Samir envisions a world where naturally organic farming and sustainable agriculture practices are the aspiration and norm. By training young people and farmers in low-cost ecological farming techniques in the North East Region (NER), Samir is simultaneously catalysing the local food economy and building a network of indigenous food advocates and entrepreneurs who are bridging the urban-rural divide, making farming aspirational again.
The New Idea
Confronted with the pace at which food insecurity is increasing in the North East Region (NER) as a result of environmentally harmful, unsustainable agriculture practices, Samir began reimagining the farm to food value chain. He identified, the up till now, unexplored link between farmers and the youth population of the NER as the key to stemming this tide. Grasping the high potential of this linkage, he designed a process that connects young people and farming communities, in the region, in a mutually beneficial, yet economically sustainable manner. This connection is resulting in the creation of a strong network of indigenous food advocates and agripreneurs who are galvanising the local food economy in a sustainable manner, thereby shifting the narrative, and making farming a sustainable and aspirational source of livelihood once again.
Samir calls these local food advocates and agripreneurs, Green Commandos; a diverse cadre young people and farmers championing the cause of local people, eating local food from local resources, by practicing low-cost ecological farming techniques in an inclusive, sustainable and equitable manner. These young Green Commandos, hailing from urban and rural communities, are armed with a purpose; to become the bridge that directly connects the farming communities with the local market and guides them as they transition into naturally organic methods of cultivation. The process is designed to reconnect the youth with their roots while restoring dignity, agency and choice to the farming profession, making it an attractive profession in the long run, for ensuing generations.
Government initiatives are primarily motivated by increasing production, while most civil society interventions have been designed to bring farmers into the 21st century by ‘upgrading’ their skills or sensitizing them to their rights and entitlements. In both instances they continue to see the farmers as producers servicing a large country of consumers. The Green Commandos is a growing intergenerational movement, reconnecting young people with their roots, while honouring the knowledge of the farming community. They act as the fulcrum that nurtures and facilitates the recreation of the symbiotic relationship between nature, land, cultivation and the farmer. A model is created that is attuned to the fluctuations of climate change and therefore more resilient and sustainable.
The Green Commandos, are agents of change, and a source of support for the farming communities, equipped with the technical know-how, passion and power of persuasion needed to build trust, produce tangible results and generate a sense of economic and social security in the long run.
Environmental degradation in the North East Region is a consequence of a tangled web of complex economic and socio-political challenges. Decades of ethno-political conflict, an adversarial approach to the region’s biodiversity, alongside preconceived notions of the region’s ‘backwardness’ have resulted in the immeasurable exploitation of natural resources and the communities that rely on them. Caught in the middle, is a population, unable to take charge of its future, now being confronted with the reality of an uprooted and disconnected generation of youth having their own identity crisis.
Farmers and young people have been methodically disconnected from their land and heritage. Government interventions have been unable to address this disconnection in a substantive manner. Schemes lack the nuanced cultural sensitivity and empathy needed to build relationships of trust with the more than 100 tribes (and many more sub-tribes) in the North East Region. The result has been a narrow-minded approach to the agrarian economy; employing stop-gap measures, such as modernization projects being pushed under the guise of development, which are accelerating the ecological damage. The region is plagued by short-sighted approaches detrimental to the region in the long term.
The story of farmers in the NER for decades now has been one of industrial seeds, fertilizers and pesticides that leave farmers exposed to debilitating debt and fallow land, entrapped in vicious cycle of poverty. This is not a new story. However, the adverse ripples created by this chain of events are. Subsequent generations of farmers are now regarding the profession with disdain, having witnessed the gradual erosion of their parents’ dignity. They no longer perceive the profession as a reliable, aspirational or intellectually stimulating source of livelihood and growth and are thus choosing to migrate. On the other end of the spectrum, is a population of urban youth facing livelihood insecurity as a result of limited employment opportunities (apart from government jobs) being left frustrated and embarrassed by their circumstances, blaming their place of origin. It should come as no surprise, whether urban or rural, this is a lost generation, highly susceptible to adverse influences.
While 60% of India’s population is working in the agricultural sector, it only accounts for 17.1% of the GDP. 60% of India’s population also happens to be below the age of 35. In concrete terms, this means the decline in farmers is directly contributing to a proportionate increase in the labour force migrating to non-farming related sectors (such as manufacturing, service and IT). However, there remains, a fundamental mismatch in skills when these farmers look for employment opportunities in non-farming sectors; this further entrenches the feeling of frustration.
These problems are further amplified in the North East Region. For example, while the national rate of unemployment stands at 6%, Assam’s rate of unemployment is at 7.91% - the highest in the region. The trend of youth emigration, burdens the older generations left behind, especially with respect to their cultivation capacities. Furthermore, the younger generation’s disinterest leads to the land being repurposed for other, non-agriculture related economic activities which tend to further environmental degradation. Lost, the youth in the North Eastern Region often find themselves influenced by the propaganda of exploitative employment opportunities such as mercenary institutions.
