From cotton to khadi

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Being immersed in Wardha, India for two weeks is an unforgettable experience

Before setting off for India, I did not quite know what to expect. This is the first time I travelled to India and felt ‘blind’ in terms of visiting this new country.

Reflecting back, I see this as a good thing as many times our preconceived ideas influence what we take in and how we experience a country, so my mind was completely open to a new, immersive learning experience. I think that these wise words from Gandhi encompasses the best way to approach a journey such as this: “Man is neither mere intellect, nor the gross animal body, not the heart or soul alone. A proper and harmonious combination of all the three is required for the making of the whole man and constitutes the true economics of education.”

The immersive learning journey to Wardha, India was primarily focused on regenerative food systems. Yet what we also learned is how the people walking this journey received healing in some way or another, by regaining their livelihoods and rebuilding community that was once lost.

Gandhi’s Wardha

Wardha is a bustling city. Many co-operatives and small businesses exist, and this is also where Dharamitra is based – our host facilitators for this journey. Dharamitra works with local farmers, training them in organic farming methods, providing advice and encouraging kitchen gardens amongst villages. The approach followed by Dharamitra is to use simple, inexpensive technologies that will benefit farmers which they can adopt using only what they have, to save costs and bring about sustainable change.

The people of Wardha follow the Gandhian way of living. This entails working hard, only accumulating what you need, not wasting anything (especially food), building community, self-reliance, vegetarianism and living in harmony with nature and animals.

According to many locals, the biggest contribution Gandhi made was liberating people by bringing back khadi. The time Gandhi spent in Wardha, at the Sevagram Ashram, many great historical political moments happened, yet his biggest focus was to free the Indian people by bringing khadi back. By showing the nation that you can grow your own cotton and then make your own cloth for clothes and household use, he gave the people new hope and pride that India is a nation that can look after itself.

Khadi symbolised the need and importance of indigenous manufactured goods, and as Gandhi stated: “Every village shall plant and harvest its own raw-materials for yarn, every woman and man shall engage in spinning and every village shall weave whatever is needed for its own use. Swaraj (self-rule) without Swadeshi (country made goods) is a lifeless corpse and if Swadeshi is the soul of Swaraj, khadi is the essence of Swadeshi”.

Today khadi is known as the flag of revolution and is a symbol for all Indians of the freedom they achieved by boycotting British cloth imposed on them many years ago.

From cotton to khadi

Learning about the cotton industry, especially BT cotton versus organic cotton, was very interesting. The cotton industry is the primary reason why more than 300 000 Indian farmers have committed suicide the past 15 years. Many farmers shifted from food crops to cash crops when they heard the promises of what the increased cotton yields could deliver economically, while in the process giving up their independent livelihoods. The story around BT cotton in India is a long and complicated one, and even though clear evidence exists that the long-term investment in BT cotton, its related chemical fertilisers and pesticide has detrimental effects on farmers’ livelihoods, 90% of cotton farmers in India make use of BT cotton.

Yet slowly but surely places like Dharamitra are showing farmers that there is another way. Organic cotton is in demand and is purchased at a higher price, which helps to persuade farmers to return to organic. Buy showing farmers how to make use of the natural environment around them to produce organic fertilisers and pesticides, at very little or no cost, the economic benefit speaks for itself.

Organic cotton is used by spinning and weaving co-operatives, focused on using indigenous Desi cotton and employing local women as spinners and weavers. The raw cotton is extremely soft, such a beautiful product. While looking at the cotton I think that there are so many complexities in the world, in India, it is difficult to put things in terms that make sense. Threading cotton is hard, manual work for a meagre income, yet it is empowering many women in Wardha to make a small income, who might have been worse off otherwise. These women complete the journey of cotton to khadi, of finding purpose in a community, of finding freedom in cloth.

A relationship with cows

Cows are everywhere in India! They are so in tune with their environment and the bustle around them, that not once did I see any cow in distress – even when crossing the highway.

It was not until we learned about the relationship farmers and households have with cows, that I fully comprehended the interdependency. Every now and then I would see a person taking food for a resting cow, rubbing its head, making a small bow and then returning back from whence they came.

Apart from the spiritual connection, Indians revere cows because they give back more than they take. Cows give milk, butter, ghee, cheese, urine and dung – all of which are used by humans either for nourishment or growing food. Bulls are used for transport purposes and to plough the lands. And in turn humans feed the cows and provide shelter if needed.

Coming back to milk. Realising the power of collective bargaining, various milk co-operatives can be found in Wardha, and milk farmers live in close proximity to their cows. The village we visited consisted out of 126 families, 120 of which are milk farmers and they are all part of the same co-operative. There are 800 people and 1000 cows in this village – on average 15 000 litres of milk is produced every day.

Milk distribution in India is something to witness. The process from milking the cow to delivering fresh milk at people’s houses, is a finely timed daily practise and it all happens in a matter of hours.

Everything is done outdoors – white streams of raw milk flow from one container to the next, samples are taken for quality purposes and to determine fat content, ending with milk canisters that are loaded onto all sorts of transport ranging from tuk-tuks to bicycles for delivery to the end consumer. This type of milk is not pasteurised, and consumers will first boil the milk at home before consumption. The process is also not mechanical – it is very involving and connects people to milk beautifully.

Life giving soil

Look after the mother and the baby will be healthy. This metaphor was used by Dr Tarak Kate from Dharamitra when he spoke about our relationship to soil. “Soil is life giving. Farmers need to cherish and care for the soil, as nature intended, by working with nature, because then the seed will fertilise and grow strong,” explained Dr Kate.

If you look at the soil in Wardha it is easy to understand why everything grows in abundance. Rich, dark soil like I have never seen before. Unfortunately when farmers switched to cash crops and started using chemical fertilisers for the soil, much of the soil health deteriorated because of loss of organic biomass. This has resulted in the complex economic, ecological and social impacts brought about by the Green Revolution.

One of the social consequences that Dharamitra is trying to address, is helping people to increase food and nutritional security for their families. This they do by encouraging the establishment of kitchen gardens. A family shared with us how, by having a kitchen garden, it helped them to save 2/3 of what they use to spend on food. Nutritionally the family is also healthier.

Soil health restoration and fertility regeneration is necessary to restore the soil quality of the land. This is applicable not only in India but in many other countries. The more biomass put back into the soil, the healthier the top layer will be and the more water is retained. When the balance in the soil is restored and the entire immediate ecosystem is in balance, agro-biodiversity manifests. This creates the ideal environment for not

The Indian culture is colourful, amicable and hospitable. People are eager to assist and just want to make sure that guests are comfortable and well looked after. As foreigners, we did draw lots of attention, but it was always in a friendly manner or from a curious distance away.

I fondly remember the two ladies that prepared all our meals. Shraddha and Lata were like mothers to us. They prepared delicious food three times a day, always with smiles on their faces. Even though we couldn’t speak each other’s languages, bonds and friendships were formed that will not be forgotten.

Every house or farm we visited, chai was enjoyed while exchanging information and stories – we always felt very welcome wherever we went. With each story our connection to this part of India grew deeper, and our understanding and appreciation of the surrounding context also deepened.

For the 12 of us immersed together, curious travelling companions, this was an experience none of us will forget.