Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 1995   |   India

Tarak Kate

Tarak Kate is introducing bio-diverse, non-chemical agricultural techniques to small farmers to help them optimize use of their land. He is also facilitating a transfer of agricultural "best…
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This description of Tarak Kate's work was prepared when Tarak Kate was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1995.


Tarak Kate is introducing bio-diverse, non-chemical agricultural techniques to small farmers to help them optimize use of their land. He is also facilitating a transfer of agricultural "best practices" through a rural network of Farmers' Study Groups.

The New Idea

Tarak Kate is helping small farmers with holdings of less than two acres to maximize returns from their land. Central to his program is an emphasis on a bio-diversification, geared to the needs of local farmers, that comprises sericulture, pisciculture, animal rearing, poultry farming, crop cultivation, land banking and watershed management on land previously cultivated only for staple and cash crops. This package ensures diversified agricultural output throughout the year, a steady supply of crops for personal and market consumption, and gainful employment of members of farmers' families on their land. Regular rotation of crops and the placement of animal wastes on lands replenishes soil nutrients.Part of the farmers' problem is high pesticide expenses. According to Tarak, "Farmers realize that while the productivity of land can be doubled with the use of chemical fertilizers, high-yielding seeds and pesticides, the costs soar simultaneously." The use of organic manure instead of costly chemical methods has enabled farmers to more than double the yield of cotton in villages where Tarak's organization, Dharamitra has intervened. The farmers have observed that even as their expenditure decreases, crop yields have increased.Dharamitra is also training farmers in the basics of rural technology. For example, it has evolved a new pesticide a concoction of garlic, kerosene, crushed chili, detergent powder and water–that is effective against many insects and pests. The organization has also designed a pressure cooker to give women of the villages a new and efficient alternative to the expensive and cumbersome methods of cooking. The Mukta cooker has ended the dependence of women on the use of fuelwood for cooking because of its efficient use of cooking coal. Villagers have been training in distilling compost for use as alternative fuel for bio-gas plants. In addition, Tarak is working toward changing the attitudes, lifestyle and economic dynamics within the village environment.

The Problem

Marginal farmers comprise 75 percent of India's farming community. A large number of small and marginal farmers find themselves dependent on a limited variety of staple or cash crops grown for external market, and are ignorant of agricultural practices and indigenous methods that use available bio-resources. Most farmers have plots of uncultivable land as their only asset and often have to look for alternative income during periods of low output. Adverse times sometimes force them to sell their land. The agricultural patterns they have practiced have been entirely market-driven, and as a result, they draw little or no subsistence support from their land holdings and must buy their food in expensive local markets. Aside from being uneconomical, these foods do not meet the nutritional needs of a farmer's family. Thus, financial crisis is compounded by the prospect of malnutrition. The farmer's income is further depleted by the purchase of fertilizer that is not only expensive but contains chemicals that are a health risk. The interventions by government have produced little impact because they offer standard packages of subsidies, seeds and chemical fertilizers to the marginal farmers that do not take into account matters such as regional resources, regional socio-cultural trends or community wisdom. Extension services of government agricultural departments provide research-based information to farmers that is collated by scientists in agricultural universities and emphasizes capital-intensive agricultural techniques. This so-called green revolution has depleted soil fertility and led to overall ecological depletion. While the government is now propagating the use of bio-fertilizers, these have yet to reach the grassroots communities who need the most.

The Strategy

Tarak established his organization, Dharamitra, in 1991 with his wife Chitra. Today, it is a team of eight people, six of whom are scientists. Each scientist/activist has evolved a bio-mass program and works with villages to plan the spread of the project. Tarak launched his work in a semi-tribal village in the district of Wardha.Tarak is working in conjunction with the Association of Sarva Seva Farms (ASSEFA), an organization operative in 120 villages in two districts–Wardha and Yaovatmal. He is using the infrastructure of this organization to set up Farmers' Study Groups in each village. The Farmers Study Group is the intellectual wing of the Gram Sabha, or the traditional village council of all the residents of the village. Every Farmers' Study Group with a membership strength of 20 to 45 farmers is an interactive forum of farmers. Discussions and debates are initiated by the facilitators of Dharamitra to create awareness among them of sustainable non-chemical agriculture and to equip them with the skills to create customized ways of leveraging bio-mass. Use of bio-dynamic kitchens, horticulture and sericulture plots, mulberry plantations, training programs for tribal honey-hunters and experiments in rearing cattle to supplement the bio-resources of villages has gained momentum. One villager is making health soap from cow dung and another has discovered a new way of producing phenyle, a disinfectant. Farmers' Study Groups have also visited eco-farms set up by other organizations and innovative farmers. Similarly farmers' workshops are organized by Dharamitra to facilitate exchange of information and experience in bio-diverse farming. An indicator of the impact of Tarak's program is that 50 percent of farmers in the participating villages have reduced the use of fertilizers by half and 450 acres of degraded land have been treated by more than 150 farms after training in soil conservation and watershed management.Tarak has also set up a model experimental farm on 2.25 acres to give marginal farmers a blueprint of land management so they can draw their subsistence needs from their own holding. The experimental farm produces almost everything needed by a family of five and yields as many as six varieties of food grains and various kinds of fruits and vegetables. Tarak has also planted approximately 1,000 teak samplings. The farm's boundaries are fenced with trees that yield fuelwood. A variety of grass and weeds provide fodder for his cows. He also has plots for mushroom cultivation and sericulture. A small fish pond and a poultry farm complete the model farm. The yield of wheat from Tarak's farm, over a period of one year, has more than doubled. The model has encouraged villagers to invest confidence in his organization and its rationale.Tarak plans to work extensively in all the villages of the Vidharba region in Maharashtra. Simultaneously, he is organizing camps, training programs and slide shows for groups that will help carry his model beyond this region. He has identified organizations with similar programs, such as watershed management or bio-gas development initiative, to involve them in the spread and implementation of his concept. Tarak also plans to set up a documentation training center, the Technology Resource Centre in Watershed Management and Alternative Agriculture. It will train grassroots development agencies working in the Vidhraba region in appropriate rural technology.

The Person

Tarak was born into the Maharashtra family to whom an ancient king had gifted villages. After graduating from college, he worked as a school teacher. However, he later obtained a scholarship to study botany at Bhopal, the capital city of the state of Madhya Pradesh. By the time Tarak graduated, his father had sold off family property for economic reasons and Tarak had to resume work as a school teacher for a year.Despite his meager earnings, Tarak's father was a philanthropist who supported several people in his village. One beneficiary came forward after Tarak's father died to sponsor Tarak's further education (in cytogenetics) at Nagpur University. After obtaining a master's degree in 1971, he earned his doctorate while simultaneously teaching. During these years, close association with a follower of Baba Amte, an eminent social worker, generated his interest in rural development.In 1980, Tarak joined the Centre of Science for villages, set up by a Ghandian devoted to the cause of rural development through scientific and technological intervention in villages. As a botanist, Tarak was now able to blend his scientific knowledge with his concern for rural needs and learn about other aspects of development technology, such as bio-mass, watershed management and agriculture. He is the founding member of several organizations working in the field of environment, appropriate technology and watershed management. Tarak is married and has a son and daughter. His wife, who has a master's degree in science and philosophy, helps him in his work.

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