The Green Mile: Betwixt Life and Livelihood

A businessman-turned-farmer discusses his ideas of productivity, livelihoods and life in this reflective and thought-provoking conversation

It is hard to keep an overtly professional façade with Prithwi Ghorpade. ‘With ease’ is the expression that captures his mannerisms very well, and it is infectious. A discussion revolving around livelihood is on our agenda, but after spending two and a half hours with him, there are fundamental additions to my ideas about what livelihood is. Or has the potential to be.    

Prithwi is a man with a colourful past, but one can’t help but feel even more excited about his future. When he left college in the US with a shiny MBA degree, the world was a definitive oyster for him. “I had something of a one-track mind back then…in my head, money was the currency of change and power – so I thought, why don’t I make lots and lots of it so that I eventually get my way, and make the change that I wish to make in the world?” So, he set up a packaging business in Delhi, and dedicated a substantial amount of his lifeblood towards the accumulation of capital and wealth. But then, an individual named Masanobu Fukuoka and his book changed everything.  

Forty years later, Prithwi Ghorpade has been farming for as long as he can remember. His 10-acre farm in Junnar, two hours from Pune, has been transformed into what can only be called an unintentional nod towards Fukuoka’s philosophy on farming. “Business” – or what we call vaishyavritti – the urge to trade, profit and more, is something he’s distanced himself from. He is happy and he is content. He casually also mentions that he hasn’t felt the need to take any help from modern medicine for the last twenty years and the only ailment he gets afflicted by is the occasional common cold.  

In addition to discussing the ‘canonisation’ of methods that help build livelihood, we try arriving at some understanding of why there has been a fundamental distinction between one’s life and livelihood in the modern age.   

The number of livelihoods today are increasingly diverse, considering that people can choose from professions like a live mannequin, a hippotherapist (an equine therapist, where horse-riding is utilised for therapeutic purposes) or for that matter, even a professional sleeper, who, incidentally, was hired by a hotel in Finland to test the comforts of their beds!  

Of course, these ways of garnering one’s livelihood are exceptions to the rule. If questioned, many people today will create a clear distinction between their livelihood, and their life. This is understandable, given that many people also don’t get to choose their profession when it comes to economic considerations. The need for employment often drives the decision behind livelihoods and choice. According to Prithwi, this is precisely where the fundamental divide between ‘life’ and ‘livelihood’ begins.  

Ideal Livelihoods and the Agrarian Problem 

Each zeitgeist presents to us a set of highly desirable livelihoods and thereby, characteristics. Arete – meaning excellence – is something Plato uses, for example, when describing the athletic training and other education of boys in Ancient Greece. The word aristocracy is derived from here, as it was highly desirable to be a man well-versed in the nuances of debate, polity and statecraft in addition to also possessing immense athletic abilities. The perfect man, therefore, was a hybrid warrior/statesman who led from the front.  

No doubt that in the contemporary world, being physically fit has its merits, but one can easily avoid the need to be a soldier or a warrior in order to attain excellence. In fact, a mercantile disposition is far more favourable as the “warrior’s honour code” gives way to the ideal of trade, commerce and wealth. Similarly, a moderately famous actor who plays a warrior (even if their martial abilities are limited) will be more excellent compared to the real deal.   

Much like the zeitgeist, a country’s cultural context and history play a crucial role in determining ideal livelihoods. India is termed to be an agrarian economy where, as of 2018, 17-18% of the country’s GDP was provided for by this industry, which employs over 50% of the population. That is roughly six hundred and eighty-five million individuals who are connected to the farm in some way or the other.  

However, a casual glance at sector-specific data will also tell you that agricultural growth has suffered; farmers are often below the poverty line (this does not refer to farm owners) due to a substantial wage disparity. Everything from productivity to infrastructure has been in decline since the Green Revolution. Despite the modernisation of agriculture, many farmers simply do not have access to the infrastructure; the recurring instances of farmer suicide due to debt, harvest failure and yet other issues tragically adorn the pages of many a newspaper to this date. To be succinct, it is far from an arete profession, despite the fact that many participate in it, willingly or otherwise.  

So are the farmers, in the very least, benefitting from what they produce? Is the country? Well, data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Family welfare shows another bleak reality in this aspect. The country exported 20.4 million tonnes of agricultural produce in 2015-16, and 22.3 million tonnes in 2017-18. It imported 8.1 million tonnes in 2015-16 and 9.4 million tonnes in 2017-18. More than 79% of these imports were food grains! Drawing from the Down to Earth article describing this very astutely, Devinder Sharma, an agriculture policy analyst, stated that “Our tag of a net exporting country would be lost if the government decides to feed all its hungry people.”  