The region currently stands at an inflection point. Both urban and rural youth populations are seeking and open to alternative avenues for growth and development that give them a sense of connection, purpose and direction, channeling their energies and potential in a constructive manner. At the same time, there is an openness in the country, and recognition at the higher-levels of government policy making, that current approaches to agriculture are not working. Samir is connecting the energy of youth with the commitment of farmers and wisdom of local communities to transform the sector.
Keeping the Green Commandos at the center, Samir is applying a three-pronged approach that; energizes farming communities at the grassroots by supporting their transition to low-cost ecological farming; enables them to create an immediate demand for their produce in the local environment; supports them in marketing and connecting their produce to urban centers allowing them to make a sustainable and dignified living.
Through the Green Commandos, Samir is building a farming movement that substantially lowers input costs and reduces ecological damage by employing natural farming techniques. This is being done by reducing jhum cultivation; using existing land, that has already been burnt. Through the use of bamboo forests and groves, the Green Commandos are helping to create natural carbon sinks, reducing the impact of global warming. The adverse impact of monocropping is being reversed by creating edible food forests, using existing forest land, rather than destroying and replanting.
Since 2017, Samir has been able to train and deploy 325 Green Commandos hailing from rural farming communities and urban cities as trained agents of change, actively promoting the concept of local people – local food – local economy with 2500 farmers across the North East Region (NER). For example, on average, in a particular season, a farmer sells a kilogram of rice at INR 26.00, if the farmer is employing commercial methods (chemical and hybrid) his input costs stand at INR 22.00; the result is a miniscule profit of 16%. On the other hand, by using low-cost ecological farming techniques, the farmer is able to reduce input costs to INR 12.00-13.00, resulting in an overall 100% increase in his income. This increase in income, gives the farmer the ability to absorb seasonal variations in earnings, because on an average, his input costs remain low. At a macro level, on an annual basis, farmers have experienced a 30% increase in their overall earnings, being able to earn a steady income of INR 15,000.00 on a monthly basis. This consistency is giving more and more local farmers the confidence and conviction required to transition from commercial farming methods towards naturally organic methods of local food production. The overall impact is indigenous communities able to increase their income from the local biodiversity of produce, manifold.
Self-identifying as a farmer, Samir brings together young people from the North East Region who are, on a primary level, curious about the idea of growing and eating healthy food, that is also naturally available in their environment. Given the history of ethno-political violence in the NER, Samir understood the potential of misdirected anger, resulting in the attraction of youth to mercenary professions in the region. Samir seeks to channelize the negative rhetoric towards one motivated towards creating positive impact, employing similar methods of discipline directed towards a purpose. The result has been the creation of the Green Commandos. Through the medium of an experiential training module, at SPREAD-NE’s Farming Learning Centre, they begin their journey, sowing the seeds of agripreneurship into their hearts and minds. The objective of the training is to restore young people’s connection with the land and nature and improve their empathic and critical thinking abilities enabling them to envision the interconnected web, which they too are a part of. At the Farming Learning Centre, Samir exposes the trainees, through activity-based learning program, to the various components required to create a healthy, sensitive, and sustainable food production cycle.
At level one, in the middle of an edible food forest, over the course of three days, the trainees learn how to grow food by doing low-cost ecological farming. The training is designed as a learning-by-doing approach, which actively involves young people being mentored by a successful farmer at the Farm Learning Centre.
The residential training, begins by asking the trainees ‘what they want to eat?’ and then guides them through the process of choosing what to grow and develop in a seasonal calendar. The trainees move systematically through the various facets of farming where aspect is explored in depth. For example, as a part of garden care, the trainee learns how to do mixed cropping and make bio fungicides and vermicomposting. All this practical training is grounded in the overarching narrative of combining modern knowledge with indigenous food wisdom, moving away from genetically modified seeds and commercial agricultural practices. For example, young people and farmers learn to identify worms needed for vermicomposting that are naturally available in the banana plant available in abundance in their environment (as appose to the worms that are need to be procured at INR 3000 a kg from Germany). The result of this training, is a group of resilient young people who identify as Green Commandos, eager to actualize Samir’s vision of local people, growing local food, creating local economies.
