Speaker: Padma and Narsanna Koppula

[These transcripts, as with all aspects of Awakin Calls, are created as a labor of love by an all-volunteer team located around the world. They are a collective offering, born from a shared practice of deep listening and service. Diverse and spontaneous teams emerge week to week to create and offer these calls. See our organizing principles here. Listeners are invited to join our co-creative community here.]

Guest: Narsanna and Padma Koppula

Host: Rohit Rajgarhia

Moderator: Gayathri Ramachandran

Rohit: Good morning and good evening. Welcome to Awakin Talks, a space where we hold conversations with individuals whose inner journeys inspire us and whose outer work is transforming our world in large and small ways. Today we have two very special guests who are going to talk about the permaculture and life with us, Padma and Narsanna Koppula, in conversation with our volunteer, Gayathri Ramachandran. But before we go into that, I would invite all of us to step into a minute of silence, to allow ourselves to be more fully present in the moment. Thank you. 

Thank you and welcome back. And now I'm inviting my friend, Gayathri, who is a volunteer with ServiceSpace to take over. But before I do that, just a minute of introduction about Gayathri. So actually Gayathri is a scientist, by head, owing to her PhD degree in Biology, from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. But that was like the first part of her life. She's also a permaculture gardener by hand, where she has a home garden in Chennai, which has more than a hundred species of trees, shrubs, and herbs, and where she consistently keeps looking to design methods to move her family towards zero waste. She is also a nonviolent communication -- which is like a new language for life -- she is a practitioner and supporter of that. She is a meditator, she is a volunteer by heart and she has been volunteering with ServiceSpace for a very long time. And as she says, these various attempts are her way to move from the left brain towards invoking the heart and her attempt to listen more deeply and cultivate the field for what is ripe for emergence, rather than what one is planning in one's own head. So thanks, Gayathri, for wearing those various hats, and inspiring us in so many different ways. And I welcome you to take over the conversation today. 

And just before that, one more thing on the call flow -- as all of our audience is aware I think -- we will have, in the next 55 minutes or so, Gayathri will engage in a conversation with Padma and Narsanna. And in the last part of the call, we'll also have an opportunity to engage in audience questions and reflections. So as you are watching the talk, if you're watching it on live stream, you have a comment box in the livestream page itself, where you can send in a comment or any question anytime during the conversation, and we'll take it towards the end of the call. So that's all from my end. Over to you, Gayathri. 

Gayathri: Thank you, Rohit. It is such a great pleasure and honor to be in conversation today with Narsanna Sir and Padma ma’am, who actually need no introduction to anybody who is in the Indian permaculture or natural farming community. They are permaculture legends! But for people who are maybe joining in and acquainting themselves with their work for the first time, I would say briefly that Narsanna Koppula is a pioneer Indian permaculture designer, an energetic and enthusiastic teacher, a passionate nature lover and a staunch feminist. And Padma Koppula is the other hand of this pioneering permaculture couple whose superlative patience, amazing organizational skills, local farming knowledge, and very inspiring capacity to work with women farmers and other marginal farmers, holds the joint reins of this couple's life of service. Together, the Koppulas founded 'Aranya Agricultural Alternatives' in 1999, an organization focused on permaculture advocacy and education in India and worldwide. And their life's work has been working with transforming this land in Medak district in Telangana, a 11.5 acre farm called Aranya farm, and Aranya is a Sanskrit word that means forest. And its transformation has been documented in so many different short documentaries and films, but it's gone all the way from barren, rocky wasteland to this lush forest with abundant topsoil and an abundance of humans who come to learn PDC and so many other creatures -- rock bees and birds, and just a huge diversity of plants and trees.

And it's really one of the most inspiring sites, natural farming sites in India to visit and learn from. And they also work extensively with many many small and marginal farmers to move them towards natural farming-based practices and reclaim this connection to what is really a very old and ancient style of farming and gardening in India.

So, with that, I'd like to say welcome ma'am and sir. We are so glad you're here. And maybe I thought we could just start with, because for some of our listeners, I'm not sure permaculture is a term that they are fully familiar with. So I was wondering if we could start with both of you just telling us, giving us your short description of what permaculture is, and touching a bit on especially it's ethics, because it is so core to the heart of permaculture, and maybe speak a little also about the principles of permaculture?

Narsanna: This is Narsanna Koppula, as Gayathri introduced. And, I don't know how much or what she introduced about me is true, but I didn't realize the many things that I keep doing. I'm not sure. That’s what I'm doing also maybe! I’m not sure. I am a person who thinks about nature and the environment and people and poverty and access to resources -- that's the kind of person I am.

I think the permaculture word itself is very new, but ethics still, in the Indian context, it is very important to locate (it). For Indians, the ‘Permaculture’ word is maybe new, but not the permanent culture -- we have it! That's what I put it, very simply and in a nutshell. So permaculture is a design science, but design of what? It’s quite simple if you understand that it’s the designing of not farms actually, but we can do it in different manner also. So I think it’s the designing of our mindset, designing our culture, designing our home, designing our profession, designing our language, designing our attitude, approach -- I think in everything, design is required.

  I think if we do without design, we/you have to do more work. That's the one simple thing I wanted to tell you about permaculture. But as far as India is concerned, this is the word which makes every activity, every attitude, every approach -- we can see the concern, the relationship, the beneficial relationship with one with whom you want to work, with whom you want to live, and how you want to gain knowledge, inspiration, help -- I think this is where, everywhere, the culture is realised; the culture lies there. I think we are totally disconnected with that kind of life -- that generosity of which we are talking today, that generosity is lost in all aspects. So then permaculture is a little more connected to that kind of attitude and approach. 

That is why I chose it; I selected this as one of the ways to go ahead with our knowledge. And the science, which we are talking about today -- how far it is achievable and admissible -- these are all the questions that came to my mind. Then I thought, I think the best way to share my knowledge is through this word called permanent agriculture. The history of agriculture, if you look at it, is very short. But when I go along with the civilization -- no civilization, no culture can survive without agriculture. 

