Babulal Gandhi, a resident of Phaltan in Maharashtra’s Satara district, is a man of few words who has lived the majority of his life in harmony with nature, and dedicated it towards the pursuit of improving the state of agriculture in India.
“I am an ardent ardent disciple of great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Lokmanya Tilak, but could never actively participate in the freedom struggle, so helping landless farmers was my way of making India better,”says the 91-year-old to The Better India.
In the early 50s, Gandhi worked with freedom activist Vinoba Bhave and helped several landless people get small patches of land from wealthy owners in the district under the Bhoodan movement.
It was during this time that Gandhi learnt about the different techniques of farming that eventually helped him and his brother, Maganlal, create a mini-food forest on his 100-acre family-owned land in Phaltan.
“Food scarcity was an immediate repercussion of the partition and drought further made it difficult for farmers to cultivate. I started with growing grains on my farm so that people wouldn’t go hungry. In addition to that, the fruit-bearing and medicinal trees help in maintaining the environment,” says Gandhi.
Today, thanks to his efforts, the once-barren land is a flourishing burst of green today, with over 22,000 trees. He has built the forest in a way that consumes 50 per cent less water and every acre fetches him a profit of Rs 40,000.
To tackle the problem of recurring drought, Gandhi built two lakes that store lakhs of litres of water every monsoon.
“The presence of birds like peacocks, butterflies and sparrows is the biggest validation that my efforts have not gone in vain,” points out Gandhi, who manages the farm along with his nieces Madhvi, Madhuri and Midori and nephew Yogesh.
How Gandhi Transformed the Barren Land
For the first couple of months, Gandhi only grew grass, to revive and retain the soil. Once the fertility of the land improved, he planted the seeds of less water-intensive plants like peas, lentils, cabbage and cauliflower.
Harvesting or conserving water was another crucial step in the transformation. Apart from creating small bunds across the field, Gandhi dug a 25-acre long pond which can hold almost 400 crores of litres of water.
Usually, when water is stored in such huge volumes, one assumes that there is an abundance of precious source. However, Gandhi is quick to dispel the notion. “Ensuring water in 100 acres of the farm is no mean feat. During droughts, the pond water is sufficient to water the existing crops, but planting new crops is still not possible if the monsoons fail.”
It almost seems hard to believe that such a massive farm with an adequate water harvesting system is rain-dependent.
To complete the ecosystem, he worked on curbing the practice of animal hunting. Instead, he told the farmers to leave their cattle, goats and other animals on his farm.
“Animals have multiple uses on a farm. They level the ground, graze the excess grass and also provide excellent organic fertiliser. A mixture of their dung and urine acts as a pest repellent,” adds Gandhi.
He also made a protective layer of dry leaves, weeds and animal waste on the land to supply rich nutrients to the soil and roots.
Two-Layer Farming & Drip Irrigation
The two-layer farming method is the secret behind Gandhi’s flourishing farm. This technique is nothing but planting two crops (of different heights) in the same unit of land at the same time but in different layers.
The primary goal of this type of farming is to produce greater yield by optimum usage of ecological conditions. The technique also helps increase soil fertility, prevent soil depletion, and control the growth of weeds.
After growing conventional vegetables, fruits, pulses and grains, Gandhi experimented with unconventional cultivation. For instance, he dared to grow watermelon in dry region like Satara.
Even though the idea was met with laughter and discouragement, he went ahead and planted seeds of watermelon with legumes. While watermelon seeds suppress weed growth and provide soil shading, legumes supply nitrate to its companion plant, in this case, watermelon.
“The experiment was a success!” he says with a smile.
To water the plants, Gandhi chose drip irrigation, the most effective to save water.
Shedding light on the water-saving technique, Gandhi says, “Through drip irrigation, water directly reaches to the roots of plants through a network of pipes and minimises evaporation.”
From mangoes, bamboo, custard apple, sugarcane, sapota and Jamun to leafy vegetables, the combination of intercropping and drip irrigation has resulted in a green food forest on land, that was once infertile.
Bringing Young Generation In Sync with Nature
Gandhi sincerely believes that all the knowledge and experience in the world is a total waste if it is not passed on to future generations.
“I was in my teens when I learnt that information is the first step for developing society. This was the pillar of the freedom struggle. So, I have established a study environment for students who want to learn farming practices,” says Gandhi.
Schools from across Pune, which is barely 100 kilometres away, visit Gandhi’s farm round the year on environmental camps and stay for a couple of days. Students not only get to learn the theoretical aspects but also get to do practicals.
As part of the camp, they sow seeds, harvest crops, remove weeds, convert waste into compost. They are also taught various water conservation methods like rainwater harvesting.
Nature lovers, farmers, experts and scientists are also welcomed to stay at the farm.
“Imparting the right knowledge at a young age will ensure a better future. It is only now when I look back, do I realise its true meaning. The drastic climate change we are witnessing today probably cannot be reversed. However, when I look at these enthusiastic young children keen on studying farming, I see a future where there is food and water for everyone,” Gandhi signs off.
Get in touch with Babulal Gandhi here.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)