Expert Speak

“Let’s Replenish Our Soil Before it Becomes the Basis of Wars”

Sadhguru Shri Jaggi Vasudev,
Founder, Isha Foundation

Sadhguru Shri Jaggi Vasudev is on a mission to change the perception of people towards our rivers through his Rally for Rivers campaign. His Cauvery Calling initiative is an ecological plan for the whole country besides being an economic one for the farmers. He spoke to Water Digest about a host of issues including the pressing need of enriching our soil, which according to him holds the key to saving our planet.


Water Digest (WD): From 2017 till now, it has been a long journey for Rally for Rivers. What have been the challenges and achievements? What is the way forward?

Sadhguru: Rally for Rivers was purely an awareness campaign to get people’s support to change the policy of how we treat our rivers. One hundred and sixty two million people supported the campaign in just thirty days. This is the largest number of people to support any one movement in just thirty days, anywhere in the world.

Once there was such support from people, the government could not ignore it. We presented the 760-page Rally for Rivers recommendation to the Central government, which was made into an official recommendation for all the states in the country by NITI Aayog.

The Rally for Rivers policy document has been included in the UN Climate Change Compendium of Nature-Based Solutions. This is the first time any document from India has gotten into this compendium.

We also have Observer Status with UN Environment and accreditation with the UNCCD for prevention of land desertification.

Now, we have launched what is called Cauvery Calling in Cauvery basin, an offshoot of Rally for Rivers. River Cauvery has depleted 44%. In the last ten years, 47,600 farmers have committed suicide here. While Rally for Rivers was an awareness campaign, Cauvery Calling is about taking action on the ground.

We are looking at supporting farmers to plant 242 crore trees in the 83,000 sq km Cauvery basin and bring one-third of it under shade. The only way this can be done is by shifting farmers to agroforestry and tree-based agriculture. We conducted small-scale demonstrations where we converted 69,760 farmers to agroforestry. Within five to seven years, their wealth increased by three hundred to eight hundred percent.

In 2020, despite the pandemic, we supported farmers to plant 11 million saplings in their farmlands. We have also organised 890 people as Mara Mitras or “Friends of Trees,” who will be on the ground, meeting and engaging with farmers, and seeing how to support them.

Cauvery Calling is essentially an economic plan for the farmers and an ecological plan for the country. Cauvery is only the first step. If we pull this off successfully in twelve years in Cauvery basin, it will be a game-changer for the nation and the tropical world.

WD: What according to you, has been the impact of the mass awareness drive during Rally for Rivers? Which are the issues that still need attention? What more can the government do to give an impetus to this initiative?

Sadhguru: As I said, once the government saw that 162 million people supported Rally for Rivers, it was open to making policy-level changes. This is very important in a democracy. If there is massive support from people, the government will take it seriously.

One challenge is that for three to four years after planting the trees, there is a little bit of an economic loss for the farmer before his income increases. Fortunately, we convinced the Karnataka government to give a subsidy to farmers for these four years. For every surviving tree, the government is giving a subsidy of Rs 125 to farmers. Without this significant bridge, we could not have made it a success.

Another impediment was that even if you grew a tree on your own land and cut it, the police or forest department officials could come and arrest you. Activists would come and protest in front of your land. So, no farmer wanted to have a tree on his land. We have been pushing for a change in this law to make the process of felling and transit of trees easier. Now, the government has made the process available online, which is a good start. So, trees are moving from the domain of the forest department to the agriculture department.

But this transition needs to happen much faster. Only when tree-based agriculture comes under the Agriculture Ministry, will it be treated as a produce that the farmer can crop. A lot of armchair environmentalists will bristle up and say, “This will encourage cutting of trees.” They need to understand that you cannot grow a tree on your head. You need land. The biggest segment of our land is in the hands of farmers. So, farmers need to grow trees and crop them.

Growing all the timber and forest produce that we want in our farmlands is the only way to stop exploitation of forests. Believing that we can protect forests simply by putting armed forest guards there is a joke. This exploitation will stop only when the produce is available easily in the market from our farmers.

It is very important that tree-based agriculture moves to the Agricultural Ministry and farmers should have the right to grow what they want and crop it according to their judgment. That should be a fundamental right.

WD: How can we reverse the trend of the use of chemical-based fertilisers by farmers, which is leading an abysmal nutritional and consequently ill health among communities?

Sadhguru: If you want to bring back natural farming processes, it is important that an entire region goes for it. Right now, the reason why organic farming fails is that you might be doing organic farming but your neighbour believes in full spray! The moment he takes out his sprayer, all the insects and other pests land up in your farm.

