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Agri-Culture and Agriculture – The Root Change

Farming in Uttarakhand_Nawang Tankhe.PNG

Illustration by Nawang Tankhe

Agriculture on the earth is about 10,000-12,000 years old and it appeared in India about 8000-9000 years ago. From hunting and gathering in the forests, how humans came to produce grains and how the entire process must have grown and spread across migrants, communities, regions and countries – is a fascinating history by itself. But have we ever paused to wonder or ask, what was it about agriculture that so many millennia later, it continues to be the principal foundation of our lives, relevance and survival and the main yardstick of our life’s fertility and continuous existence?

The primary significance of agriculture lies in its role as the provider of our food, sustaining our physical well-being and activity. However, its significance extends beyond mere sustenance. For instance, let me ask you, the food that we eat, does that affect us only physically? The straight answer to that is – No! Besides producing food for our physical body, the entire process of agriculture nurtures our minds and souls, transforming us into individuals capable of thoughtful contemplation with wisdom. This, in turn, has given birth to or impacted all aspects of our lives, be these physical, mental or spiritual, and social, economic and cultural. Just take a look around yourself and you will realize that there is no aspect of our society and lives – be it our meditations on the forests or the water, or our livelihood resources or artistic endeavours – which has not emanated or developed as a result of our agricultural pursuits. In different times and space, struggling through various passages and milestones, agriculture has nurtured human and social survival and our civilizations; and the society too, by making it a major part of one’s daily life, thought and sociability. Thus, it has given birth to and developed various aspects of social life and allowed itself to remain relevant.

Here, we are trying to look at the changes that have occurred in agriculture throughout its journey. For this, there are two aspects of agriculture that we need to look at a little closely – (1) Agriculture as the physical aspect or task of growing food crops; and (2) Going beyond the physical act of growing food and assimilating agriculture into the very nature of one’s social life, i.e. turning the entire process into agri-culture. For want of appropriate terminology let us call these as Agriculture and Agri-culture (Agri as Culture). Can you see the difference between the two – difference between the act of growing food and making the act as part of one’s culture? When we look from such a perspective, we can see that, if agriculture had remained just the physical act of growing food, then it would have become a mere profession but by developing it into agri-culture it has become a vocation and occupation that is at the very centre of our entire life. By turning it into agri-culture, an interactive bond developed between it and the society, leading to both learning and feeding from and giving to each other. This is why, no society ever, defined agriculture as a profession or trade nor treated it as such, but turned it into a life-style, which did not allow agriculture to remain stagnant and rooted but imbued it with the trait of “renewability”, enabling it across time and space, down to the needs and traits of every local community, in accordance with local experience, wisdom and sensibilities that enable it to remain relevant, alive and forever in step with the times. The trait of renewability developed into a natural trait which gave society the “vardaan” of the everlasting – and which we call development.

By harping on this difference, and seeking to use the two terms “change” and “renewability” with two different meanings, I wish to see and analyse the changes that we are seeking to understand. It might be appropriate that we analyse the dimensions and meanings of these two terms, for a clearer understanding of the change that we are discussing.


Are the terms “change” and “renewability”, synonyms?

I think not, and this is what I am seeking to understand and explain. Further, if we can see “agriculture and agri-culture” and “change and renewability” in the context of each other then we may be able to grasp better the essence of change in this sector in the last fifty odd years. For this, we may need to compare these in two distinct time eras.

The changes that have happened in agri-culture in the last 50 or so years are actually the consequence of changes in society that began with the advent of industrial revolution in Europe about two-three hundred years ago. That period provides a distinct dividing line across which we can clearly see an overall difference in the basic nature, belief, concept, action and result between agriculture and agri-culture. We can then clearly understand the cause and the impact of the changes that we have been witnessing in the last four-five decades.

The pre-industrial revolution 10-12 thousand years saw countless small and big changes. However, those changes happened in different times, in different places and amidst different communities and in accordance with retaining the balance of and in cooperation with the five elements. The genesis of those changes happened at specific local levels and no change was sudden but happened slowly as a result of close observation and experience over a long period. In other words, those changes had elements of deep reflection and experiment, wherein some experiments may have been fruitful and some not successful, immediately or over time, on the basis of which the society would have accepted, rejected, corrected or improved upon those. And such a process continued constantly. In fact, this entire process of doing, seeing, improving, adding on was what gave agriculture the trait that we are naming and explaining as “renewability” – wherein something new did not happen suddenly but grew on the foundation of the old and which sought to carry the old a few steps ahead.

