The logic of importing lowly dung

  • 14/04/1994

THE largely deprecatory reports in the Indian media about the proposed import of Dutch dung have missed a key point. The idea seems to sound so outlandish because dung is a lowly thing in the perception of the modern Indian middle class. But if India can import chemical fertilisers, which adversely affect the soil, why can't it import something that is good for its soil? In fact, if Indian's foreign trade priorities were correct, dung imports would get higher priority than video cassette recorders or components for Maruti cars -- standard items of import.

If there is any reason not to import dung -- other than that it may bring in dangerous organisms -- it is that India should be concentrating on producing more dung itself. There is no denying that India has a shortage of manure. According to a study which used the cattle census estimates of 1972, India produces about 575 million tonnes of usable dung. Energy studies estimate that 70-80 million tonnes of dung are burnt each year as fuel, especially in the rural areas. Indian cattle can produce substantial quantities of milk, animal power and dung, if fed properly.

Contrasting this fecundity with a starker reality begs a question: why is over a third of India's land lying waste? Degraded grasslands and forest lands have to be brought under a good green cover to improve the local economy of Indian villages, based on biomass-plant and animal-products. During the '80s, several Indian villages formed community-level organisations to manage their environment and proved that once land is carefully protected and used properly, it regenerates very rapidly.

Grass production keeps increasing for several years. And when trees come up, there are leaves available for feeding cattle during the dry season. And dung supply increases exponentially with fodder supply. Unfortunately, a perennial shortage of fodder has reduced Indian cattle today to a near-starvation state. And whenever it rains, this crisis turns into an emergency.

Instead of resorting to importing dung to sort out the crisis, India should concentrate on improving its environment and village economy through community management systems. If it were to do this, the country can easily increase its dung production from 500-600 million tonnes to 1,000-1,500 million tonnes a year in a span of 5-10 years. Dung imports of 7-10 million tonnes would be like a drop in the ocean. If we fail to green our land, however, Dutch dung may turn out to be our only salvation. We hope better sense will prevail.