IIT-IIM Alumnus Quits US Job, Helps Grow 6000+ Acres Of ‘Food Forests’ In Native Madhya Pradesh

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A changing climate and thus an aggravating agrarian crisis is putting India’s ever-growing population at grave risk. While droughts and crop failure continue to plague the agro-rich zones of India, most farmers struggle to find a viable alternative. Added to that, the excessive use of chemicals in agriculture to meet up to the bulk demands is actually taking a serious toll on the health of the consumers, aside from polluting the environment. However, in Madhya Pradesh, IIT-IIM alumnus Sandeep Saxena seems to have found an ancient solution to thwart an impending food crisis. His organisation Aranyaani is raising ‘food forests’ in 2500 acres of fallow lands in the central state. Aranyaani is also assisting farmers to manage such food forests on their own landholdings, amounting to another 4000 acres approximately.

What is a food forest?

A food forest is typically a very dense vegetation, created using all-natural resources but not exploiting the resources. Talking to Efforts For Good, founder-innovator Sandeep Saxena informs, “We are basically structuring a proper forest, but a sizeable part of it can come in use for human consumption, but only up to a certain limit that does not affect the ecological balance.”

So how are these food forests created?

Imagine a large area being selected for handcrafting a thick forest. At the centre, evergreen trees like Peepal, banyan etc. are planted. This, according to experts, enhance diversity and thereby increase natural production. Radially surrounding the central zone, fruit-bearing trees are planted, and the open spaces are filled with smaller plants like lemon and cranberry, which do not grow much tall. The outer circumference is sown with lentils and legumes while plain grass dominates the forest ground. Vegetable bushes and shrubs grow interspersed between the fruit-bearing trees.

As evident from the afforestation pattern, biodiversity is strictly maintained in growing food forests.

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Instead of tilling the soil, seed balls are used so that the nitrogen cycle of the soil is not disrupted. Regeneration of seeds on their own is one of the main attributes of Aranyaani food forests.

No mechanical or chemical intervention

“A forest grows naturally without any human intervention, abundant with all its resources. So, for our food forests too, we had to ensure that human intervention is limited. So, we stepped away from all machinery and equipment, as well as any chemical or artificial additives in the soil: no hybrid seeds, no synthetic fertiliser. Everything grows as per the natural forest ecosystem,” he shares.

Food Forest Aranyaani
Aranyaani nurseries

The produce of these food forests finds a sufficient number of consumers in the local as well as the adjoining urban markets. Presently, much of their fresh, organic fruits and vegetables are also exported pan-India.

How Aranyaani happened

A chemical engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur, IIM Lucknow alumnus Sandeep Saxena has had an illustrious career in the corporate world, holding prestigious positions in USA-based firms. “At such a time, when I visited India, I discovered that cultivators in my native are harming the nature profusely in search of better yield. I saw how unplanned chemical farming has caused the perennial rivers in Madhya Pradesh to dry up. I was deeply stirred. I had an inner urge to find a solution to this since agriculture has always been the mainstay of the Indian economy,” narrates Sandeep, who soon decided to quit his job and move back to his motherland.

In 2007, for around a year, Sandeep did extensive ground research about the problems plaguing agriculture in India. He realised that the natural green resource of India is still the unexploited champion of sustaining the ecological balance. “So, it is necessary to preserve and propagate this resource at all costs,” realised Sandeep.

Initially, in only ten acres of land, Sandeep decided to try out his innovative concept of growing a man-made forest, as followed in many developed countries. “At first, we resorted to advanced machinery for quicker execution of basic tasks like tilling and levelling the soil. However, a failed production that year exposed the fallacy in my methods,” admits Sandeep.

Local farming experts and veterans joined hands with Sandeep to support his initiative with their knowledge and experience. Almost all of them advised him to refrain from mechanisation as much as possible. And the result was overwhelming.

Food forests all over India

“At the start, I had little idea that the food forest programme would be so successful. Soon, my friends from IIT, my family and local people volunteered to expand the project in other areas. At present, farmers are approaching us to guide them for growing food forests in their small plots and sell the fully organic produce in the market,” informs Sandeep.

Not only have the income levels of these rural farmers multiplied, but also they are now more environmentally aware than ever before. Sandeep Saxena and his environmental crusaders envision to popularise the concept of food forests throughout India, wherein lies the solution to a lot of India’s problems.

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MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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