That is where exactly the agriculture word I can define most of the time. I think this agriculture today, we made it a little more different from what we understood by agriculture, I think a green culture was there (in the past, he means). That little bit worried me as to how we take this agriculture forward with understanding a little about Indian agriculture, and at the same time, Indian culture and ethics. The ethics,  I think, guided me to take it to the different layers of looking at things -- how we can make it best for small and marginal farmers? Where we can give it a good culture of agriculture, not just agriculture as such. I think that culture is lost. When we can come together, we can work and I think we can understand each other. And what are the things which you are talking -- not by talking, but by practice! 

Permaculture is a practice, a practical way of looking at things and an alternative way of life. Not just as a system. It is not just a thing that you need to follow and just forget. It's a remake -- any system, you have to make it a way of life. Then only will you understand the whole cycle, the system, what is always working. I think where we can influence, where we maybe can get things to do much better than what we are presently doing? So that kind of permaculture we are talking about. 

I think the word may be new, but for us Indians, I think it is not a new (concept). I think I have a lot of... If you look at my notes, I always repeat some of those. So permaculture is a design system that contains nothing new -- it arranges what was always there in a different way, so that it works to conserve energy; it generates more energy than it consumes. Simple, I think it is. If you make it work...

Today, what we are doing today with agriculture is energy consumption, the consuming of energy. I think you are spending 10 units of energy to get 1 unit of energy. Where does it come from? The energy -- where does it come from is the issue! If you think about energy, the whole cycle, definitely you will look at the cycle of energy -- how is it possible to get this minimized? I think what (we are doing) today is we are depleting resources. I think the resources are very very precious. We are not supposed to do that. We are supposed to hand over resources in better shape to the next generation. 

So that's where exactly permaculture deals. I think at the same time, it is ancient. It is nothing new, except for the word permaculture. It is based on the  careful observation of natural ecosystems, the forces acting in the natural world, and the wisdom of traditional agricultural practices. So ancient thought and  wisdom in indigenous systems of knowledge were in harmony with nature. All thought, behaviour and practices flowed from the observation of nature, and in harmony with the laws operating and governing the natural world. The idea of a human being over and above the natural world was alien to thought and wisdom, especially in the Orient. This is perhaps history today.

If we look at the real world, at what is happening today, I think you would have never thought of what kind of turn this will take -- in the minds of people today, everything is just, the culture has been removed by the business. I think it's an issue of not only just business, not only just about doing agriculture, I think we have to stick to our morals and ethics and the respect and mores, the traditions -- a lot of wisdom we had. Where can we bring back? That’s not possible! But we can work with them... 

That is a simple message that I wanted to give through this webinar, to all the people. The great knowledge you already have, through a lot of exposure to different fields. What small change can we make? And forget about the world -- bring a small change in yourself. And then you think about your family, then you think about your neighbors, then you think about your village. I think the steps are very very small, but very very important. So where we can make the change and look for that, where the requirement is there. Where is the gap? If you find anything, what changes are possible? If you act very consciously, I think it is definitely possible to make some changes. For that change. I'm looking for this tool, these kind of webinars. That's how  I started my journey in permaculture, since the last 35 years. 

Gayathri: Wow! Thank you so much, Sir. So maybe Padma Ma’am, you could just quickly describe a little about the ethics?

Padma So permaculture -- it's ethically-based. The ethics are so beautifully designed. Care of Earth -- all the lifeforms on the planet Earth, if they're safe, if they're happy, then people will be taken care of. So then ‘people care’ speaks about the second ethic -- that is, if  all life forms are happy, whatever the needs of the people, material and non-material things -- like we want fresh air, fresh food, nutritious food, you'll get from the Planet Earth. So that's what -- we have to interact between the life forms on the planet Earth. Then you will meet your needs. Then everything is safe. And ‘fair share’ also will happen. The fair share comes from whatever resources we have on the planet earth; all lives, they have to share, whatever they need. 

So also permaculture talks about the future care also. The present generation, if we exhaust the resources, then what about the future generation? Now the time has come to speak about how, for the next generation, I don't need to give the big properties and assets. Now I have to think about how I have to give my next generation -- fresh air, nutritious food and good health. This we have to talk about now. So a time has come now, where every human being on the planet needs to respond and they have to do their share of action towards Nature! Because that care of earth, like what are the actions which we did so far, maybe knowingly or unknowingly, that damage has been done. So for a speedy recovery, if you do... 

The situation is like that. If the patient is in ICU, if you treat them, they will recover soon, maybe. If you're not treating them, they will die. So that’s why every human being on this planet Earth needs to respond by planting trees. That's where -- if the plant kingdom is there, then all of the animal kingdom, birds, human beings -- everybody will be happy on the planet Earth. So whatever we need also, we can happily receive. We don't need to be so stressed out. The ethical base, if you understand properly, if you follow in your life system, we don't need to feel anything (stress/worry). We don't need to worry about anything. So that's what I feel about the ethics of permaculture.

Gayathri: So, one of the questions I want to ask is -- Narsanna talked about also ‘start with yourself, start with your first connection to nature’. So, because we, in this series of conversations try to look at people's life journeys to find sources of inspiration, I was curious -- when was your first point of connection, for both of you, in childhood or young adulthood maybe, where you first formed this connection with soil as sacred? And the sense of nature connection, this deeper connection? Did you come from natural farming backgrounds and maybe do you have a memory of that first moment when you felt that connection? Could you tell us something about that?

Narsanna: I think I've seen… I have lots of memories maybe. I think not memories -- they can’t be controlled sometimes. But still I remember a few things. The early few... After your talk, I realised that this is a very interesting (question).  I myself got surprised after hearing you about that question. 

I am from Adilabad actually. How am I connected to this greenery and plants? I am not a Botany student. I’m a history and political science person. Then I did philosophy and law. Nothing to do with agriculture! But my connection, my intuition -- I was born and brought up in a lush, green jungle in Adilabad district, where I am from. I think that is why -- unconsciously, that is -- that is why I'm so attracted to this kind of ‘green revolution’. Not the present green revolution (smiles) -- the ‘green culture’ that started with Adilabad itself. Also from the tribals. The tribals were living in the forest. I was from the same area, but I didn't realize that there was this much importance for greenery on this planet Earth for people -- that everybody needs this kind of greenery. When I came out from the greenery and forests, I realized how important it is. I then thought that it's very easy to converse, to talk about this greenery. And it's so easy for me to convince people as to how to grow the green. So that is one connection! 

