You cannot wish away urbanisation. But to counter it, Dr. Vishwanath, the father of organic terrace gardening in India says, grow your own food. In this year dedicated to Family Farming, he says that it is not enough to chant Gandhiji’s mantra
Let’s start with a story. “When we were children,” begins Dr. Vishwanath, recalling a memory that for a long time was embedded in the forgotten layers of his mind. His family came from a village called Mylasandra, then on the outskirts of Bangalore. “When we went there every week from our home in Chamarajpete, the lush green ragi fields looked so beautiful. My aunt used to serve the tender ragi spikelets with copra and sugar. It used to be so delicious.” In the stream that passed through his village, Vishwanath and his friends used to drop coins from tree tops. “We could see where they landed, and then we used to dive into the water and bring them back. Water was crystal clear and sweet,” he remembers, as he narrates this story. “Over the years, I have seen it degenerate with my own eyes… it is the sign of rampant urbanization,” he adds.
Dr. B.N. Vishwanath’s story itself — how an entomologist became the father of organic urban terrace gardening in India — is one of deep engagement and concern with the city and its community.
From then when nature’s goodness was a given, to now when one has to assiduously strive to procure it, Vishwanath’s journey has been interesting. To escape from his father who wanted him to become a medical doctor, Vishwanath reluctantly joined B.Sc agriculture. He pursued a master’s in Entomology and worked as Technical Assistant in the Department of Horticulture. “I later worked for the University of Agriculture for 16 years, did my doctorate and post-doctoral studies too. But all the time there was this feeling of being tied down to a system,” Vishwanath gave up his job and went to Hollywood to do a course in videography. “I wanted to make documentary films,” he says, and the first film he made on his return was on agriculture.
“During the making of this film, I suddenly remembered our days in Mysore. I would accompany my father to shop vegetables in Saraswatipuram. Small farmers grew vegetables on their land. They gave us a knife and told us to pluck whatever vegetables we needed. My father would chop fresh vegetables of the plant, and the farmer used to look into our bag and tell us how much we had to pay. As I thought of those days, the enormity of change and urbanization dawned upon me. The entomologist who advocated chemical fertilizers gradually began to fade,” he remembers. Reading Rachel Carson’s book, The Silent Spring, was the turning point. “I decided to practise organic farming, and there was no looking back,” says the man who ran a bio-fertilizer factory Kadur Agro till the late Eighties. The idea of terrace gardening struck Vishwanath in the following years; he started growing ladies finger, tomatoes and greens in pots, which surprisingly, didn’t seem difficult at all!
“What shocked me during these years was the changing climactic conditions of Bangalore. When we went to college, we wore socks and gloves. When I was teaching, I wore a full suit. But gradually, we had to shed the coat, socks and gloves, then the tie, and then our shoes, finally we settled for trousers, shirt and sandals!,” he explains. Vishwanath recognised that something had to be done to counter the loss of tree cover, and the poison in air and water. “I had my first terrace gardening workshop in 1995 in IIT, Queens Road, and more than 100 people came including the actor Bharathi Vishnuvardhan. Enthused by the response, till 2004, I conducted workshops in Mylasandra and to overwhelming response,” narrates Vishwanath. A great source of support and inspiration was fellow entomologist Dr. Veeresh, who was already part of the no-chemical movement. With him and others, Vishwanath set up the Association for Promotion of Organic Farming (APOF). They even organized the first International Congress and the first national conference on terrace farming in Bangalore, which later travelled to Bombay, Chennai and other cities. “Today, I am proud to say that Bangalore is foremost city in India as far as terrace gardening is concerned,” he adds.
Vishwanath believes that if we take good care of our plants, produce is assured. “You cannot complain about insects. They came 250 million years before man and they know how to survive. In fact, they are the owners. But the use of neem and good organic manure will keep them at bay. Live and let live,” he says, emphatically. “What is the use of all the money, and great infrastructure, if you are going to give your children bad health? WHO says life expectancy has gone up. But if you are ill by the age of 35 and live up to 80 because of medicines what is the use? Take it from me, fast food is killing the younger generation. The future generations will not even live as long as their parents did!” he warns.
People are now aware, they are interested in making this world a better place. A lot of youngsters are part of Vishwanath’s group as well. The proof is the enthusiastic response for the Garden City Farmers collective (GCF) that Vishwanath started in 2011. “Me, along with friends like Dr. Jayaram, and Dr. Rajendra Hegde met with other interested members in Lalbagh. This used to be our seed exchange meet too.” The group expanded in size and on their agenda is a regular fair Oota From Thota where they bring together people and organisations that grown vegetables and sell other kinds of organic produce. Initially, the core members funded this, but now the response is so huge that people have come forward to pitch in. “At the recent Oota from Thota we conducted free workshops for over 100 people and gave them garden kits as well.”
World over, agricultural lands are disappearing and farmers are migrating to urban centres unable to manage the labour problem. “It is not enough to chant Gandhi and say villages are the backbone of India. We have to empower the rural youth, give them good education and health care, and make sure villages are liveable.” In this year of Family Farming, and GCF wants to give every house in the slums a pot, with a vegetable plant. “We will also give them organic manure. They can grow their own vegetables, and whatever is extra they can share it with their neighbours. It is important to make sustainable communities,” he argues, “importing food is second slavery.”
Organic vegetables must be affordable for everyone. “I don’t know why they come at such a premium price. In fact, there is hardly any cost involved, and the produce is as good as it is in chemical farming. It is ironical,” he says, settling down to clear the weed around the cherry tomato plant.