By Vaishnavi Rathore 

Zero Budget Natural Farming is a fairly self-explanatory term. An alternative to conventional farming, ZBNF claims to have almost negligible investment in farming by adopting chemical-free agriculture, which are drawn from traditional methods of farming. Put together in mid-1990s by Mr Subhash Palekar, a farmer from Maharasthra, the efforts have spread aggressively to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and other states of Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Kerala.

Some farmers seem to have benefitted from the approach. A study in Andhra Pradesh compared the cost of biological and chemical inputs to find that the cost of ZBNF inputs per acre was Rs 1706 while that of non-ZBNF inputs turned out to be Rs 5361 for paddy crop; ZBNF methods were helping farmers save Rs 3655/ acre.  

However, when the term regained spotlight during the Budget speech by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in July with her mentioning the need to go “back to basics” with ZBNF, scientists from National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) immediately responded by terming it as an “unproven” technology. With that, replicating the model of ZBNF seems to require a re-assessment. Whether this one size solution of ZBNF can fit all and rejuvenate the agricultural sector is a big question mark.

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Is it Really Zero Budget?

The Government of Andhra Pradesh has been amongst the few who have attempted to scale the initiative up. Their objective was to ensure that every single farmer is able to come out of the present chemical input-based agriculture and practice climate change resilient, low cost natural farming. To implement ZBNF, they established a para-statal agency, which is an agency wholly or partly owned by the government, by the name of Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), which literally translates to ‘Farmer Empowerment Organisation’.  

The official website of Andhra Pradesh’s ZBNF aims to reach 691 Gram Panchayats by 2022, impacting 35 Lakh farmers. By 2027, they plan to scale up enough to cover the entire cultivable area of the state. To manage this heavy task, they estimate a budget of Rs 16,452 crores, a large amount for a project on Zero budget farming; the irony is difficult to miss.

“More than being ironic, it is indicative of the deep rooted strategy of the Naidu administration, which viewed farming as global investment opportunity,” says Leo Saldanha who works with the Bengaluru-based Environment Support Group. “Here, UN agencies, foreign financial institutions and private foundations worked through RySS in promoting a model in which farmers, local governments and even the Legislature have had little or no say.”  In this case, even the Agriculture Department was sidestepped comprehensively. 



While the funds seem to be to cover the costs of creating an ecosystem to support this type of farming through capacity building, institution building and funds to farmers’ institutions, one time subsidies, certification, marketing capacity building etc., it misses out a caveat: there is no allocation to be paid directly to a farmer, specifically supporting them with hand holding during the initial shift.

Concerns on lack of transparency in financials were raised in a letter signed by Leo Saldanha and other signatories including Vandana Shiva from Navdanya, P. Sainath, Journalist and Bittu Sahgal, Editor of Sanctuary Magazine who wrote to the Deputy Chairman of RySS in September 2018. While in its response, the Deputy Chairman mentions that “This is required for scaling up the programme across the state…and to provide continuous handholding support of 3 to 5 years to each farmer till they transit to natural farming”, there is no mention of this component in the budget details on the website. Officially, then, this kind of support that is required during the initial slump in production and associated economic loss still does not exist to be addressed.

Vulnerable to Risks

In a paper authored by Leo Saldanha, he mentions that CM Chandrababu Naidu spoke at the United Nations Headquarters on the theme ‘Financing Sustainable Agriculture Landscapes-Global Challenges and Opportunities.’ In his speech, he said that he travelled to New York in search of collaboration and to seek ‘finance, philanthropy, market sharing’, so that ZBNF concept could be taken on ‘a fast track to a global community.’ But a highly financialised model like this has political and economic implications that transfer risks that accompany international demands and prices upon farmers.


If ZBNF model experiences a nation-wide scale-up, it needs to move away from a centralised, didactic and a top-down approach like that of the Green Revolution or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) based farming.  These allowed for the capture of food and farming spaces, which should instead be guided by farmers and consumers.   

 “The horrific scale and intensity of farm suicides suggest that the prevailing highly financialised and proprietary model of industrial farming is collapsing, and the burden of its failures are borne primarily by farmers,” says Leo.