And the soil -- I really didn't know much about the Green Revolution, the pesticides and fertilizers, then. But where I am from -- Adilabad -- there, the soil was so rich, the smell was so beautiful and it was very tasty. I used to smell it, but never ate it (at first). I think I tried afterwards -- one day, I ate it also! But I didn't know any different kind of soil. If I would have known, I would have differentiated this soil and that soil. But I was from the forest area and that was the only soil I knew -- very rich! Rich or poor, when I know only, I will compare. But there was no comparison at all. When I came out of the forest, then I realized -- okay, this is living soil. That is dead soil. Rich soil or poor soil -- that is when comparison started. 

My background is that of an agricultural family. My father used to do -- there's no chemical, organic, or that kind of classification. Agriculture was only one. Those categories were not there. But slowly, when my father was growing crops, then I was helping him/them. But I had not looked at what he was doing. So just one day, I thought -- he was growing in one patch of land, one piece of land, the paddy (rice fields). So he was transporting all of the manure to one piece of land. But on the other lands, he was not very caring at all. I think he was just totally, he was having a different approach... And the land we were using for our own (food) consumption, that was a different land. He was transporting all the manure to that land; in the rest of the land, he was not adding anything. So then I realized. Whatever you eat, you use the land very ethically and you use all the organic manures, cow dung and farmyard manure and everything. What is that? This differentiated (treatment)? Then I realised -- if you eat it, you eat good food; and then if you want to sell the rice to market, you grow it differently -- what is this? And I didn't understand. Then I realized -- I think this is where exactly -- that the soil fertility was going down. A piece of land that he wanted, to keep the land more fertile, so that they could get the good food, and he wanted to keep our own family, my people safe, by giving them good food. 

I think that is -- out of most of the questions, when you posed some of these questions, I think this one is very, very important. Still I remember, even in my area, in my village, that many people do this practice. Now these are already gone. But I was just correlating what my father used to tell and how he was practicing. I think green culture, agriculture, soil fertility and the poor or rich soils -- with the social structure also, I started comparing. The social structure is also in the soils when we say poor or rich. It applies to social structure also. There are poor people and rich people. Rich people belong to, they are owning rich lands, and the poor people are owning the poor soils. 

I think we have to do a lot of work. Exactly there, I wanted to hit the ball into the court of poor people’s lands. That’s our social responsibility, to heal those soils by applying some of these permaculture techniques. Definitely, we can use a lot of biomass, lots of manure plants, nitrogen fixers, and farmyard manure and compost -- what not?! I think this is one of the challenging lands to do (this work on). I think definitely we can prove it is possible, through getting the soil back to what we were doing earlier.

Padma: For me, I came from the agriculture family. My family used to grow so many varieties of crops -- like rice and sugarcane, groundnuts, sesame, all vegetables. These kinds of crops when they're growing, like after the crop harvesting, there are many people who used to come. Like the dhobi (washerman) will come and he will take his portion of it. And working persons from other communities will come and they will take their portion of it. And the watering person will come and take his portion of it (the harvest). 

My responsibilities were like -- everyday morning to get up by four o'clock. And whatever that my mom gives as the milk, the selling of it -- that is the cash portion, every 10 days. That was how my family ran. Like we were the four sisters. All four sisters' needs would be met by the dairy. And the agriculture system is food security. 

Like my mom taught me -- whoever comes to you at home, just feed them. So food is in abundance in my home. Always we used to give them -- like we are in such richness, regarding the food. And at the same time, one day I went to my aunt's home. And we have 20 acres of land. My aunt has only 2 acres of land. So when we went there, what she said was, “Though we have 2 acres, we are rich enough. And though you have 20 acres, you're not so rich in cash.” Because of the way we wear the dresses… When you do agriculture, how are your homes? So many things will be there (pointing to her clothes) and it will not be nice (she is referring to dust and dirt on clothes). Even now, I don't forget that word she mentioned. By that time, they used to grow the cotton (a cash crop). So they used to sell the cotton and then they had a lot of money by that time. So they used to support us in several ways. 

And then within (a few years) -- when I'm young and then when I'm a teenager and then a graduate, by that time, their village has been (emptied out) -- not many people are living in the same place. They migrated to different places, because the crops are not doing well, there was so much indebtedness -- all these things that I could see with my eyes. So that’s where I realised how important it is (she means food security).

Another thing I can share is that after I started working in one of the organizations, like the DFID project, there were many people working together. My colleagues were always worried that if the contract gets over, what will be next?! For me, and Narsanna too, both of us never felt stressed because we knew how to produce food. If you have a piece of land and you know how to produce food then you don't need to worry about anything. You also don't need to stress about anything. So that's where I feel that maybe childhood connections have given a lot of confidence to us to move ahead and make decisions in our lifetime.

Gayathri: So, was this chemical farming that they were doing in your village during your childhood because the soil fertility was going down and they were switching to cotton over a period of time, or was it natural farming?

Padma: During my childhood days, it wasn't fully organic. In my home there were hardly one or two bags of chemical fertilizers. But there was so much of farmyard manure and tank silt. During the summer season, like in the months of May and early June, the biggest responsibility was to have bullock carts and working on transport of farmyard manure, because there were big heaps of manure and we had plenty of animals by that time.

Especially if you see the cropping system, there would be a lot of crop residues. Layers and layers of crops would be preserved as a fodder, it would be given as fodder, and then the manure would be collected in big bunches and transported. There would be a shift system. If you consider the land holdings, like this year if you do the farmyard manure application for one land, next year it would be another land, and the third year another land and so on. This was done phase wise. Every summer, there was a system of transporting the tank silt. Tank silt application would be there, almost every three years. By that time, it would also be about the effort. If you have the transport (capacity), if you have bullock carts and people around you, whoever had the capacity, they used to transport the tank silt for application. These were the practices at that time. 

And also I haven't seen pesticides when I was in my childhood. Maybe when I was in my intermediate to graduation time, I could see the chemical fertilizers. And then the cropping pattern had been changed. The food crops shifted to cotton, peas and then rice. These three became the major crops. Like groundnut, sesame and all other crops had taken a back-step. If you see the trend analysis, every five to ten years, if you go back, there's a shift happening to the cropping system. And also along with that, the practices are changing in the cropping system. 