So, where does Prithwi Ghorpade come into all this? How and why did he make the choice to enter this sector and thrive? Why this sector, where people who don’t have a choice are barely surviving? The answer perhaps has to do with Fukuoka, and the practice of ‘non-canonical’ methods when it comes to this behemoth of a profession that is farming.         

The One Straw Revolution and De-Canonisation  

Masanobu Fukuoka is said to have touched the lives of many others like Prithwi. Even if one does a cursory reading of his landmark work, The One Straw Revolution, it’s not hard to comprehend the kind of impact it may have. Published as early as 1975, Fukuoka does not simply present a new way of looking at farming, but rather, at life itself. In that sense, he already blurs the image of farming as a means to an end where it morphs and is firmly intertwined with who you are.  

A trained scientist himself, Fukuoka firmly decided to discard everything that he had learned and knew about agricultural science and lore. He strove to create his own method of farming, which he ultimately termed the ‘do nothing’ technique.  

The Green Revolution, while hailed as a highly positive step towards Indian self-sufficiency, has also wrecked ecological havoc on the subcontinent. The dominance of cash crops, most of which siphon a ton of resources, only add to this problem. Over and above that, the nature of agriculture itself has changed where it has become a means for disparate profitability with an abysmal effort-to-result ratio for the common farmer.  

“Farming was not something rural India did to “earn”, or “profit” from. Farming was a part of a much larger ecosystem that comprised of traditional life and it allowed for leisure. Parts of what Fukuoka has said can also be found in the lost traditional wisdom of our own country when it comes to agrarian practices,” Prithwi says, and illustrates this with the plight of the modern, impoverished farmer.  

“They work tirelessly. They work all day. If it’s not ploughing, then it’s pest control – if it’s not fertiliser dispersion, it’s something else. This idea that farming necessarily needs human intervention for results is the root of the problem.”     

Fukuoka’s “do nothing” method revolves around the observation and contemplation of natural systems, with minimal human involvement. “Even ploughing, which is considered to be one of the most basic aspects of farming, damages the topsoil and causes it to dry up and lose nutrients at a faster rate. Simply put, humans often go out of their way to tamper with the natural order of things, but they don’t realise that this is often an uphill battle. Come nightfall, nature has ways of undoing everything that you’ve done, and you’re stuck in this perpetual loop,” Prithwi explains.  

He goes on to state, completely in line with Fukuokan principles, that “The urge for activity is not what farming needs – it is what humans crave and then normalise.” While many would consider words like these to firmly remain inside a book of Zen parables, Prithwi has forty years of experience, observation and results on his side, all of which are hard to refute. For instance, on his first-time growing sugarcane, he managed a meagre yield of 16 tons for ten acres of plantation. The “most average farmer”, he says, manages about 40 tons an acre – the sky and the earth in terms of comparison, surely. But then, after much trial and error (and substantial personal investment) he managed a whopping 58 tons on half an acre.  

“Now, none of this would have occurred if I hadn’t tried it all – conventional farming, with fertilisers, even – to finally understand what worked and what didn’t. It’s not an easy profession, at any rate, and mistakes often take time to be repaired.” Most conventional methods, if experimented with, often reveal what the problem with them is, yet are often touted to be the only ones that garner results. No contemporary farmer has the time, luxury or resources to even attempt anything else because systemic, commercial demands stand tall as hurdles.  

The Question of Privilege  

Prithwi is not alone in his quest for wanting to lead a self-sufficient, healthy and sustainable lifestyle. But is frugality really a choice for many in India? The Greendex Score, compiled by National Geographic and GlobeScan, shows India standing atop the ladder with a score of 61.4, the reasons for which are cited to be the country’s housing, transportation and food choices. Many also cite the fact that 66% of the population is rural. It remains untouched by developmental schemes and programmes which means that whether they desire it or not, their lifestyle remains frugal. Rural communities bear the ecological brunt for the consumption patterns of the wealthy and the privileged that reside in India’s urban climes.   

As the skewed idea of aggressive modernisation does the rounds, villagers increasingly feel left out. When news of the country’s booming economy does the rounds, people begin to view their own frugal lifestyle as outdated and limited. When resources, infrastructure and amenities do arrive, they are not seen as a privilege but rather, as things to be exploited because they may just be temporary, transient. The Indian dream, much like the American one, is skewed in what it promises and encourages.  