Armed with the knowledge they have gained at the center; the Green Commandos get to work. They begin by building awareness and disseminating the knowledge they have gained in schools, creating community gardens, graduating to work with the farming community building homestead farms with the farmer, all the while, reviving the ecological balance in a positive manner. Having established the supply side, the Green Commandos then work on building a local demand, within the communities who are growing the food. By simultaneously making food and creating a knowledge economy around it, the cadre of commandos rebuild the farmer’ s confidence and conviction in the naturally available, indigenous crops, bringing back dignity and pride to the profession. The final piece of this cycle involves the connecting the rural supply with the urban demand. This process too, is spearheaded by the Green Commandos who act as the connector and sounding board for the farmer as they move towards market led growth. The role of the Green Commandos here is to ensure dignity, i.e. farmers are growing what is needed in the right amounts. At the end of a cycle, the commando takes 5% of the income generated to his/her cover costs. At present, of the 325 Green Commandos, 70% work in rural settings, while 30% work in urban.
Although the list of success stories is substantial, some examples include Green Commandos forming their own groups to support small and marginal farmers through zero budget ecological farming practices and linking them to the market; leading a movement of growing local varieties of rice and turmeric and marketing them; identifying themselves as farmers and establishing their own naturally organic farms in their native regions, within the northeast, and training local young people to become Green Commandos alongside Samir; working with government bodies at the district level and influencing them to push ecological farming practices through their schemes; leaving their jobs, in one case, as a nuclear physicist in the U.S. and returning to the North East Region, supporting the work of SPREAD NE while working on organic milk and paneer production and establishing a school for tea garden communities.
Samir has also designed an impact evaluation framework for the Green Commandos, this includes a ‘level 2’ training program that builds on the skills, expertise and knowledge built in the introductory training. A twelve-member Central Committee of the Green Commandos supports the process of evaluating, helping and guiding the rest of the commandos. Lastly, SPREAD NE organizes campaigns in the villages that the Green Commandos work to showcase the impact generated to the larger community with the intention of motivating the farmers.
Given the speed at which this movement has developed, Samir is currently in the process of consolidating the team’s organizational structure, identified as a ‘Green Tribe’ beginning with himself as the Central Green Commando, supported by Green Tribe Extension Coordinators, who are supported by the twelve-member Central Committee (comprising of commandos with different field expertise); who support and are supported by State Green Commandos (currently operating in Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Assam), overseeing District Captains who are the frontline commandos in direct and everyday contact with the farmers and gardeners.
Samir is planning to further expand and consolidate this movement by increasing the number of Green Commandos at the state and district levels. Additionally, he plans to continue his outreach activities in colleges, which are a fertile ground for potential Green Commandos. Furthermore, he is currently in the process of establishing an Edible Food Forest and Farming Learning Centre in Meghalaya in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture. This partnership is a result of the advocacy efforts of the State level Green Commando who is a government official working in Meghalaya. As the web of Green Commandos builds and consolidates in the North East Region, Samir is turning his attention country wide, starting with a Farming Learning Centre in Karnataka as well as Rajasthan, the movement is simultaneously moving north and south, covering the country.
Samir identifies as a farmer. He was born in the northeast state of Assam, in the town of Jorhat, a place he calls home even today. Given the nature of his father’s profession an Indian Administrative Services Officer in the government of Arunachal Pradesh (another northeast state) he spent most of his childhood and early years surrounded by nature in Tawang.
Upon completing school, he enrolled into Assam Agriculture University (of which he is presently a board member), where he studied genetic modification of seeds and plants and chemical agriculture, among other agricultural concepts. AAU is also where he met his wife. Upon graduating college, he began work at Tata Chemical in their Research and Development vertical, here he was exposed to the reality and impact of chemical and pesticides on plants and crops. Subsequently he took a risk and quit his job, propelled by the rational the while farmers couldn’t, he could.
Samir started a Plant Health Clinic to diagnose diseases in crops. It is here, as he puts it, he had his fateful encounter with Peggy Carswell who seeing the clinic, requested Samir to show them around, as they planned on promoting natural organic farming. Over the course a ferry ride Peggy asked him why he was promoting costlier organic products, when, collaborating with nature to do the farming with him would significantly reduce costs for the farmer. The result was Samir’s low-cost ecological farming techniques.
Over the course of his extensive journey Samir has had the opportunity to work with Ashoka Fellows, such as Deep Jyoti of Farm2Food, with whom he developed models to engage and transform children’s association and connection to food, health and nutrition. He has also collaborated with Christopher Rego. Over the course of his journey he realised, from his own experience, the critical role experiential learning plays in building a strong symbiotic relationship to the concept of growing one’s own food.
Thereafter Samir began implementing an evolved idea, where he is able to visualize the ecological web that is fundamentally grounded in interdependence. Using this visualization, he has designed interventions that consolidate this interdependent relation between nature, the land, cultivation, young people and the farmer. Moving the entire ecology towards a more climate resilient and sustainable model that is attuned to the changing environment, leading to ecological security, grounded in livelihood sustainability and dignity of the farming community.