas slurry that forms the basis of the vermicompost.

Financially, our farm isn't yet a viable unit. After 6 years of serious work on it, it will still take time until all the fruit trees we planted are yielding before we can entirely support ourselves from it. Local farmers who come to visit us and are impressed with the quality of the produce and the texture of the soil on our farm, are still sceptical about the financial returns.

When we speak about the toxins in food and in the soil, and of the progressive degradation of chemically farmed land, they shrug and say, "That's all true, but we need money now." How can we refute this? It's never been easy to earn a decent living growing food crops, and not many villagers are satisfied with a subsistence lifestyle anymore.

Organic inputs are expensive and scarce in the countryside, and chemical fertilizers, and the pesticides that are mandatory for crops nourished on chemicals, are subsidised by the government. Yes, it's true that the subsidies are directly aimed at the manufacturers, but it's still a cheaper, instant fix for the crops. Tomorrow be damned. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" is the farmer's motto. But there is an alternative, and it's found in an unexpected place - cities.

Early in 1999, while a transient citizen in Coimbatore, I became aware of the other side of this problem - garbage. Mountains of it, piling up in the streets, burning in stinking, smouldering heaps everywhere you looked. Responsible citizens called it an "unassailable problem", averted their eyes and held their breath as they went by. After a few weeks of complaining about it, a friend and I made the first of a series of visits to the office of the Municipal Commissioner. The facts that I learnt there staggered me:

The Corporation, with great difficulty, collects a portion of the city's garbage (the rest of it lies where it is or is swept into heaps and burnt), working out to almost a thousand tonnes daily, and dumps it outside the city. The dumps cover almost 700 acres of land! The filth and stench, flies and rats are like anybody's vision of hell. In the midst of this, our recycling forces - the rag pickers - toil stoically on. It's a horrifying picture for anyone, but the major impression it made on me was: what a criminal waste!

If all the organic matter thrown away in the dumps was returned to the fields where the food and raw materials for Coimbatore's famous cotton mills are grown, the farmers wouldn't need to pollute their fields with expensive and dangerous chemical cocktails anymore, and the city would be clean and free of a very major problem.

It seems I wasn't the first to think along these lines. The Corporation Commissioner had been talking to the local press about involving private entrepreneurs in composting garbage, converting all this waste into a valuable resource, and providing job opportunities to a number of people. Several people had been showing an interest in the opportunity presented. So I decided to do what I could to share what I know about earthworms and composting – to spread some knowledge about an amazingly simple, layman-friendly biotechnology, vermicomposting.

Under the aegis of SEED (Skills and Environmental Education) Trust, an NGO that we had registered a couple of years before, I decided to organise a workshop for potential entrepreneurs who were interested in converting municipal solid wastes (m.s.w) to compost.

The workshop, held on the 23rd of May, 1999, had a turnout of about 60 persons, comprising a mixed group of householders, business people sniffing out a new entrepreneurial opportunity, academics, and organic farmers.

Presentations made covered the technical, logistic and financial aspects of setting up vermicomposting units. A local manufacturer who had got to hear of the workshop brought and demonstrated his invention - a shredding machine that would speed up composting time by reducing the size of the material for composting - important in cities where space is limited, so a quick turnover is essential.

Sadly, apart from one clerical assistant, nobody from the Municipal Corporation attended the workshop.

Padma Rajagopal is an industrial designer, qualified from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, with over 15 years of experience as a consultant for village industries. She has worked as a designer, skills trainer and appropriate technologist, on projects organized by NGOs and Govt. agencies working with rural communities and craftsmen in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and now functions as programme coordinator for SEED (Skills and Environmental Education) Trust, based at her small farm near Mysore city. Padma and her husband, Mathew Pani Paodumai, a Naga tribal with an academic background in business management, live and work on the farm, with their two year old son, Keshav.

For more information about SEED Trust, visit their webpage:

As educational literature for the workshop described in this article, SEED Trust prepared and brought out a 30 page technical booklet on vermicomposting garbage, titled "Wealth from Waste". Copies of this booklet are available by post for Rs. 33/- (D.D.only), inclusive of postage.

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See also:
A Fukuoka There, A Cherkadi Here ..
10 Reasons Organic Gardening Opposes Genetic Engineering

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