February 16, 2016

Subhash Palekar: Farmer to National Treasure

Subhash Palekar (right) listens to natural farming practitioner Samarpal of Bijnor.

Last month I was delighted to learn that Subhash Palekar has been bestowed with a Padma Shri, one of India's highest civilian honours. The award may not be always well deserved but in this case, it is hard to think of a more deserving candidate. Palekar is a farmer-scientist and natural farming crusader. He is also someone who has done the most to mitigate India's greenhouse gas emissions and is least recognised for it.

The news was personally gratifying as I have known him for last five years and follow the practices he developed. From farmer to national treasure, he has had an interesting journey.

Dedication and Propagation

Until three decades ago, Subhash Palekar was no different from any other farmer. He worried about declining productivity of his land despite his following recommendations of agricultural scientists. Rather than feeling helpless like any other farmer would, Palekar devoted the entire next decade to research to figure out on his own a solution to his problem.

For years he studied forests and carried out experiments in his farm to replicate and accelerate the natural processes that take place in a forest. By the end of the decade, he perfected a simple, no-expense method of cultivation that did not require any chemicals. In fact, just as in a forest, his techniques required no external inputs whatsoever. All inputs could be supplied from the land itself or found around it. Still, this 'Zero Budget' method gave tremendous results.

All farmers try to improve upon their practice but few conduct research projects in their farm, formally and rigorously. Fewer still would do what Palekar did next. Over the two decades that followed (1996-2016), he made it his life's mission to share his techniques with fellow farmers around the country without expecting anything in return.

Palekar first tried to propagate his methods through a regional agricultural magazine. Many accepted them wholeheartedly but Palekar was not satisfied with the pace of change. He then took to writing books himself, in several regional languages, describing his techniques. Travelling across Maharashtra and other states, he started training farmers in his methods for free at workshops that lasted from two days to several. The only income sustaining him was earned through the sale of his books, nominally priced so that everyone could afford. Today millions of farmers practice his techniques.

Palekar's methods have gained widespread acceptance because they are easy to adopt and his training sessions include detailed instructions (he actually dictates them word by word!). Other organic / natural farming practices that may be equally effective or even more so have been relatively less successful in gaining widespread acceptance because they often place a lot of demands on the farmer. Some require him to drastically change cultivation practices, others require extensive labour or externally derived inputs. Zero Budget Natural Farming on the other hand has relatively lower barriers to entry.


One thing one quickly comes across after meeting Subhash Palekar or listening to his talks is his passion for the topic despite a mild mannered way of speaking. This also reflects in his writings. At the same time he is not very articulate when speaking in a language (usually English or Hindi) other than his native tongue (Marathi). This is an unfortunate combination and sometimes leads to misunderstandings.

The English language version of the books and his website contain atrocious editing quality. Palekar acknowledges this in the books and refuses to yield to the editor's pen. He argues that the books are meant for farmers and not as literature. One unfortunate outcome is that many in the English speaking world are quick to reject his ideas without understanding them. Therefore little mention exists about his work in the English language media even though vernacular media in South India, especially the TV channels have covered him extensively.

Palekar tends to be a polarising figure even among those who promote organic farming in the country. The Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) - a leading body of organic movement does not acknowledge his work directly anywhere on its website except in the news feed. Even the list of organic farmers in the state of Maharashtra in the website's 'resources' section finds no mention of his work.

This, again in my view arises out of a misunderstanding of Palekar's ideas. In his talks he comes down heavily against agricultural universities for promoting chemical farming. This is understandable. What is less clear to most people is that while promoting his own version of "natural farming" Palekar even criticises promoters of "organic" farming equally strongly. He actually abhors the term organic.

This has to be understood in a context. In the early days of the movement, agricultural universities and government literature on organic farming used to encourage extensive inputs that must be purchased from the market. What Palekar is actually against is this reliance of the farmer on the market. He argues that the corporates and the government are out to conspire to keep exploiting the innocent farmer like they did during the so-called green revolution by promoting chemical fertilisers and hybrid seeds.

This view although far-fetched is not without merit. Palekar is a student of Gandhi and his ideology is strongly rooted in Gandhi's idea of village self-reliance. A core idea in his ideology therefore is that farmer should not rely on any external inputs but create his own. It is his poor articulation abilities that his talks come across as if he is against all organic farming proponents.


There is no patent in Subhash Palekar's name and no company where he serves as chief executive. He did not form an NGO with lofty aims that sought international funding. He never charged high fees for his workshops. There were no protest rallies led by him which demanded end of fertiliser subsidies. No on line petitions were filed either to stop application of harmful pesticides. He did not form a people's movement. Nor did he plead with the government to popularise his natural farming method. He did not spend hours on social media criticising and ridiculing the government, corporates, or the entire human race.

This is not to imply that all of those ways to serve a cause are meaningless. Palekar took a more direct route instead. He reached out to the farmers. Met them in person and trained them in his cultivation practices. Hundreds of thousands of farmers have been trained by him and he continues to spread awareness and hold workshops.

Shared Outcome

Millions today have access to food that is free from chemical contamination. Hundreds of thousands of acre of land has been renewed with organic carbon being returned back into the soil. Soil that was being depleted year after year with chemical inputs is now thriving with untold amount of microbial life - bacteria, fungi, protozoa`and nematodes - that is raising its fertility. India today stands at a privileged position where organic food market is witnessing the highest rate of growth in the world - an astounding 20-22%. Subhash Palekar has a notable role in this.

Climate Crusader

One less well understood benefit of organic farming is its role as carbon sink. When a farmer cultivates land organically the organic content of soil rises. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. The amount of carbon that can be sequestered this way is so high that according to The Rodale Institute, "we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices."

If that is true then by helping convert several hundred thousand farmers across the country to organic farming, Subhash Palekar has done the most to mitigate India's greenhouse gas emissions. That he is least recognised for it is reflective of the state of our media and its role as reporter of science.

Born a Sovereign

There's a lesson in Palekar's story more significant than the national award he won. Palekar hails from drought-prone Vidarbha region in Maharastra which holds 21% of the state's population but is responsible for 70% of farmer suicides. Yet he transcended the conditions that were given to him. He achieved this because he focussed on creation rather than criticism, on what is possible rather than what is not.

In this lies a lesson for those who spend their lives in negativism. In feeling helpless and dejected. In hate-mongering on social media and elsewhere. The Ringing Cedars books say that each man is born a sovereign. We have been provided with all the answers inside us. That regardless of our inheritance, our upbringing, the politics, climate, and social circumstance in which we find ourselves, we have been provided with the capacity to transcend them and create a world in which we wish to live. Subhash Palekar is a living embodiment of this idea.