So this is how things have changed slowly into the ‘development’ mode. And also when I was in my childhood days, when the first rains came, the first plantation would be done only of the vegetable seeds. Whatever vegetable seeds I would have, I would first plant it, and then whatever excess seeds were left over, my responsibility was to go and ask others "I will give you these seeds. Do you have any other seeds like bitter gourd seeds or any other seeds?". Like that we used to get and share the seeds. I don't see this system anywhere now. Everything is marketed and hybrid (seeds) -- those things have taken over. Change in the cropping system, change in practices, change in food habits. Many things have changed. 

When I got married and I was thirty years old, diabetes started in my village. One by one, and now I think diabetes has taken over. And, now I can see in my village -- I can count ten cancer patients, 50% of diabetic patients, going to the hospitals everyday. I can see this in my own village. Because the mindset, it has been taken for the money. People think that they can do everything. I can give you an example, last week when I went to my niece's home, whose auntie is suffering from cancer. When you are spending money for the food, when you want to buy good food and if it's expensive, we worry about spending money there, or we don't grow food for ourselves. When you have cancer, you are ready to spend ten lakhs rupees! These things are all in our mindsets!

And, also I will give you another example. When my mother was living with me for a few months and then she saw how I was growing vegetables in my backyard and the kind of taste it had and other things. She used to make diversified foods with the vegetables available at home. After she went back home, she started growing her own vegetables in her backyard. Sometimes when we are disconnected to something, you need to again have some experience, to connect back. I have seen these things in my life. My dad is now doing chemical-free farming with one acre of land and providing a lot of food for all his grandchildren. The change has taken place.

Gayathri: A lot of what you talked about is really about the whole monetary angle -- the idea of trying to make money out of agriculture versus agriculture providing anna swaraj, nutrition security or food security like so many of the Gandhian principles, and taking care of yourself and your community and therefore automatically taking care of your health. So much of that is because the element of money that came in. Right? 

And we live in this world where we still need money, in some sense, because we still feel that we need to do more with our lives than just having a farm, a small piece of land, to eat well and live well. And we also live in such a diversified world where not everybody in urban areas, like where I am, has complete access (to land). You have some access but you can't grow all of your food in the terraces or apartment buildings.

What do you feel -- what's the middle path we can walk in the times we are in right now? And even I would think of your own experience, what is this relationship you both have personally with this concept of money and living in the gift? Because so much of the work you do, you distribute seeds and saplings, your knowledge and your wisdom as a gift and you've not made money as the primary focus of your life. That's an interesting balance! So personally, I was just curious to know how you've lived that balance and how do you think others can? How can others do something to think about this?

Narsanna: It is a little philosophical and a practical issue as well. It’s not just an issue of money, I think. Frankly speaking about this system -- now we are living in this system of capitalism and there's no doubt about it. Capitalism has trapped you in almost every step. You cannot come out from the trap of capitalism, but you can do small things. You can peek through the capitalism trap -- that much you can do. 

Everyone wants to have good food and money and everything else. Agriculture is not a source (to make money). There are other sources where you can share your knowledge, share your ethics, share your morals, share your information. I think there is a lot of fair share basis, where you can do a lot of things. It doesn't mean that -- money is not only an issue through agriculture and there are ways to do that. 

Why we are talking about this is because many do agriculture, but many do not have land also. If everybody does agriculture, then it is not good, because then the diversity is lost in the society and in the structure. I think diversity is very important because diversified skills are important and diversified information is important. In this course --the middle path, I always like. The people who have lands, let them have lands. They are called the land holders. And then there are other categories like the landless and the rich and the poor -- all these categories are there.

But I am talking from a different perspective. On making money, I think there is always the middle path. Always, there are ways to be -- whatever job you are doing, whatever work you are doing, be ethical. Money is not the issue today. I think ethics are the issue. (yeah, an assent from Gayathri). Once you have that kind of thing -- I don't say that business is wrong. It is not wrong. It is a livelihood issue because you are selling your produce, selling your materials and you're getting some money, I think that is OK. But don't sell your ethics. 

Based on the ethics, I think those people who do not have access to the resources, our main job is to make the resources accessible to them or to make them access the resources. Resources could be natural resources. Natural resources could be your land. It could be your information, your skills. I think we are hoarding them. I think that hoarding is in our entire life system. I think that if you look at it everywhere, we are hoarding all the resources with us. We're trying to dominate, or piracy, or we want to dictate or we want to make money out of it. That kind of culture does not fit into our ethics. I think it is just that I wanted to make a little differentiation. 

Even in my entire life, and even when I was in a movement, even when I was a little more revolutionary, even where I come from -- there also, the land, the soil, the forest, the animals, they were living together in the forest, and outside also. But when you come to the open, I think that everything has changed, because the culture has changed. I think how you stick to that culture, what are the ways? I'm not saying that... everybody need not share everything, but in sharing also, there is a profit.

Profit -- you can make a lot of very good business out of your ethical business as well. I think that agriculture is not only doing agriculture. Rearing animals is also another step. Integration is possible. You can do your bee-keeping, you can do your composting, nursery. A lot of things -- you can do it. I think through them... 

What is a skill? I think skills are one of today's issues. I think everyone need not have access to good vegetables, but you can support a farmer, you can talk to them. You can know them. I think within things, you try to localize it, rather than just go out of your boundaries. I think there's no frontiers for your thinking, but think locally, I think definitely create local resources and encourage shandies, local markets, and definitely,  the local economy will go there. And definitely, you'll be more happy. By encouraging these kinds of things, you are also, indirectly you are helping the profits. 

As far as profits go, 10 Rs is also a profit. 1 Re is also a profit. But there should be a (limit). I am expecting 10 Rs profit, somebody is expecting a 1 Re profit -- look at the gap. 9 or 8 Rs is a huge gap. I think you have to be satisfied somewhere?! The ethical business would be the 1 Re or 2 Rs profit. I think for you to feel happy, you have to limit yourself -- where I can do a better job? I think that is the ethics you must have in any business to make money. I’m not saying money is not required. Money for the education and your studies, your marriage and your house --  all these things are there. But what kind of needs you have, it can make your life beautiful. 