Barahnaja was a system of taking 12 crops in a year_Beej Bachao Andolan .jpg

Barahnaja, a traditional system of taking 12 crops in a year; Beej Bachao Andolan


What was special or specific about any such change or development was that it was based entirely on the experience and wisdom of the local farming community. As a result, there was a development of a repository of traditional knowledge which was not limited to grains and crops but assimilated understanding and knowledge of all natural resources. This encouraged at the local geographical level, diversity of crops growing in the field and the food being cooked in the kitchens. Not just that, its impact was seen and felt beyond local agriculture practice, on the development of native languages and proverbs, diverse folk arts and culture, and gave birth to the technology of making wood or metal implements and utensils. This is where, agriculture went beyond growing crops and adopted the wide character of what I have termed as agri-culture to become an intrinsic and inherent part of life, to become its lifestyle. It will not be an exaggeration to claim that it was this agri-culture which developed in the humans, observation based scientific temper and process which further developed among the humans, an understanding of climate and weather, botany and zoology, etc. Try to look at basic knowledge in any discipline and you will find that its seeds germinated as a result of and in the general environment created by agri-culture. Indeed, despite its very local nature and characteristics, agri-culture proved to assimilate within itself the vast and global natural vision. It became a close reflection of nature’s godly vision, and played a critical role in the existence and continued well-being of this earth.

If we take this entire spectrum together and borrow from the definition of democracy, we can say that the renewability in agri-culture is of the people, for the people, by the people. From concept to planning and execution, the entire responsibility and control remained with the local community.

Agri-culture which was life’s philosophy, a lifestyle is today a mere profession and mode of employment. In fact, it is no longer agri-culture and has reverted to being plain agriculture. Today, it is no longer a medium to enhance life but just to stay alive and afloat, to remain economically alive. The agriculture which is being encouraged and propagated today is no longer social but industrial, or in other words, the society no longer owns it but has rapidly been given to or taken over by the industrial and corporate companies. It is not based on the knowledge invented or developed by the farmers on the field, but the entire thought, observation, research and implementation is developed in the laboratory of some institution or company and then served as a package to the farmers. This is not part of agri-culture’s renewability emerging from the existing practice and from within the society and indeed, it is not even a change but an intentionally planned campaign (even, a conspiracy), a replacement deliberately imposed from the above and outside, to completely uproot this most important function in society. The cardinal characteristics of agri-culture were then steadily marginalized and erased.

This replacement about 50-60 years ago, which turned agri-culture on its head did not come with the Green Revolution (more appropriately called Greed Revolution) then but was the consequence of what had emerged as the industrial revolution two-three hundred years ago. And it started with de-legitimising traditional society’s existence, identity and knowledge by naming it ‘backward’ and following it up by seeking to shame people’s knowledge systems and their seeds. It was crucial and strategic that this society begin to have an inferiority complex about oneself. This was the first essential stage of the conspiracy. Once this was achieved, it was followed by a systematic replacement of the principles, methods, seeds with the means that it had created. As a result, a creative, productive and self-reliant society has today become a dependent slave farmer society.

Farming in Uttarakhand_Wikimedia Commons.jpg

Wikimedia Commons


An important aspect of this change in India was the establishment of the institution of the Zamindari system, wherein the society itself saw its division into two distinct classes. This system, the “divide and rule” confiscated from farmers their independence and creativity and turned them into slaves at the village level itself. So, there is an entire stretch of an exploitative pattern, which later developed into the introduction and dominance of Green Revolution. In the course of the industrial revolution starting from Europe, all aspects of agri-culture were side-lined one by one. This started with terming the entire identity of character of a local society as backward. It was important, in fact, essential for new agriculture to establish itself by downgrading and marginalizing traditional knowledge systems and particularly, its local seeds, and for the people to feel ashamed of their own rich traditions. Once this was done, it was followed by introducing and establishing its own means and resources. The net result of this was that a productive farming society has today become an enslaved, dependent society.

Let us try to understand this through an example or two.

