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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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Goonj Is Working With 1000’s Of Volunteers & Partner NGOs To Provide Covid-19 Relief In 18 States

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With the extension of the lockdown the crisis of migrant labourers and daily wagers has just grown bigger due to uncertainty and fear of future. In the migrant colonies, slums and for people in the villages hunger and desperation is building up day by day. This is high time we step up our efforts to support our people who are in dire need of food and hygiene essentials to survive the pandemic, Covid-19.

After the India-wide lockdown, a lot of jobless migrant workers are stuck in cities with hardly any resources while many started retreating back to their villages. With the loss of livelihoods, a large number of them are now struggling to support their families.

Goonj activated its pan India teams and a pan India network of partner organizations and volunteers in urban and rural India. This network, built over the last two decades, helps them learn from the ground, reach material quickly and review and adapt strategy periodically. Intensifying this network has helped Goonj reach and start work across 17produced states/UT in the last three weeks.
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Goonj’s focus: 

Majority of the Covid-19 relief work by non profits right now is in the metros and cities but Goonj is the only non profit that is also simultaneously focusing on the people in the villages and the ones stuck on highways or somewhere.

Goonj is targeting daily wagers, migrants and other vulnerable groups, who even traditionally are left out like the disabled, sex workers, LGBTQ community.

“COVID-19 is a crisis, yes…But, it’s also an opportunity for us to build the society anew. Not ‘for’ the people…but, ‘with’ the people. And in the process, we will build ourselves too.” – Anshu Gupta, Founder-Director, Goonj.

Direct Monetary and Material Transfer

Wherever Goonj got the permission to open their centres for packing and disbursement of relief material kits, they are creating a kit consisting of 20-30 kgs material including dry rations, masks, sanitary pads and other hygiene material and reaching them to people, as per needs and as per regulations with all safety precautions. This kit will help a family survive for 30 days.

Information till 10th April 2020:

  • Distributed 15,100 ration kits reaching thousands of people
  • Reached 17,700 families
  • Supporting 12 community kitchen across India with 16,600kgs of ration
  • 77,800 food packets provided to migrant laborers and daily wagers walking on the roads across the country.
  • Provided direct financial support to 32 organisations
  • Made 42,800 cloth face masks
  • 24,900 cloth sanitary napkins produced
  • Produced 1500 litres of organic sanitiser

In Goonj’s processing centers its trained team of women are making cloth face masks and cloth sanitary pads (MY-Pads), keeping all the precautions and with the permission and cooperation of the local authorities.

In this lock-down phase if you are facing any difficulty getting sanitary pads or you are running out of stock, here’s a detailed but very simple process of making Cloth Pads at home created by Goonj. “This is how we make Goonj MY Pads.” This is how our mothers and grandmothers turned their spare cloth into pads.

This disaster, unlike any other, is unprecedented in its scale and impact and that’s why we all must do our bit with Goonj to continue its relief work for millions of people in this still unfolding long-tailed disaster.

The need is huge.. We are there.. Need You too !!

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It's not how much we give
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