You can continue with the thought process you have -- with that, you can go in an ideological (direction) and at the same time, some ethical and some philosophical base is required. I think all these things will make you understand the whole cycle around you -- where you are living, what kind of society (exists), what kind of things are happening? How are they trying to cheat you? I think this needs awareness. At the same time, the people want to understand you, and at the same time, your approach toward issues needs to be addressed, and at the same time, it needs to be a bit more harmonious. Then it definitely is getting better. This way, I think we'll understand others also. 

That’s where the Awakin people are -- every time I talk to them, there is more generosity, there is the gift economy! I think these words are those that make me feel more happy! I think in agriculture, why can’t we use that? I think that is a very, very important approach. The middle path does not have to have so much rigidity. Permaculture is very inclusive, not exclusive. It’s not a dogmatic approach. It is a very flexible approach. I think that if you do that, you will definitely find a lot of middle paths, definitely we can reach those goals, by practising some of these things. That's what I think! Money is not the issue, I think. The issue is the mindset -- that is the problem!

Gayathri: Yeah...

Padma: What I feel is that money… My experience speaks about if you are living on the farm and if you have all the resources, producing so much -- I can give the example of Aranya farm. So much abundance of production is happening. Once abundance comes, how do you preserve it? We have to eat for the entire year. So that's where we can reduce our costs, and also think of production.

So if you have a chicken, how many eggs are consumed? How many eggs are produced? What are the needs? If you have an abundance of milk, fruits, eggs, vegetables on your farm, you don't need to worry about the money aspect. Money is required for the things you want to buy, for transportation, computer, phone, TV and those things. In the earlier days, we didn’t need these things. The food is the first priority. If we don't need those things then we are not worried too much about money. 

If the food is not available, to buy it, you need money. How do we generate that? This year, we started, so the PDC (permaculture design course) community has started growing some potatoes. The community started making jaggery.  They are exchanging it for things based on its value. So the eggs, which we have, are being given in exchange for the seeds. So during each festival, whatever abundance is there, I can give it as a gift. This is the seed which I'm giving as one chicken to you. You have to give two chickens to me or to someone in the same community. Somewhere we have to start and these types of things have started happening.

Then there is the cost of living. If you live on the farm, you don't have much demand for money. The farm is where production is happening. For those living in the city, money is more in demand. You have to think of it: supply vs demand...

Gayathri: I think these are very beautiful real life examples of how you navigate these questions, but I was also curious about how you mentioned permaculture as a design science, one that applies to all spheres of life, not just the land. In your own life, and as a couple, as you've both worked in this field and worked with farmers, I was wondering if you could tell us how you've used permaculture design principles to look at more harmony and more optimization of energy flow in your daily activities? How do you go about your division of labour? (we lose Gayathri for a while)

Rohit: There is a technical glitch on Gayathri’s side. While she is coming back, can you give some examples or stories from your life where you are applying these principles of permaculture in your own life, whether in relationships, as a family, or in dealing with other farmers?

Padma: Yes, we share responsibilities of Aranya like working with the farms and communities. At home we divided the responsibilities. I took the management responsibility. Narsanna took responsibility for the environment -- his life has been completely dedicated to permaculture and nature. He'll always be there. So like that, I learned lots of things from him. Like, for me also, he's the guru. I did the PDC with him. 

Before I did the PDC with Narsanna, we used to have a little bit of conflict, even though I was involved in the permaculture (farm). Narsanna has taken complete permaculture on land resources, natural resources -- on that he takes the lead. Especially in the management, working with the communities and the organization management, I have taken the (lead) because of my skill and passion. 

Within the farm also, my work is more about feeding the animals and those aspects of it. Narsanna is more involved with things like the wild animals, wild birds, wild forest, the natural forest -- he is focused on the native ones. He gives a lot of preference to them because he has a deep understanding of both trees and flowers and other things. I am more interested in the production aspect of farming. I do most of the harvesting, preserving, and Narsanna is more involved in planting, and taking care of them. We have each taken these lead roles in farm management. Now even my children are involved to some extent.

Rohit: Narsanna, I think you had something to share and before that, I would just add one side question because this is so interesting for me. You spoke about sharing of responsibility, but I would just want to understand that deeper. Sharing of responsibility is something which we all understand -- every human who has worked at home or at work, understands that. But what does permaculture have to say about the nuance? Like I'm sure there is something more to it than just "this is my job and this is your job". So if I end up doing your work, it's like a favour I'm doing for you. Is this similar in permaculture principles or is it something different? Is there a nuance which you would like to share with us on sharing of responsibility?

Narsanna: It's not just division of labor or sharing responsibility among family members. I think it is beyond that. In permaculture principles, I think that integration rather than segregation is one of the most important things. I think we try to integrate information, cultures, their skills -- looking at their abilities. And how best we can integrate with them, to understand the whole cycle of this life chain, and how it is possible to work with them. 

I think observation is one of the keys, so that's why I never used to talk much. Even when I go to the field... In Padma's case, I used to say that fortunately or unfortunately, she is my wife. But that doesn't mean that I believe she has to think the way that I think. Naturally, things happen. But that does not mean they are your followers. You have to use your observations. What is happening in your nature? Just because you got married doesn't mean you have to change your attitude towards things. I think that is not natural. It is unnatural! 

When I go to visit a farmer, I never talk to him. I think it's really important to apply these principles and ethics. It's important to observe and then you listen to them. If you come to a conclusion, I think you have to read more. When I go to a farmer, whether his soil is good or bad or what are you growing -- these kinds of questions are not right. It's like a medical doctor finding a deficiency and giving just a prescription for medicine -- that does not work. Nature is so great, more so than human attitudes, and how you correlate things -- this is actually very difficult.

When I go to visit a farmer, I never get into an argument or get into anything controversial. I think the farmer does not want to get into talking about chemical treatments, so I never address these issues. There are a hundred things out there which are non-controversial. So if you address those issues, you'll be more comfortable and give the farmer more leverage to speak and express his views. Then they will really share their knowledge with you. So bridging this gap is how you approach the problem. You avoid controversial issues and then I think you touch on the issues which are of concern to the farmer.

There is no book for this, but you can learn by understanding the farmers' issues. When I go to the women, I think they have different problems there. If you only address the agricultural issues, they are not ready to listen because you are missing other issues that are there. When you talk to them it's very important to understand their life cycle, not only agriculture. I think they would like to talk about their children's education, schooling, their animals, their family, environment and health issues. All of these things are important. Then ultimately you can touch upon what kind of food they are eating. 

