Daughter’s Bad Health Fueled This Techie’s Desire To Come Back To India And Practise Organic Farming

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Life seemed picture-perfect for Shankar Venkataraman after graduating from BITS Pilani, Rajasthan. He moved to California in 1999 along with his wife Sujatha who works as a Software Architect in the Silicon Valley. The beautiful life that they built for themselves suddenly turned upside down in 2005 when their 6-month-old daughter was diagnosed with Eczema, a condition where the skin becomes inflamed and itchy due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Shankar went into depression and quest for understanding the reasons for his child’s suffering made him think about farming and the amount of chemicals used to grow crops. 

Shankar spent years developing sustainable methods to grow organic food and started a company called ‘HillView Organics’ in California through which he grew organic vegetables and fruits in 23 acres of land and supplied to nearby restaurants. After a decade long experience in farming in California, Shankar felt it was time to give the dues back to his motherland i.e. India by working with farmers in India. 

Shashank (left side).

In an extensive chat with Efforts for Good, Mr Shankar has given his views on many issues plaguing the farming sector and the difficulties they experience in farming in India.  He has also spoken about the impact that correct farming practices can have on people’s health and that of the soil. 

Farming in India

Lack of confidence in the health of the food crops they grow, parched lands, crop failures make the farmers feel far isolated from the land and soil they trust. They are increasingly feeling dejected resulting in suicides and forced migration. Even after toiling under the sun for hours and growing food round the year, farmers cannot afford meals for days together.

Shankar says that farming is not a profession that one takes up for economic prosperity rather it is for the joy of growing food that fellow countrymen can eat which motivates the farmer to grow food. However, farmers feel they cannot feed their own families with the food they grow since the amount of chemicals in the crops is very high which is giving rise to various diseases. Lack of financial viability coupled with a lack of pride in the work they do has made farmers feel dejected. They feel extremely hopeless and helpless.

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When Shankar started Maple Tree farms, it was very difficult for him to find farmers to work with him on the farm, due to the hard labour and lack of decent monetary options. Slowly through education about organic farming methods, he has been able to have a trained set of dedicated farmers and farmworkers on his farm. Shankar says the root cause of the problem lies in the green revolution that India underwent. 

India went through a green revolution to be able to have food security for our growing population. It seemed like everything was good with a decreased need to import food grains from abroad and increased production so much so that we were able to export surplus production.

However, a few years down the line, the farmers have discovered an increased need to depend on fertilizers, pesticides and the need to buy imported seeds. With climate change and unpredictable monsoons adding to the woes, farming is slowly becoming a backbreaking labour intensive profession with no secure future for their families as they cannot afford three square meals a day.  

Added to all this, the seed companies and fertilizer companies have made the farmers dependent on their products while these chemicals are stripping off the land of its fertility, nutrition and leaving the land barren and parched slowly but surely. Government, in its vote bank politics, is not catering to the farmers or for larger good as they are only giving lip service, few subsidies here and few loan waivers there. Even agriculture B.Sc. students are not aware of organic farming, preserving the soil, making a seed bank etc. The irony of the whole situation is that all these were ancient farming practices in India. 

Shankar spends one Saturday every month for education. It’s called the “Farm day” wherein farmers and students from various nearby districts and across the state come and spend time to understand organic farming practices such as making organic manure, herbal nutrition support for the plants, preserving the soil, growing plants without fertilizers, making a seed back etc. 

Is Organic Food really organic?

Shankar opines that while the growing awareness on having organic food i.e. food without chemicals, and the number of brands increasingly catering to the demands of the people is heartening, organic food is not necessarily healthy or nutritious food. Food as medicine cannot be achieved through organic food crops, vegetables and fruits alone. We need to ensure that the health of the soil is maintained so that we can get the required freshness and micronutrients into the food we consume. He elucidated how at Maple Tree farms, there are numerous steps taken to maintain nutrition in the vegetables and fruits they grow.

Health of the soil not only ensures right nutrients into the food we consume but also contributes in several ways to farming as well as to the environment. 

When the soil is healthy, we do not need to use chemical fertilizers to increase productivity, we do not need to add chemical supplements. We will see the return of the humble earthworms and other worms to the soil. These worms naturally enrich the soil without us having to put in excess nitrogenous products to the soil. We will see the return of birds which will feed on these worms.

  • At Maple Tree, soil fertility is maintained by making sure any minerals or nutrients a crop has absorbed are replenished into the soil.
  • Crop rotation is done to suppress diseases and support beneficial insects. Crops not only absorb nutrients from the soil but they also make sure they release some nutrients into the soil. These nutrients released by the previous crop will be helpful for the next crop if planned properly.
  • Compost and vermicompost are an excellent source for increasing the microbial life in the soil. These microbes are very helpful as they help convert mineral in the soil to available form for the plants to absorb. In turn, the microbes feed off of the sugars released at the plant roots.
  • At Maple Tree, Shankar has worked to use vermicompost from Indian earthworms.
  • Shankar also practices cover cropping to fix nitrogen. 

Apart from this, the earthworms tend to dig very deep into the soil which will contribute to an increase in the water table naturally when the fields get rains. We will see an increase in the pollinating insects and plants miles away from the farms as well due to the decrease in chemicals. How can you and I ensure that the food you and I consume is actually healthy and safe for the environment? The answer is that unless we know the farmer and his practices, we have no way of knowing that the food he/she is growing is healthy and safe. This is because the health of the food grains is directly dependent on the health of the soil. “Know your farmer to know the food you consume” is the refrain Mr Shankar keeps giving to all his customers from Maple Tree farms in Bangalore, India. 

Shankar firmly believes, “healthy soil = healthy food + safe environment.” Healthy soil can be only achieved by sustainable farming methods such as the amount of tilling, type of tilling required to prevent soil erosion etc. Building a seed bank that is indigenous to India, taking care of the health of the soil, enriching it with jeevan amrutham, making high-quality compost are some of the practices Maple Tree is following. He is very keen on training many farmers and regularly provides free training to farmers across Tamil Nadu. He also routinely gets B.Sc. Agriculture students reaching out to him to understand sustainable organic farming practices. Shankar wants to work on educating and reaching as many farmers as possible and hence he travels to a lot of remote parts in the South of India.

All these endeavours are only possible due to unconditional support from his wife and daughter who live in California while Shankar works on his mission in India. The family has given Shankar the much needed emotional, financial and moral support for which Shankar is extremely grateful. We, at Efforts For Good, wish Shankar all the very best and hope that more and more farmers are able to switch to sustainable farming practices which also give them hope and confidence in themselves and their future.    

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