Experiences at BABLI


Seeking a meaningful alternative to our ‘promising careers’ we bought two Bighas of highland in the dry belt of Jhargram in Midnapur district of rural Bengal in 1977. Like most urbanites bred on western concepts, we felt sure that ‘scientific farming’ demonstrated in situ would make a positive impact on our rural neighbours. We began with intensive ‘Broiler poultry keeping’ on a tiny scale. Soon all the villagers marveled at the rapid growth of our ‘imported’ chicks. But upon calculating costs – of feed, shed, labour, medication, mortality and culling, it turned out to be a losing game. Having burnt our fingers in ‘scientific poultry farming’ we were back to the city ‘tail between legs’.


Nine years later we got another opportunity to try our hand at rural development. This time we weren’t as naive nor as young and resourceless. In the summer of 1990 we acquired 12 .5 acres in Birbhum district. A solitary neem dominated the barren tract, locally known as daanga jami, of over-grazed land with practically no vegetation except a few wild date palms and clumps of Sar (a tall, dry-land grass). A high, semi-circular lateritic bank was the only remnant of the ‘pond’ demarcated in the land record. A deep gully marked the northern border through which the monsoon run-off rushed towards the Ajoy river 4 km away. Beyond was the highly depleted ‘Chaupahari jungle’.

Expert advice

Being untrained in agriculture we had to rely on ‘expert’ advice. By the next monsoon, saplings of Dalbergia sissoo, Eucalyptus and Acacia nilotica, were planted at a spacing of 1.5 m, in rows along the boundaries, under the guidance of the Forest Department. The sissoo was to serve as wind-breaks, Jujuba (ber), custard-apple, cashew and sapota were chosen for high ground, while guava, mango, limes, banana and papaya gardens were planted in separate plots. Perennial fodder grasses such as Guinea, Para and H. Napier were established. Annual fodder crops such as oats, cowpea, M.P. Chari, sorghum and maize were planted in season in rotation with potatoes, mustard and short duration rice. Seasonal vegetables, mainly tomatoes, bottle gourds and other cucurbits were cultivated both for home consumption and for sale.

A dairy with about ten cross-bred milch cows, stall-fed goats with one adult breed buck and 5 females were added to complement the land. Two dozen country ducks and mixed carp at the fingerling stage were introduced, to utilize the pond that was now full of water.  A small mulberry plantation along with rearing facilities for two ‘Gharas’ of silk-worms was started.


By 1993-94 the timber and fruit saplings stood on bare bits of land, exposed to corrosive winds and rain. The output of field-crops was low if not dismal, though experts assured us that fertilizer would take care of the needs of whatever we planted.  It seemed that nothing would grow on this soil.  Soon the farm was choking with spindly Acacia and Sissoo, while the gaint Eucalyptus seemed to hog all the nutrients intended for the fruit trees and ground crops.  Acacia had plenty of foliage but our cows and goats disliked them and there simply was no space to plant any other trees or shrubs.

The trees had grown and begun to bear fruit the following year, but there were constant problems.  When the ber or mango crop failed due to an attack of mildew, there were always expensive anti-fungal agents available. Basrai bananas, procured from Pune at great expense, suffered from ‘bunchy top’ disease and had to be destroyed. The exotic papayas refused to grow healthily. The cross-bred cows could not stand the heat, needed expensive veterinary care, missed heat after heat and ended up completely uneconomical. Stall feeding of goats proved unfeasible as labour costs did not justify the results, and they were always sick and died of ‘unknown’ causes. We used a mixed feed for ducks, recommended in a little government extension booklet. Sadly, no eggs were forthcoming. So the ducks were sold off to our farm hands. In a few days everyone reported that the ducks were laying regularly. Intensive pisci-culture too proved inappropriate as the pond dried up rapidly.

Local interaction

It all began at Salphul’s place five years ago. We dropped in at their home in the nearby village. We sat on a plank bed in their beautifully decorated mud house, chatting over steaming glasses of tea.  In front of our startled eyes, a sort of hatch at the side of the plank was opened and in trotted a sow with her piglets in tow, then a couple of goats and a kid, then a gaggle of ducks, half a dozen hens, a flurry of chicks and finally a fine specimen of a rooster.  As the hatch was gently lowered.  I couldn’t help asking Salphul what she thought of – stuffing all those animals into so small a space?  We further wanted to know what she fed her animals. Since she worked all day, we assumed that Lakhu took care of them.