How many people today are working with agricultural families? In the Indian context, many farmers' average holding is 2.38 acres. Moreover 60% of them are landless. I think it's important how you address these landless people. To look at these in the same cycle is not possible. We'd have to look at it on a different level, where different kinds of things are possible, where we can work with them. I had that approach in the beginning and I think slowly I got changed.

I went to tribal areas. I think tribal areas are very interesting. Though I am from a tribal area, I don't know the Gondi language, but I wanted to work with them. How do you establish this relationship? I needed to work with them, but they were not willing. So then I kept going there and talking to them, not about agricultural issues, but about general topics. I was talking to them about what is happening in their villages, how their roads are, when do they go to the hospitals, and other general things. I kept talking with them and so slowly, a rapport built between us. 

After that, I started working on different issues slowly. Social issues are very sensitive and at the same time food is also a very sensitive matter. You can talk about environmental issues. That was the middle path I chose. I talked about the forest and firewood and that kind of thing. Slowly I got into them, but I could not express everything that I wanted to teach because I could not talk in their language. So one day I wanted to train them. I wanted to teach them how to plant a tree, but they're living with the forest. Why should I teach them how to plant?! What is the need of planting there? I started planting some food plants in the backyard and while doing that I kept quiet. We were not able to communicate, but then they just followed me. Immediately after planting, I just started mulching them (the saplings). Next to me there were teak plants. I mulched around the plants, covering the soil. Without speaking for one and half hours, I was just doing this activity. They observed whatever I did. I went back there after one week. By that time they had mulched all of the plants! 

Then I realized that language is not required to work with the community like this. So if you think language is a barrier, I think you would have been troubled. Not talking is a practice that makes it very easy to work with these communities. These are some of the principles I'm trying to understand myself, by observation. These are a lot of natural things that are possible to teach. Then I understood that it was important to not talk much. Whatever your knowledge may be, it is with you, but (it is) not for others. I think let us integrate: they are also knowledgeable. They have a lot of information, so you should go to them as a student and you will learn from them. If you go as a teacher, you cannot learn that kind of thing. So integration and observation are fundamental. Then I started trying to implement these principles. 

I think conservation is one of the foundations of my permaculture journey. I looked at everything as not a production site but as a conservation site. If you see -- one person conserves and one hundred people produce and I think that is where the relationship starts. Everybody looks for the production side. As a result, some loss or damage will happen. Conservation is very important. Energy conservation, forest, ecosystems, water bodies -- everything. I think, as you're talking about conservation, if one person talks about conservation, I think a hundred people will work to save and not deplete those resources. That's what I learned from permaculture.

Padma: Like Narsanna said, whatever we start in life is always going to be small. Based on our experience, we can then scale it up. So always we followed these principles in our life system, always small at the start, and also integration. We always try to be energy-efficient. So we apply these principles in our life. At the farm level, at the community level, when we are working with the farmers and tribals, wherever we are, we apply these principles. It has given great results to us. So this journey has given me really smooth running and also a very fast response from everyone.

Narsanna: Even in my daily life I would respond to change, but I was not accepting feedback. Accepting feedback is very difficult. I'm a little arrogant in many things. But this instinct, by birth it may be there -- I will respond very spontaneously. It is with me, but the feedback was a little contradictory every time. How should I accept the feedback? So I could not solve this many times; I have failed also. Accidentally, it may have happened several times but I'm not sure how it works. Even creativity, no waste -- all these things that we talk about, somewhere it reflects and it expresses. But we cannot see the direct principle applied to our inner world.

Even with our children -- I would never ask what they were studying, in what country they were studying or what marks they got -- and this allowed self regulation to develop. The same dialogue I used to say, “Fortunately or unfortunately, they are my children.” But they are not just children. They are adults and they know many things and you can't limit their knowledge. This is where a smooth life can be made very complicated. If you leave them (children) be, they will become the best people, best citizens of India or of any country. Nature is so great and when you come to the nature of society, there are many societal issues. And children are not separate from society but a part of society. It is an integration of how to look at them on a personal level as your children, community level or national level -- to understand the whole cycle, instead of only one element.

Gayathri: Thank you so much, Sir and Ma’am. One of the things that's always been very inspiring for me is how you've always lived this ethic of first making the connection, leading with care of the people and building the rapport to make the connections. Even if you have this very urgent activist agenda of earth care and wanting to really conserve resources, you always start with making connections with people. Then like you said, let your actions speak, lead from a place of equal power dynamic and always accept that others have something to teach you. Maybe, they're doing chemical farming and you want that to change but you live into that principle that everybody has knowledge and wisdom to share.

I wanted to remind our listeners that if you have any questions for Sir and Ma’am, you can either put it on the chat tab in the live stream page and we've already got some questions. One that ties into what Sir said about parenting. Brinda in California says she appreciates what you said about the importance of people sharing their resources. Can you give an example of how one could use this principle of permaculture in human relationships and parenting? A lot of people on this whole learning journey, people who engage in what is called unschooling or unlearning talk about it as children having their own knowledge and wisdom. Children know how to engage and we don't need to be the ones teaching them whether it's parents or schools. Could you share a personal example of how permaculture design principles helped you in parenting?

Padma: As far as parenting is concerned, whatever activities you are doing, if you are involving them they will be connected. Mine used to go to school and in the evenings, we used to work in the garden sowing the seeds. My son especially, when someone was having something happening with the body, like diarrhoea, he would give the crushed pomegranate leaves or fenugreek as a curative. After they were involved with the sowing of the seeds, whenever they ate a fruit, they would take out the seed and preserve the seed, sun-dry it for planting, or share the seeds with others in the community. Once they are into these things in the family, it will be a part of your life.

