Vermicomposting in India

Vermicomposting in India

IndiaVermiculture in India: An American’s Perspective

Editorial in Casting Call Vol 9, No. 3 by Peter Bogdanov

I can’t say I over-prepared for my visit to India as I customarily do when preparing, let’s say, for a lecture or presentation on something I want others to think I know something about. In the case of going to India to learn more about vermiculture, I figured most of what I might learn would come from observation more than advance preparation. Before leaving at the end of June 2004, I spent some time on the Internet gathering whatever information I could locate but soon realized that there had to be much more to the story than anyone could find after doing a Google search. I did find an outfit that claimed it was the largest producer of vermicompost in the world. So, intrigued and skeptical, I fired off an email to them asking for a tour—and they kindly responded with an invitation. Nevertheless, their claim about being “the largest producer” weighed uneasily within the recesses of my consciousness. I left for India hoping to get satisfying answers for my skepticism.

For several years India had held a fascination for me because of reports that much was going on and that Indians, like others in developing nations, seemed to take vermiculture more seriously than we do in the US. I read Stephen White’s coverage of his trip to India in Worm Digest and met Dr. Uday S. Bhawalkar who spoke at the First [only, and last] International Worm Growers Association Summit in May 1996 in Carlsbad, CA. I had even forked out a whopping $300 for the formidable and controversial 280-page Bhawalkar “dissertation,” entitled Vermiculture Ecotechnology, in which Uday contends that redworms such as Eisenia fetida are really pests and that thermophilic composting is a wasteful form of bio-incineration. [I was able to personally visit the now extremely controversial Bhawalkar at his home in Pune in July 2004 and hope to update readers in a future issue of this newsletter.] I knew before going to India that Dr. Bhawalkar had moved on into something he considered an “advanced” form of vermiculture, yet his “method” did not involve earthworms but a certain product he developed. So now, on the eve of my trip to India, I found myself doubly skeptical about what I would see when I got there.

In September, 2000 I met two Indian professors, Dr. Hemangee Jambhekar of the Institute of Organic Farming and Rural Training in Pune and Dr. Radha D. Kale of the Dept. of Zoology, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, India at Mary Appelhof’s Vermillennium in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It crossed my mind to pay them a visit while I was in India to see what I could learn. But my desire was more in the area of field application than it was in sitting in the office of a university professor, so I chose to contact the Morarka Foundation in Jaipur, Rajasthan, a city of slightly less than two-and-a-half million in a state of 56.47 million. The details of that visit (and satisfaction of at least part of my skepticism) are told elsewhere in this newsletter.

Before my trip to India, Mary Appelhof suggested that I read some articles about vermicomposting projects conducted in the state of Karnataka from 1996-1998 that created sustainable livelihoods, particularly for women. These reports were heartening; vermiculture was making a social impact on a meaningful level. [see and] One story told about Farida Banu, a 30-year old Muslim woman who regularly produces about 400 kg (880 lbs.) of vermicompost per month. She said, “From the profits we have earned we have purchased two cows and two buffaloes…there is nothing which is difficult in this. If we work hard we can earn more.” Her average monthly earning from vermicomposting is around 1150 rupees which helps meet the family’s need of 3000 rupees per month. She says that her business in producing vermicompost “certainly has brought changes in our lifestyle and in our family. We did not have even a mat to offer to anyone who visited our house. People used to hesitate to come to our house. We used to sleep on gunnysacks. Today, we have purchased mats and proudly offer them to visitors. Villagers and officials are regularly visiting our house and are appreciating our enterprise. My brothers have improved.” The family’s image, she says, has also dramatically changed. “Earlier we used to look for work as household help or in agricultural labor. We had nothing to eat. People used to offer us stale food—sometimes three days old. We had no other choice other than to accept it. Today, the situation has dramatically changed. Our family eats two square meals with dignity and pride with our own hard earning. People today talk to us with respect.”

Now this is encouraging news!

I couldn’t confirm all that I was told about the extensiveness of the practice of vermiculture throughout India. But who could not be impressed with the Morarka Foundation’s claim (see Highlights from 2002-2003 in this newsletter) that nearly 200,000 farmers engage in producing worm castings and about 260,000 farmers actually have used vermicompost? Compared to any other reports we have heard from elsewhere in the world, these numbers are truly astonishing. This alone should turn some heads in their direction to inquire what the fuss is all about.

I’m not ready to make any statements that “We should be doing things the way the Indians are doing them,” because our cultures are so vastly different. Some 60-70% of Indians live in rural areas and are likely engaged directly in some form of agriculture. And while the story of Farina Banu is encouraging in that it demonstrates that there is a market for vermicompost and producers of it (particularly women) can benefit financially, her story is yet only about working hard in a business that has been somewhat profitable. It doesn’t make the case that vermicompost is either a beneficial, desirable, or necessary commodity in agriculture and/or in waste management. We have more pieces of a bigger puzzle to put into place in order to fill out the complete story.

I’m glad for what I learned in the short time I was in India. I hope to return there someday soon and to travel elsewhere in Asia to discover more about vermiculture’s potential outside the US. For now, I have been greatly enriched to see that the process not only works but improves lives as well as soil, plants and crop yields. That’s the really encouraging news. We may continue to struggle with our own set of challenges as we try to convince westerners of vermiculture’s benefit. But as we do so, we can look at our colleagues across the seas and see that, at least for some, vermiculture makes a qualitative difference in the lives they lead.