A large region, a minimum of 5-10,000 hectares, needs to go organic. Then you will see they will make an immense amount of money. It will be far more beneficial, far healthier and it will be exportable, because everywhere in the world, people are looking for indigenously grown organic substance.

We have brought over 300 farmers in one area together into an organic farming movement. It is working wonderfully for them because everyone is organic. Apart from this, if we also aggregate marketing through a Farmers Producers Organisation (FPO), their ability to market will also rise phenomenally.

A few years ago, we started an FPO just outside Coimbatore. In just one-and-a-half years, the farmers’ income doubled. We did not even change anything they did on their land. All I did was, I gave three young men three smartphones. From morning to evening, they just kept calling buyers and negotiating better prices for the farmers’ produce.

This kind of work is possible only if there is scale. Till recently, though there is no tax on individual farmers, if they get together as an FPO, they are taxed 30%! So, no one wanted to get together. We made a request to the government about this and this law was changed immediately. In this way, one big impediment for farmers to scale up has been taken away.

The biggest problem with agriculture right now is, there is no scale. If you form large-scale FPOs with 10,000 farmers together, not integrating the land, but just aggregating irrigation and marketing, then we can make organic farming a commercial success.

This needs concentrated, focused attention and action. If it takes too much time, it will die. Within three to eight years, we must bring it to some kind of scale and success. Once the success story happens on a certain scale, then people will line up.

WD: Please tell us in detail about the farmer outreach initiative in the Cauvery basin. Are you planning a similar initiative in other areas?

Sadhguru: The entire initiative of Cauvery Calling is being designed and implemented in such a way that it can be replicated in other river basins in the tropical world.

This year, we have tripled our planting target from last year to 35 million. In coordination with the Government of Karnataka, our volunteers are personally visiting 1785 Gram Panchayats in nine Cauvery basin districts. In eight weeks, they will conduct over 1800 awareness events to popularise tree-based agriculture.

As I mentioned earlier, we also have 890 Mara Mitras, or Friends of Trees at Gram Panchayats, who will register farmers’ sapling requirements at their doorstep, using a specially designed mobile app.

This app saves farmers the trouble of travelling to and queuing up at forest offices to register for relevant government schemes. Training modules are uploaded on the App with which Mara Mitras can educate farmers. They can also conduct sapling survival surveys so that farmers can get their government subsidy without delay.

For the government, this App allows maximum and efficient utilisation of funds. Government nurseries now get farmer-wise, species-specific sapling demand numbers, which allows them to use their resources according to the needs of the farmers. Otherwise, they would under produce or over produce, and in both cases, there were lots of issues being faced by both the government and farmers.

Large-scale adoption of agroforestry is so much easier now because of this App, because of streamlining of logistics and huge savings in infrastructure expenses.

WD: Preventing pollution of rivers is important for their rejuvenation. Does Isha Foundation have a role to play on this front? If not, is there a future plan to step in?

Sadhguru: The Rally for Rivers draft policy looks at how a minimum environmental flow of water must be maintained in rivers till the sea coast. This flow must be sufficient for the flora and fauna in the riverine ecosystem. This minimum flow should be mandated for every river.

The draft also looks at how effective implementation of an appropriate regulatory framework must happen, to control river pollution – both point source such as industrial sewage and non-point source such as agricultural runoff.

Point source pollution can be handled by incentivising adaptation of wastewater treatment technologies and heavy disincentivising of polluters.

Right now, the way chemical and industrial waste is handled in India is that the polluting industry itself is expected to clean its effluent before letting it out into the river. This leads to many industries treating their effluent only when the inspectors are present. If we want this treatment process to be effective, it is important that effluent treatment itself be made into a lucrative business proposition. The government will then only have to set the norm on the water quality being released into the river.

There is no such thing as waste. It is just earth that we have turned into filth. It is our responsibility to put it back into the earth as earth. The necessary technologies are already available. For example, a city like Mumbai generates 2100 million litres of sewage a day. Right now, most of it ends up in the sea but if this is treated and used for micro-irrigation it can water thousands of hectares of agriculture. Adding up sewage from 200 Indian cities and towns amounts to 36 billion litres which can micro-irrigate 3 to 9 million hectares.

If India as a nation is serious about tackling river pollution, public-private partnerships need to be established and run sustainably and efficiently. This doesn’t take decades to fix. With the technologies at hand, what is needed is intent and a commitment to execute.

WD: Are Cauvery delta farmers growing more crops as a result of the Cauvery Calling initiative?