Narsanna: Coming to the neighborhood, this is really interesting. For parenting read the book, “Born to Win.” For parenting and dictating the terms, it is best when learning from nature. And compared to human thought, nature is superior. Humans have damaged and ruined nature... If you apply the same (natural permaculture) principles to your family and children, it is the best learning. Give them space and opportunities because they are the best learners and creators. Working with living beings will multiply life, keep their enthusiasm alive and nurture their talents. In nature, in society and in the thought process, everything is equal and works in this way. The permaculture principle of creativity and expression can be seen in the transformation of a butterfly. How the children want to express their creativity comes through innovation and ideas and you need to give them space. We think we are doing good parenting, but that might be doubtful because it is happening though the child's own growth and creativity,

Gayathri: Thank you, those were really beautiful nuggets of wisdom that we can hopefully revisit. There are a couple of questions here about the whole issue of ethics that you talked about. Jagdish is asking about how nowadays a lot of people use a tractor for cultivation. Do you think that would be against the ethics of permaculture? I think this is a question that you can answer well, because you're always walking the middle path of wanting to build soil and try to go towards no-till and natural farming and mulching. However, a lot of farmers, for whatever reasons, have certain ways of wanting to do farming for ease and convenience. Could you share some thoughts on walking that middle path in this?

Narsanna: This is a good question (laughter) and after this webinar, I will make a new course on ‘Middle Path Permaculture’!

Gayathri: That’s a good one (laughs).

Narsanna: Yes, I like that actually because my views are not dogmatic and the approach to agriculture should be close to reality, to nature, and the middle path. In permaculture we can not say this is right and this is wrong. And tractors should not be banned but we never teach how to plow with a tractor. It is up to you, based on your scale, where you are from, convenience and your resource. Do remember the four R’s of refuse, reduce, reuse recycle. But especially add rethink -- otherwise we will be in trouble. 

Not everyone has animals because the animal use is in decline and it is not that easy to keep animals. But still there is a way to do it or encourage others to do it. If you don’t have animals, encourage others to keep and support them. There are people who want to rear animals still! And the skill is getting lost. The skill of rearing animals, keeping two bullocks and training them, plowing the land, the depth of the soil, soil fertility. The bull will shit; your tractor will drop diesel drops (on the soil) -- that is the difference. 

Otherwise, we are not very touchy about these things. What is happening after your plowing is important. But what depth of plowing? What happens to the soil is the issue. And what kind of soil do you have (already)? If it’s compacted soil, after two inch depth (of plowing), I think you are making it more compact. Then, no life will be there! How can such a soil become a living soil? If you have deep soil and you have 100 acres and you cannot plow with a (manual) plow, do it. But soils also vary from place to place, region to region. What soil depth you want and how long do you want to do this with a tractor? You want to go back or do the same agriculture? Do you want to change yourself? If you don’t want to change yourself, how can you change the agriculture practises? 

You might be doing tractor but slow and small solutions are available -- that is one of the good permaculture principles. You can see which crop you can do this with. If every crop you grow with a compacted soil, they don't like that. And moreover, the life that is living in there -- that is what is missing (he means soil microbes). I am not anti to that, but I never do propaganda for going with tractors. But if someone is doing, I don’t say no also! It’s up to you. 

You have to continuously keep thinking -- what is happening to your soil, the microbes, the crop and the health of the crop? Any wild habitat? Are insects coming there? Production, you can leave it be. Yield, leave it aside. But you have to respond to change. Accept feedback -- whatever is happening in nature.

Gayathri: Ma’am, do you want to add something? No? Ok! So one thing I was wondering, whether you can briefly -- because we have been talking around this topic -- but maybe you could say a little about living soil? Like you said, this whole… I feel sometimes, maybe, not all listeners fully grasp this idea that all your wealth and everything in the land has got to do with building a site for microbial activity. If the microbes are happy, the soil is happy and life is happy. And how, in many ways, it is the microbial ecosystem that we are disturbing when we go in with chemical fertilizers or pesticides. And in many ways, even our health. If the microbial ecosystem in our bodies are happy, then we are healthy, and that’s connected to the food we eat, how rich and diverse it is. So could you just maybe say a little about that, for those who are not fully aware of the links?

Padma: What I feel is your soil's health is directly connected to your health. If you don’t realise that, in future, more health issues will come. The soil health - how do you define it? Do you see soil as a living thing? So much of life in it -- that realisation should come. 

Soil, we are seeing as just a material -- that is not correct. Soil is full of life. If you plant a tree and there is so much biomass around it, you can see the temperature (of the soil). You can see the temperature of the open space and the mulching space. Because there is a lot of life in it (the latter), life is generating coolness; the activity is going on in the soil and it is facilitating a plant to take the nutrients and the plant gives good food for us. If there are no microbes, whatever material you are using in the soil, it does not give nutrition to the plant. When the soil is healthy, you get the good product - nutritious food. When you consume that, you are healthy! This connection - that should come for everyone! 

Whatever biomass can be degraded and given back to the soil, that is what soil is asking for. Now in the soils, the organic content in the soils is very very low -- all soil testing labs are speaking about it. So our contribution, the human contribution should be that whatever waste you are generating, just give back to the soil. Mother Earth is giving so much food for us. Whatever the residues that you are creating, just give back! The microbes will be happy. We think that we are working for so much to produce the food. No! It’s just one part of it. 100 parts of the work, they are working for us. 

Narsanna: I wanted to put in a slightly different way also. Who cares whether (the soil is) living or dead -- that is the issue?! Only mad people (gesturing to us) talk that kind of language! When you are not able to grow crops or certain crops are vulnerable to pests and diseases, that is the indicator of microbial life in the soil. If there are less problems on your farm, then the soil is taking care of herself, there is balance in nature -- that is the living soil. I cannot show every farmer, taking a spoon of soil and showing billions of insects and microbes in the soil -- not like that. 

But it is simple - we have to take care of soil by adding what is growing, what is next to you, or what is already produced. That is as far as the agriculture people are concerned. If there is no agriculture, then how to save the earth? That is also an issue. Not just by planting trees. The resources you are using -- don’t abuse them. Don’t burn it. Don’t throw it everywhere. You systematically arrange in such a way that it can go back to the soil. Indirectly, you are helping farming and mother earth by burying them, so more microbial multiplication is happening. 

They are the chefs and cooks. Whatever you think is happening or you are putting in, that is not even 1%! They are taking nutrition from different sources. Most of the trees available like the nitrogen fixers, the legumes, take 78% of the nitrogen available in the atmosphere, they absorb it and fix nitrogen in the soil. They are not depending on urea or DAP, or whatever the synthetic, artificial fertilizers you are providing - never! They have their own mechanism. They don’t believe or trust you -- the plants don’t. They are very clever. 