She said that the animals were no bother, for, at the crack of dawn she let them out and put out a bit of rice or some paddy for the ducks and hens. The pigs and goats foraged for themselves. Only when there were crops growing in the fields did she have to keep an eye on them. During the dry months they may have to collect some forage for the goats and pigs. With great confidence she assured me that that’s how they stayed best. Judging from the look of the animals and their general fecundity – could she be right ?

The local people use rice-husk and ash from nearby mills when cultivating vegetables. We applied truck-loads of this, along with composted animals and vegetable waste and gobar-gas slurry to our fields. Liberal use of oil cakes, bone meal and other organic fertilizer soon encouraged earthworms.  The village folk never disturb termites; on following their example, we found that termites perform a vital function of increasing soil porosity. Trenches dug to facilitate drainage improved the health of the fruit trees thereby preventing fungal diseases.

We found the local green bananas hardy and disease resistant, fetching a good price as a vegetable.  Local papayas grow on waste land with no need for careful cultivation. Our banana field is flourishing now, and the whole farm is dotted with fruit bearing papayas. We no longer use hybrid vegetable seeds since the seeds of local varieties are disease free and far less expensive to cultivate.  Though they aren’t heavy bearers and don’t look as good, they continue to fruit for longer periods and being more acceptable to local tastes, fetch a good price.

The locals use rice gruel and kitchen waste to feed farm animals and now we do the same, with excellent results. We hope to replace our Holstein/Jersey cross cows with a hardier indigenous breed. The cows have responded very well to being put to pasture and the field gets free fertilizer.

Country chicken, ducks and goats are allowed to browse in the now abundant scrub. Chicken have reduced the incidence of ticks and the compost heap is free of flies. They consume most of the feed wasted by the animals. The ducks keep the pest population of the pond in check, and the goats keep down the weeds. The bottom of the pond has been silted and does not dry up anymore. So we have a supply of fish almost all yeaar round.

Allowing nature a free hand

As the saplings grew into trees and the leaf litter was left undisturbed, hundreds of shrubs sprang up. We began to see the role these hardy grasses and weeds played in revitalizing the soil. As soon as we cut down the Eucalyptus and thinned out the spindly Sissoo and Acacia, a few hundred saplings and trees, including Neem, Sal, Siris and Toddy palms sprang up all over the farm and grew just as rapidly as the Acacia and Eucalyptus. Every few days we notice some new plant, animal or bird. Of course these include rodents, insects and reptiles, but they all form a harmonious whole.

Already a ground cover of Centrocema and Aparajita provides vital leguminous fodder for our animals. Calendula, kal megh, palta, tulsi, asparagus and many other ayurvedic herbs grow in abundance and act as natural pest-controlling agents.

The experience of millennia

The plight of a poor farming family who has a few bighas of land to cultivate or none at all, is truly dismal. And yet, with hardly any ‘education’ and in spite of natural calamities, ill-health and minimal nutrition, they manage to survive. Though it is true that they themselves set little store by the practices that are second nature to them, it is these age-old practices that they have to fall back on, at most times.

A poor village woman knows where to look for saag (greens) or edible molluscs and mushrooms, to supplement her family’s meagre diet.  She knows the herbs which cure common ailments of both humans and animals, how to conserve seeds and what herbs prevent insect attack on stored grain.  Her husband knows which crops are to follow one another, when the field is just right for planting.  He knows just how the roof should slope and what texture of mud to use for walls. He has innumerable other skills to create articles for use in the home or field, using available material.


We are perhaps unaware of the immense amount of productive labour contributed by our poor peasants which does not appear in any national statistic.  Instead of blind belief in western science, which after all is based on experience of a different clime, research could be directed towards discovering the thousands of practices which are prevalent in each locality.  Local breeds of animals could be rediscovered and popularised.  Indigenous grains, vegetable seeds improved.  Many fruits which were common in our parents and grand-parents days are slowly vanishing .  These could be searched for and their quality improved.

We started off, way back in 1977, with a vague desire to ‘give back something’ for all that we had received from our forgotten sisters and brothers who were born poor peasants. By ’99 we find that we still have much to learn.

Bikram Sen & Neela Sen

Neela Sen

Bureau for Agro Based & Linked Industries (BABLI)

Vill & P.O. Dwaronda,

Dist. Birbhum; Pin – 731 236

West Bengal





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