JAITU, FARIDKOT DISTRICT, India—Jitinder's motorcycle pulled up in front of a concrete arch that had been draped with cloth banners printed with messages about pesticide poisoning and cancer.
"Welcome, welcome to our workshop," a beaming Umendra Dutt called out in English as I alighted. The tangled locks of his long hair gave him a bit of a wild-man look. A cell phone was clutched in the hand he waved. Umendra started to read the Hindi messages on the banners and was delighted when I chimed in. It helped that English words such as cancer were simply rendered phonetically in Devanagari script.
Under a white tent, a buffet table had been laid, a stage erected, and rows of chairs set out. Boys hurried to and fro at Umendra's orders, their rubber thongs slapping against the grimy marble floor. On the table, grease and curry stains randomly bloomed on a fabric that must once have been an elegant cream color. Flies swarmed everywhere, exploring the stains and the platters of food that began to appear.
Farmers in turbans of every hue, many coordinated with the color of their immaculate shirts, milled around helping themselves to tea and breakfast. They had come from all over the state to learn about natural farming. These were educated men who'd clearly prospered from Punjab's Green Revolution. They also had firsthand experience of its dark side. No one made eye contact with me, the only woman and the only foreigner in the room. When I asked Umendra about the gender exclusivity, he said matter-of-factly: "Farming is mainly men's work." I'd seen too many women out in the fields to believe that, but I supposed that managing a farm, as opposed to spending the day bent over, transplanting seedlings or weeding, was, mainly, men's work.
Umendra pointed with conspiratorial pride to the large poster of Bhagat Singh that beamed over the stage. Dashingly mustached, Bhagat Singh stood boldly behind a half-open door, handgun poised to shoot the first Englishman who got in his way.
"I want the farmers to get the message that what we are doing, what they will be doing when they embrace natural farming, is revolutionary," Umendra explained in a low voice as he restlessly surveyed his public. "This is about taking back our land and our health. It is our new freedom struggle."
I thought about the 2006 hit movie Rang de Basanthi, in which a group of feckless college kids get roles acting in a movie about Bhagat Singh and are transformed into rebels by the experience. Clearly, Umendra envisioned similarly inspiring his audience of Punjabi farmers.
Umendra's comrades in arms included Rajender Singh, Rajasthan's "water man," whose organization Tarun Bharat Sangh has brought water back to villages in that parched state using traditional techniques such as building check dams and refurbishing village ponds. Dr. G.V. Ramanjaneyulu, quickly nicknamed "Ramuji," from the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad, had come to share techniques of natural yet highly effective pest control. Like Umendra, Singh wore the hand-woven cotton khaddar clothing popular with Indian social activists, a tradition that dates from the early days of India's independence movement and the refusal to wear clothing made from cloth spun in English mills. Ramuji wore trousers and a button-down shirt. He had come equipped with a projector and a laptop loaded with PowerPoint presentations, graphs, photos, and short demonstration films. Between the two of them, Rajender and Ramuji covered the most critical nodes of Punjab's agricultural crisis: water scarcity and pesticide poisoning.
The hybrid seeds introduced during the Green Revolution flourished when a grand scheme of irrigation canals brought plenty of water to the fields. Where the canals didn't reach, farmers sank tube wells and pumped water out of the ground. A naturally dry area, Punjab became one of India's top producers of water-loving rice.
For decades, the water flowed through the new canals and out of the wells as if it would last forever. Then the flow began to ebb. Wells had to be dug deeper to reach water tables that now sink as much as 100 feet a year. Those who couldn't afford to dig deeper placed their faith in seasonal rains, a faith that was all too often dashed. The canals, their symmetrical culverts lined with imported eucalyptus, carried less and less water. Where water was applied with too much abandon, naturally occurring soil salts rose to the surface, making the topsoil too saline for plants to grow properly.
The Green Revolution's miraculous yields depended on boosting efficiencies through mono-cropping. Family farms that placed small plots of vegetables next to fields of wheat or other traditional grains, such as local varieties of sorghum and millet, disappeared in favor of an American agribusiness vision of the farm as a vast outdoor factory. Today, Punjab is practically one continuous lawn of wheat and rice.
Tractors allowed farmers to plow larger fields faster. Everyone wanted one. Very poor farmers with only an acre or two borrowed money to park one of these shining symbols of modernity on their land. Brides brought them to their in-laws' farms as dowry gifts. Double-cropping and even triple-cropping were introduced, one harvest succeeding the last during the same calendar year, like shifts on an assembly line. The amount of food produced soared. India's grain stocks groaned under the sheer weight of Punjab's incredible productivity.
Insect pests also thrived under this new regime. An infestation in one field quickly spread to a whole region across an uninterrupted ocean of grain. At first, chemical pesticides were effective, but the pests became resistant. More pesticides were applied. Farmers, unaware of any danger, sprayed their crops without donning protective clothing. Pesticide and chemical fertilizer runoff permeated the state's soil and water, and Punjab became one of the most poisoned regions of India, a country where pesticide use has generally been heavy. Cancer rates rose so alarmingly that the government of Punjab began a cancer-registry program this year to understand how bad the epidemic has become.
The farmers who'd come to Umendra's workshop realized they were caught in a vicious cycle requiring them to buy more fertilizer and more pesticides, to invest more money in getting water while they watched pests become even more voracious and their soil fertility decline. Seeds were also becoming more expensive. The farmers paid dearly for new hybrids that promised ever-greater yields. They paid even more for the new genetically engineered seeds whose very DNA was copyrighted, making it illegal for farmers to do what farmers have done since the dawn of agriculture: save seeds from one year to plant the next.
These farmers were practical men, not eco-warrior ideologues. What they wanted from the workshop was a way out. They shouted out the names of their various insect enemies. With Ramuji's coaxing, they came up with a few traditional means of control. When Ramuji played a video showing low-cost, effective, nonchemical techniques for pest control, such as digging trenches into which hairy caterpillars fell and were trapped or using neem-based and cow-urine-based sprays, the farmers watched with rapt concentration, scribbling notes in their datebooks.
And when Umendra told them that they were learning how to take back their land, their lives, and their freedom from the agribusiness giants who profited by keeping them hooked on toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and genetically modified seeds, and that they were revolutionaries in the mold of Bhagat Singh, the farmers roared their approval.