Sadhguru: Revitalising rivers is a long-term process. This will not happen overnight. If we aggressively implement this policy, it will take anywhere between 15-25 years to get a 15-20% rise in the river flows.

Having said that, we have thousands of examples of farmers who have increased their crop yields by planting a few trees on their farm. They are reporting increases of 25% in crop yield, 100% increase in organic soil content and 40% reduction of irrigation intensity.

For example, turmeric is one of the main crops in our region. We have helped some farmers grow turmeric besides trees. One of these farmers was sharing with me, “Sadhguru, everybody in the adjacent farms is growing turmeric. I also grow turmeric. I could not convince them about planting trees to start with. But now every one of them has engaged and registered with Isha because I am producing almost 70% more turmeric than they are in quantity. And on the same day, if both of us go to the market, they are getting Rs 7000 per quintal, I am getting Rs 12,500 per quintal because the curcumin content in my turmeric is so high, simply because of the trees.” The trees are nitrogenising his soil, and as the leaves fall, there is immense bioactivity in the soil which is helping his turmeric crop.

WD: What is your dream vision of an ecologically balanced India?

Sadhguru: I have been asked many times, “What are the three major things that the world should focus on to undo the damage that has been done to the environment in the last 100 years?” I say, “The three things are soil, soil and soil.”

We talk of many different issues. We talk of carbon, emissions, pollution at various levels. There is a misunderstanding in the world right now where civic issues are projected as environmental issues.

If plastic bags are floating around in your city, this is not an ecological issue. This is a civic issue. This can be fixed with enforcement of law and a little bit of awareness. If our rivers are polluted, this can be fixed in one or two years if you set up the necessary purification plants and enforce the law.

We are misunderstanding our irresponsible activity in the world as ecological issues. The real ecological issue is soil. Right now, UN statistics say that across the world, we may have agricultural soil only for another 80-100 crops. This means it is a matter of 40 to 50 years before there is severe food shortage. Rich organic soil will become the basis for wars.

We need not end up there. It is possible to replenish the soil. But it is more long-term work than something like dealing with air pollution. If all of us don’t start any of our engines and polluting machinery of any kind for three months, the air will be as pure as you want. But that is not the case with soil. It will take 10 to 15 years to turn this around.

For any soil to be agriculturally potent, it must have a minimum of 3% to 6% organic content. But in large parts of the world, it’s well below 1%. 60% of India’s soil is below 0.5%. This has happened mainly because when we grow a crop, let’s say we grew one tonne of crop. That means one tonne of topsoil has been removed. What is the means to put it back? Pumping salts in the form of fertilisers is not going to work. Green litter from the trees and animal waste are the only ways to put back organic content into soil.

When there were animals and trees on the farm, this was happening naturally. But now, all the animals are being slaughtered for their meat. Bringing animals back for work is out of question. The scale of agriculture won’t allow that. So, trees are very vital to bring back organic content – not in terms of afforestation – but trees as a part of agriculture.

Our attention has to shift to soil. As a part of this, we are unfolding a movement called Conscious Planet. Right now, it looks like climate change and ecology are the playground of the rich and elite. This must change. Individual human beings should become conscious about the danger that we are facing. Ecological issues must become election issues. Governments must be elected for their concern for ecological issues.

Through Conscious Planet, we are seeing how to move a large part of the electorate in all the democratic nations to a conscious approach of how we manage, rejuvenate and revitalise our soil. This conscious approach, and creating a conscious planet is what is most important.

WD: Do you have a message for urban dwellers? 

Sadhguru: We must understand that if we want to do anything ecologically significant in this country, we need to involve the farmer because he holds most of the land. People in cities keep asking me, “Sadhguru, can I plant a tree?” Where will you plant a tree? You have no land. If you want to keep something in your balcony, you can do that for your satisfaction but that is not a solution. If you want to transform the nation you have to involve the farmer. And if you want to involve the farmer, it has to be lucrative for him.

There are many aspects to this, but one aspect is to create a market and demand for tree-based agricultural produce. One of the most significant produce is fruit. 30% of your diet should come from fruit. If you do this, you will not visit a doctor for a very long time. You will need less sleep, you will be more agile and your intellect will be much sharper

Lifestyle ailments like diabetes, blood pressure, chronic heart diseases are becoming the norm of the day. There is substantial scientific evidence to show that if you bring 30% fruits into your diet, the chances of cardiac ailments come down by 60%. The same goes for diabetes, blood pressure, liver and renal problems. It is estimated that if a population goes for 30% fruit diet, the nation’s medical bill will come down by 40%. So, all of you should take this commitment to make at least 30% of your diet into fruit.

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