Earlier, seeds of any grain or produce came from the farmers themselves and whose ownership was theirs, collectively. Any seed needed, in the first instance, came from their own homes, or neighbours, or village, or neighbouring villages. Those were seeds which bred and prospered in the soil and water of the respective village, were acclimatized to the local geographical conditions and situations, and which were also the reasons that resulted in their tremendous diversity.  Consequently, this diversity enabled the seeds or crops to develop characteristics to suit every season, every taste, every health point of view and which provided them with tremendous disease resistance and ensured the society remarkable prosperity.

This led people to develop their own exchange traditions and practices – seeds travelled from one farmer to another, one community to another, one village to another, one society to another. For instance, a borrower did not have to pay the lender but only later, post-harvest returned to the lender double the amount (or whatever measure the community practiced) they had taken. A typical exchange practice also had a humanitarian aspect to it – for reasons of flood or drought or any other, if the crop failed, the borrower did not feel forced to return the lent amount to the lender – it was an unwritten understanding within the society. What this ultimately meant is that there was regular availability of seeds in the community.

Today, the system has been turned on its head. The control over seeds has been usurped from the farmers’ hands to the company’s control – and the farmers from the producer and master has become a mere customer bound by the company’s many conditions of restriction, rising cost and despair – all that farmers today understand clearly and suffer, but are not in a position to do anything about it.


Let us look at another example on this. Today, as the harvest begins to fall rapidly after a year or more, farmers need to change the seeds – and actually, purchase new ones. This considerably enhances the farmers’ input costs. The fall in production, is a basic failing of any crop or seed, which farmers were well aware of. However, earlier, farmers did not need to change their seeds as frequently or rapidly as they do now. And even then, farming communities had developed their own mechanisms of seed-change. At the first level, they would merely change the field (avoid growing a crop in the same field every year), and change seeds only after considerable number of years. The entire system of seed change, from concept to practice was in the farmers’ or community control, and so it continued to remain even after seed exchange. But today, with what guile and cleverness, this community practice has been taken away from their hands and turned into a practice of excessive profit of the companies.

Organic apples_Nawang Tankhe.PNG

Illustration by Nawang Tankhe

Likewise, comparing old agri-culture and new agriculture, we can see how a farmer in their practice has gone from being a self-reliant producer to becoming a mere consumer, from being a master to becoming an employee, service provider or servant. And agri-culture which was critical or foundational to maintain the ecological balance of the earth, has through consumption and exploitation become a trade and profession. Our food crops are no longer a gift of nature but are a market product. Farmers who had a god-like status of being providers of food have today become mere service providers to large companies.

Don’t you find it strange or doesn’t it trouble you that farmers are possibly the only producers who do not determine the price of their produce, unlike manufacturing companies that fix the price of their own manufactured material, and consumers readily pay that price. Not just determine the price but also raise or lower that to suit their convenience, for profit or even as a nefarious act. We normally do not pay attention to this or choose to ignore it.

Many institutions and organisations are trying to address these issues. Of late, the growing acceptance of organic food crops have increased the demand for mountain produce – which, in any case, are organic by default, and which have allowed more and more organisations to work with farmers. For a while it appeared that, at last, we will be able to look up to the farmers and regard them for the honour that is rightfully theirs. But, in reality, has it helped?  When you look at the wider picture, you realise that this is yet another scenario of the initiative being trapped in the grips of the market and companies. Instead of re-establishing the ecological and natural values of agri-culture, organic is rapidly being assimilated into the market system. What the organisations are doing are ultimately only fighting the market within the existing market concept, instead of looking for their own markets.  It is an unequal battle where the rules are laid down by and controlled by the market. How can you battle the market in the latter’s arena?

As such, earlier the farmers cultivated for their families and communities, today they are essentially cultivating for the market. And a good test can be, to find out how many of such successful farmers wish their children to go in to farming.


If we can grasp the essence of the basic differences between agriculture and agri-culture, we will be able to see more clearly the location of local and global changes happening in farming. Hopefully, that would enable us to determine our future course of action better.

About the Storyteller 


Biju Negi

Biju Negi is a writer, editor, translator and activist, with a wide range of interests and involvements, but more focussed on Gandhain thought and small farmer/farming issues and concerns, and also the socio-cultural aspects of our lives. A founding member of Beej Bachao Andolan, a non-formal collective and philosophical concept and practice, in existence for close to four decades. He is also founder of Hind Swaraj Manch, inspired by Gandhiji's book "Hind Swaraj" defining his prophetic developmental concern and understanding.

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