But we didn't understand the other side of what kind of life they are living. If you get into the microbial life system, it is miraculous. How they gather, how they do nice parties, how they dance, how they sing! It’s one of the biggest worlds. You’ll never see that kind of population anywhere on planet Earth. I think if you look up and down, above and below the ground, that world is totally different. If you don’t see that, you don't understand what life is. The microbes are the chefs and cooks of planet Earth today, to get some food for us. 

Gayathri: Beautiful. I love that microbes are the chefs of planet Earth. It’s like Narsanna to come up with these phrases that are memorable. I think maybe -- we have a few more minutes left and while we are waiting for some more questions to come in, I was wondering -- you have taught so many batches of PDC students and you have worked with thousands or lakhs of farmers and farmer households. Do you feel hopeful about change, because we are living in fairly obvious climate change times -- there are droughts and floods and forest fires, the world over, and definitely in India, cyclones and floods and so on. So do you feel hopeful generally because you've had the long view of so many years of working on the field and with folks everywhere -- farmers, as well as lots of urban people who are now coming to you, trying to understand how to change their lives in small ways. So do you feel hopeful? For those of us who are in urban areas, who are just looking to start in small ways, what are the things they could do? I think you've already talked about some of these, like composting and so on, but is there more you could share there?

Narsanna: Yeah. I mean, of course everybody has hopes. They have so many expectations but I have a little hope -- make it a possible hope. Otherwise if you have impossible hope, you can never meet it and you can never get satisfied. You will get disappointed. That's my whole idea about it. And looking at the people whom I am working with, whatever the experience I have got, I think I have hope definitely. But the hope again should be realistic, and I'm not looking for big hope. 

I think let us redefine and  rethink. We cannot change. I think climate change is one of the big slogans given out. But I think climate chaos is going on, more than change. I don't know what exactly it is. I think just you think and you do your job. Don't think only about climate change. But if we forget doing our jobs and keep thinking about climate change only, it will become chaos. That is one thing I wanted to say.  Then you redefine, rethink about things also. Those things are there in the 8th Copenhagen Climate Change Conference that I attended in 2009. I think water was the biggest issue in that. So in that, I didn't say much, but I started my talk with a saying that we all have in our families: when at times children spend a lot of money,  we say, "You're spending entire money like water." I think I changed that slogan simply to -- “Don't spend water like money!” 

So then it is giving two meanings. One is, we are living in capitalism; money is sufficient, but your health and your resources are all mortgaged. Health is mortgaged to hospitals, and our resources are mortgaged to MNCs, Corporates. How you would look at these issues -- that I think is very important. 

This message is for urban people: I think you watch what is happening with your every single paisa,  what and where it is being spent. I think you (need to) do it for the best cause of planting trees and helping others, by seed saving, small composting, having the exchange of resources, knowledge, materials.  Every week you meet somewhere, exchange your seeds and resources and materials, and information, skills and communication. Everything is possible. I think that is where you have to get satisfied. 

Instead of growing a money plant in your house, you plant something, which can flower and give some food and I think just linking things up with your hunger. Whatever you are eating, you should know your food. Where does it come from? How many things you are eating? How many types of food do you eat every day?  What is coming to your plate is important. If you know that, then I think definitely you realize how much hard work goes around that food.

I think you will definitely respect farmers. Think about who is growing them? How they are sending? Think what is your responsibility to do directly? Though you don't have land, you need a small space to start growing something. Do your own compost, grow your own food, and grow your own compost also. Grow your own soil, grow your own knowledge and your ethics. These are also important, not just only growing your own food. Own food is little limited, don't limit yourself -- get into different steps. That's what my message is particularly to the urban people. 

  You can have these kinds of things. If you don't have much space to do these kinds of things, do wherever there is this small opportunity. That's exactly what nature does. It does not waste a single opportunity. If the tree doesn’t grow, it will send grass. If grass doesn’t grow, it will grow a shrub. If the shrub doesn’t grow, it will grow a vine. I think -- try to use every opportunity. I think the urban people have limited areas, limited opportunities, so you use those single opportunities -- how to interact with life, plants, seeds, these are very, very interesting. I think you can do many things and many miracles in even small spaces. That would be my message. Thank you so much.

Gayathri: Thank you, Sir. Ma’am?

Padma: Like those who are living in the cities, they cannot be thinking of only growing food. Like even connecting to the farmers, those who are producing (the food). They should have a connection with those who are producing the food.  They should know how it is being grown. And then knowing what are the resources, how we can conserve them? Like electricity, water, heat, whatever things are available in the city, how can we conserve them? It is also a great contribution to nature. 

We can also reduce the use of air conditioners, and whatever other sources of energies you are using. Also think about how much chemicals you're using at home to clean things like Harpic, like dishwashing liquid and other similar things. Instead of using these stuff, use bio-enzymes, use things like soap nuts.  There are many alternative things, start thinking about those so that we don't produce so much waste.

  And also we can reduce our consumerism and can increase the conservation of  energy. These things have a great contribution to Mother Earth. And so we don't feel bad that we are not doing anything living in the cities. This is also a contribution to nature. And also like the kind of food and vegetables -- give priority to chemical-free, then people will also start growing the same kind of food. Eat seasonal food, don’t eat non-seasonal food, because if you eat the seasonal food, you will have resistance to many diseases. 

Gayathri: Yeah! Beautiful. Thank you so much. We are almost at the end of our time and as a final closing question, we generally ask all our speakers this, which is, how can we as a community of volunteers, the ServiceSpace community, support your work in the world? If something comes up now, you can tell us, or you can tell us any other time, but if there's anything we can do, do let us know. 

Narsanna: Whatever, you heard us say, try to spread that concept, principles or ethics, that’s what I expect from you. Thank you so much.

Gayathri: Thank you, Sir. Ma’am?

Padma: Same thing. Whatever you believe in, try to practice it, adopt it, and then promote it!

Gayathri: Thank you so much.  It has been such a rich call and, there's just so many nuggets, as always, that stand out for me, but, I think you both are just a living example, in terms of how to be the change: Do more, speak less, see everybody's resources and gifts and wisdom all the time, respect microbes as the chefs of the earth, above and below. And just so many beautiful nuggets that I'm just in gratitude for this time we've spent together.

I invite everyone to close this call with a minute of silence so that we can just sit with what we have heard and take that into our wider world. Thank you!