In Telangana, Experimenting With a Low-Cost Way To Improve Soil Fertility

In Telangana, Experimenting With a Low-Cost Way To Improve Soil Fertility

A disciple of permaculture pioneer Bill Mollison, Narsanna Koppula is using biochar, a certain type of charcoal, to improve soil quality. He hopes it will help the soil retain water and nutrients for a longer time and aid in climate adaptation.

The parched air was redolent of a hot sun baking the ragi-coloured soils crispy dry. I was in Pastapur, a village on the Telangana-Karnataka border, trying to figure out how to make it to the Aranya permaculture farm and witness the largest ongoing biochar experiment in India, involving over 400 tonnes of Bt cotton biomass.

Charcoal that is used to improve the soil’s qualities is called biochar. It is a known soil amender, can help retain water and nutrients for a longer time in the soil and is world-over considered a super weapon for climate adaptation.

From the highway, we swerved onto a red, uneven village road and drove past recently harvested corn crops. Most of the rabi harvests were done and palash flowers were blooming. Red flowers, red earth. Trampled cotton plants lay between young mango trees, but the air had started to become cooler, thanks to miles of eucalyptus planted by the forest department.

Ten minutes later, I was at ‘Aranya Agricultural Alternatives’, home to Narsanna and Padma Koppula and also the heart of the biochar project idea.

A gate in the Aranya complex. Photo: Author provided.

But permaculture first. Noor Amma (aka Nouras Indori), an Aranya volunteer and former air hostess from Oman, gave me a tour of their 11-acre farm, introducing me to mangoes, tamarinds and teaks. Walking past green kidney stone plants, she made me notice the little things, like clay pitchers for sapling irrigation and trenches that saved water for mud classrooms. From the occasional babbler to termites, all were welcome at the Aranya farm.

Catching the whiff of our sweat, wild rock bees would often buzz around us. I was taken to the dry percolation tank guarded by drying bamboo, the wild untouched forest areas and the freshly-harvested crop fields with dried, thorny safflowers. In no time after, we were shaking tamarind trees for making kombucha, walking away from bee attacks and watching women thresh the new jowar (sorghum) against the setting sun.

Now it was time to learn about the permaculture guru, Narsanna himself. As the story goes, Narsanna was strolling on his college campus in Hyderabad when he saw a white person standing with a group of people. He had never seen a white person before, so he approached the group, where Bill Mollison – known as the father of permaculture – was speaking with Dr L. Venkat about the subject.

He listened to them and went about his life. But soon after, Narsanna was on the run due to his left-aligned activities and took shelter in Pastapur. Here he found Mollison and Venkat again, training farmers and starting a permaculture farm.

They smoked together, cracked jokes and eventually Narsanna chose green over red to become one of the few Indians taught by the permaculture grandmaster himself. Meanwhile, Dr Venkat became Narsanna’s lifelong mentor and friend, guiding him to develop a permaculture sanctuary in the Deccan.

Dr L. Venkat and Bill Mollison. Photo: Facebook/Narsanna Koppula.

Permaculture in practice

“So, when we first moved here, this was a red soiled land with little water. We dug a well and then started planting trees. I wanted this land to also serve the local community and provide for the needs of a few households,” Narsanna explained.

With time, Narsanna and his wife Padma created a mini food-forest, but that was never their ultimate aim.

“My role is to allow nature to do her work. I have only planted maybe 40% of this farm. The rest of the trees were planted by the birds, winds and nature herself,” Narsanna said.

Narsanna firmly believes in ‘social permaculture’ too, which hopes to create a more equitable and balanced society.

For example, he worked with the government to get 384 acres allotted to landless people. Over the years, Narsanna has worked with lakhs of farmers across the region and offered everything he could to improve the lives around him through soil rejuvenation, de-silting, micro credit, as well as water and afforestation projects.

“I never believe in being the teacher. My role is to spread knowledge by facilitating, because teaching is an imposition. My job is to make them think and reach their own conclusion, whether on matters of agriculture or society. This is permaculture,” he explained.

Narsanna (L). Photo: Author provided

He continued to say that the key to permaculture involves applying solutions that are already available in nature.

As the sun turned orange-pink again, the cool breeze started to flow. I asked Narsanna about the biochar experiment. He wasted no time, called his aide-de-camp Adi and we headed to Kambalapalli village, 12 km away from Aranya.

The biochar

When we reached, Narsanna’s two other carbon lieutenants, Shreyash and Parneet, were busy guiding a bulldozer, placing huge loads of dried woody plants inside shallow pits.

The flames went up many feet, illuminating the woody residue of the drying Bt cotton. Parneet and Adi quickly rushed to the water tanker to douse the flames, carefully watering each square foot to ensure the fire was out.

Flames from burning Bt cotton residue. Photo: Author provided.

So how does all this happen? What’s the science behind it? I asked the slender 32-year-old Adi.

I looked around and there were different pits laden with biomass. Some were already lit while others were primed for it.

Shreyash caught me lurking and explained, “This is perhaps the biggest biochar experiment happening in India. We are meticulously studying the effects of Bt cotton biochar on soil health, water and productivity, so that we can spread this model to other farmers.”

Parneet chipped in: “From about 400 tonnes, we hope to get 90 tonnes of biochar.”

The evening was now as dark as the sizzling biochar and the bulldozer had begun to growl. I stood close to Narsanna and asked him what could this mean for farmers at large.

“If successful, it can not only accelerate soil rejuvenation and water retention in the soil, but also help India rid herself of her crop burning issue the natural way,” he said.

Now whether we can recreate the Amazonian terra preta or not, biochar definitely offers a unique and low-cost way to help farmers in red soil areas, dispose of Bt cotton residues and also increase soil fertility at the same time.

 

Content Source – https://thewire.in/agriculture/telangana-pastapur-biochar-narsanna

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