Meanwhile in cities, the creation of the advertorial eco-conscious persona has spawned a generation of privileged individuals who strive towards taking certain steps for sustainability. But rarely do their efforts measure up when it comes to time, effort and patience invested. The consumption of costly vegan, organic products and ‘green’ curated experiences, away from the city in idyllic climes, are easy to opt for as opposed to ventures like Prithwi’s.  

“My aim is to get away from the consumption-based model that accompanies most ventures like these. The people who thrive on what my farm produces have to contribute to the farm in more than just monetary ways. In effect, whatever I do grow on my farm is already predetermined, based on the needs of the families/individuals involved in this community – but that’s it. There’s no marketing, selling, offers or spa-spirituality type of experiences that accompany this.”  

Most farmers cannot switch to organic, or alternative farming methods, but it’s not for a lack of trying. They simply cannot experiment – and even if they do, then initial low yields, higher labour costs, “organic” certification costs and a host of other hurdles stand in the way. Fukuokan farming, in this respect, may just help with some of these hurdles since it is not as labour or resource intensive as some other methods are. But it still requires time and patience and more importantly, it requires rural farmers to forego their perceptions of the Indian dream where they sell bumper crops and move up the socio-economic ladder.  

“How do you live like a man who is a millionaire without having a million dollars? Well, your priorities have to be realigned for that. I may not be making money like the next corporate business does. But do I have to answer to anyone? No. My time is mine to spend. I have the best, most nourishing food at hand. I breathe clean air. I feel no such burdens that often accompany a life in the city. The best part is, even those who have farms around my own wonder whether I do anything at all because my land does not resemble some manicured, neat garden – it is wild, untamed and yet – gives the best crop of all without me getting overly involved.”  

As for the question of privilege, his answer is simple. “Yes, you are right – I am privileged!” “But if we, the privileged, don’t make these choices, then we cannot expect anyone else to do that either. And as for those who can’t do it yet, maybe we can try and change their perceptions of success and livelihood so that when they do get the power to choose, they don’t make the same mistakes, right?”  

In some ways, this response is fair. Given the shift in global patterns of consumption, it is clear that there is always a desire for more commodities, amenities and infrastructure with no end in sight. Satisfaction is often of a temporary nature. But who dictates this? Perhaps it is equally true that there is no ‘right’ way in which we can negotiate what people aspire towards, or for what gives them happiness unless they explore those paths for themselves.     

Life and Livelihood 

But where do our livelihoods fit in here? In that sense, Fukuoka can be especially relevant if viewed from the Buddhist lens because in a sense, his work is a practical, tangible representation of Buddhist principles in action. Pratītyasamutpāda, or the ideal of dependent origination is one of the most relevant ones here as it states that phenomena arise due to a plurality of causes and nothing, in effect, is independent.  

Fukuoka elaborates on these aspects without citing them, stating that scientists, with their frameworks and specialisations fail to see the intricacy and rather, supremacy of natural systems when it comes to farming. They fail to see the plurality of causes, often making the mistake of implementing a ‘one-problem-one-definite-solution’ type of approach, which doesn’t last.  

The same goes for the idea of ‘effort’. Inaction and observation, rather than intensive action, is what is necessary for natural farming. This is why the practices of ploughing, the addition of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, monoculture and other allegedly ‘short-term, high-yield’ methods are looked down upon. Prithwi highlights this aspect and brings it into the entire discussion around livelihood where we have a civilisational bias towards ‘effort’.  

“An individual who is seen idling or is seen not obsessing over the procedures that their job dictates they follow – is seen as someone who isn’t motivated or even fit to be an optimum contributor to society,” he says. The conversion of ‘productivity’ into a metric, as opposed to a simple, immeasurable idea, tells us about what livelihoods have become. Sure, the need for systems to manage such gargantuan efforts is needed – but the priorities of both, the employer and the employee have become significantly warped with time.  

Farming is one of those livelihoods that have the potential to become ways of living instead, where there is no distinction between the two. The same could be applied to many other jobs, perhaps, where alternative methods and tools emerge so that the status quo – along with standardised perceptions of how these jobs function – is thoroughly challenged. Witnessing this change, however, is easier said than done. The discussion revolving around individuals like Prithwi must definitely be disseminated far and wide in order to at least begin chipping away at the idea of modern/contemporary livelihoods.  

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