WORDS BY RANJINI RAO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Vasantha Yogananthan
In southern India, some tech professionals are seeking solace from the traffic-jammed streets of Bengaluru. They’re looking to farming collectives as a way to live sustainably.
Whereas the city lights blink over a dust-bathed evening in Bengaluru, India’s IT capital, the sun has shaded the clear skies about 40 miles away a hint of orange. I am on a friend’s farm in Denkanikottai, a small town, where the cows are home, the air smells of wood burning bitter blue, and homemade rotis are puffing up on a small earthen stove.
As a professional working in the heart of the city, I am accustomed to a high-carbon lifestyle in a country where this index is expected to rise rapidly in the next few years. Bengaluru suffers from the worst traffic in the world, keeping residents in traffic for up to three hours a day—or an extra 243 hours a year. The Air Quality Index averages 110, which means the air is unhealthy for sensitive populations. People are used to staying indoors in high-rise apartments and getting everything—from groceries to pizza—delivered. This growing lifestyle is contributing to India’s title as the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter.
But for the past few years, several IT professionals have been chiseling away at farms on the outskirts of the city, working toward a more sustainable future, hoping to build circular communities that can also generate a shared income. With at least six collectives up and running, the numbers may soon grow. These collectives use solar energy for power, rainwater for crops, and restorative farming methods.
“It was a conscious choice, for me, to get into farming. It was so liberating to go off the grid from time to time and simply be with nature to observe and understand its workings.”
One such farming collective is Vanam Farms, a 8.5-acre farm in Belalam village growing vegetables like beans and cabbage, run by my friend Venkatachalam Krishnan and three others. After being introduced to trekking as an alternate mode of vacationing, Krishnan realized that it was so much better to spend time camping in the mountains than staying in fancy hotels, sightseeing, and shopping.
“It was a conscious choice, for me, to get into farming,” Krishnan says. “It was so liberating to go off the grid from time to time and simply be with nature to observe and understand its workings.”
When Krishnan and his friends Rangan Varadan, Ravi Rakki, and Ashok Giri bought Vanam Farms in 2015, they were inspired by path-breaking agricultural practitioners like Subhash Palekar, an Indian agriculturalist focused on chemical-free farming, as well as the dairy industry’s return to indigenous cow breeds. Today, they have a functional dairy farm with over 50 cows and grow radish, local greens, chillies, and tomatoes. They also sell their produce in farmers markets in Denkanikottai. Their biggest lesson has been that building a sustainable, circular lifestyle takes time, Krishnan says. The farm operates on nature’s clock. You just have to give it your time and dedication.
My husband, Shubh Debnath, and I joined the Tamarind Valley Collective (TVC) in Thaggatti village near Denkanikottai because of the deep passion the other 51 members held for the environment. We also wanted to experiment with a lifestyle that reduced consumption and incorporated naturally supported cyclical systems. Though we spend six days a week in Bangalore, we typically travel to Thaggatti on Sundays. The pandemic has made that harder, but the farm is where we hope to retire. TVC will reduce our carbon footprints and free us from the matrix of poor urban planning. Collectives like ours could serve as models to help resolve some of India’s most critical problems, like water scarcity, worsening air pollution, and plastic consumption.
TVC was founded by Varun Pandey and Yathesh Kumar, entrepreneurs who bring together their experience from IT start-ups and farming under the label WeCommunities, which helps to build and manage farming collectives. For the past three years, we have been restoring the farm by regenerating the soil through kitchen scraps, as well as building a diverse plant nursery and planting fruit trees. We even built an eco-friendly cottage—using chemical-free material and bricks from our farm soil—for visitors to stay in. The long-term vision is to grow a regenerative food forest that meets most of our food needs and relies on harvested water for irrigation, instead of groundwater.
Shannon Olsson, a chemical ecologist and director of the Echo Network, a community dedicated to improving ecological health in India, supports urban farming and the idea of farming collectives because they provide an opportunity for environmental responsibility and accountability. She stresses the importance of eating locally to reduce food miles and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“Above all that, it creates awareness and builds a deep connection between people and their land,” she says, adding the danger of forgetting the history of our people, land, and the foods that have been grown and consumed for centuries. “It builds a sense of pride for our ecological culture and teaches children how important ecosystems are for our survival. Even beyond the direct positive effects of greening our land and growing our food, behavioral consciousness is integral to finding a solution to the climate change problem, which is a wicked one. It’s not just about giving up cars or choosing alternate energy—it’s about changing mindsets.”
Changing mindsets could go a long way for Indian rural farmers, who have long been mistreated by our society. In a country like India—where more than half of its 1.3 billion people depend on agriculture for a living and farmers’ protests are rapidly gaining momentum—farmers face a multitude of problems beyond the corporatization of their produce. There are the increasing farmer suicide and poverty rates, as well as class oppression that prevents farmers from accessing government benefits.
About a decade ago, government initiatives created Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) throughout India to help bring useful technology and financial support to farmers, says Navin Horo, national project coordinator of the Climate Change Knowledge Network in Indian Agriculture, a German organization partnering with groups in India on sustainable development. The FPOs also connect farmers to fair price markets for their produce. But with more resources becoming available to farmers over the years, the FPOs now focus on teaching practices like using biochar, a charcoal that can improve carbon sequestration, to enrich the soil instead of burning agricultural residues, which release carbon into the air. Still, farmers continue to lack resources and economic and technological support that can help provide them a direct link to fair price markets where they can sell their produce.
“While I’m agnostic about urban farmers creating strong, sustainable ecosystems, I think if they actively engage with local farmers, the socioeconomic aspects of our environmental issues will be better handled,” Horo says, offering a broader perspective on sustainability. “There is also the cultural landscape of rural farmers, which shouldn’t be compromised in order for urbanites to achieve their own green goals.”
At TVC, 52 families (including mine) are striving to strike a balance between our own version of the farm-to-table culture and the lifestyle of the villagers in Thaggatti. Many villagers were initially hesitant to welcome these collectives, but we now work closely with villagers. TVC employs at least four families. Villagers now invite us to their festivals, temples, and annual fairs. Building community is a work in progress, but we hope to help the village grow by bringing them increased access to chemical-free food and education for all the children.
India is currently on a path to destroy our natural landscapes and marginalize the rural farmers in deep relationships with them. These collectives—my second home—are helping pave the way forward. We’ll need many more alternatives to take on the severity of our ecological crisis.