What instead ought to be focussed on is what the Andhra Pradesh ZBNF website claims, but does not seem to practice: “this paradigm relies on self-reliance”. The key aim of ZBNF is to create autonomy of the farmers, which demands a strong role of Panchayats, and involving farmers and consumers in decision making.

What’s in a Name?

ZBNF, Chemical-free farming, organic farming, Jaivik Krishi—these are a few terms which are all sides of the same coin.  But regardless, there is an air of exclusivity around ZBNF.  In a paper by Daniel Muenster, where the author physically attended some workshops by Mr. Palekar, the author quotes Mr. Palekar’s rejection of all alternative farming. “All these techniques are alternative techniques, but unnatural and non-scientific techniques,” Palekar is quoted saying. According to him, “what is natural, it will not be certified by Agriculture University or Organic University or any third party.”

This exclusivity is dangerous; even when all alternative farming may be standing to promote natural farming and making input costs for farmers lower, the cause would get lost in the war of terms. Not only that, it rejects and ignores groups of farmers practising other agro-ecological methods available. Moreover, there exists data to validate organic or agro-ecology systems, which ZBNF is currently being criticised for not having.

 One-Size Fit all Solution?

The country’s agrarian crisis is situated in diverse ecological, agro-economic and social conditions. It requires an equally complex and diverse solution. Undoubtedly, promoting ZBNF as a one-size-fits-all solution would not help.

ZBNF is one of the many agro-ecological methods available, and should be adopted where it is appropriate. As people become more aware of the irreversible and adverse impacts of chemical, hybrid and GMO based farming, the government should support opening up spaces in Panchayats for farmers to cooperatively transition to any of the many agro-ecological methods that are available, based upon what is appropriate locally.

 “By itself, ZBNF should not be promoted as a solution to the diverse agronomic conditions of India,” says Leo. 

“All complex decisions are best take collaboratively and cooperatively, and deeply democratic decision making is the best methodology we now have for making such choices.

This piece is co-published by The Bastion and Mongabay-India


  1. Sandeep,
    Since we have spoken about this multiple times and across various platforms, I suppose for now it is best to leave this discussion here, since you do not want to leave your pre-conceived lens of me being a propogandist and working supremely hard to taint ZBNF.
    Just wondering–my other article is ONLY about HOW AMAZING ZBNF is, yet you find that troublesome? Sometimes i get confused if you really read articles or not… but I am not willing to get into this at all for now.
    I too, leave you at your fate here, and hoping you actually read things before you sit down to invest so much time calling out spine-less journalists! 🙂 –Vaishnavi

  2. A terrible propaganda piece, and a misdirected one. The left ecosystem in India is clueless what it is fighting. This article is one excellent example of that.

    Is AgroEcology the need of the hour, YES! Is it necessary to fight global warming, YES! Is it necessary to fight Climate change, YES! Is it necessary to break the stranglehold of the chemical industry over the farm sector, YES! Then why are these folks opposing it?

    There is one Leo Saldhanha who is barking relentlessly about something which he himself is not clear about, and all this backscratching friends across various left networks start barking in unison, not questioning the logic or the basis for it. And that shows why the left ecosystem is being driven into insignificance.

    Here is a simple video which shows how the UN is appreciating the grass root impact ZBNF is having among farmers in helping them shift away from chemicals to natural methods.

    Over 25 years, Padmashri Subhash Palekar has been working tirelessly training lakhs of farmers in switching to eco friendly methods of farming, which also makes them self reliant, and gets rid of the deep-rooted chemical industrial lobby. But these self professed activists have a problem with that?

    Apart from the questions about the finances adopted by the Andhra Govt is scaling it up, I don’t see how ZBNF can be faulted. Also, these activists do not realise that what Andhra is doing is just one instance of scaling up. ZBNF is adopted by over 5 lakh farmers and successfully helped them transform their lives, while also helping recover soils, water table and biodiversity, as well as restore the ecology of their villages and help entire farmer communities unplug from the exploitative chemicals industry supply chain.

    All the arguments against ZBNF are not only childish, they are motivated and misdirected. I don’t know if these activists are ill-intentioned or plain stupid.

    The criticism of Subhash Palekar’s statements are so juvenile. He details every criticism of other methods of farming with detailed reasoning. But every one who criticises Palekar, avoids examining the arguments, and only adopts posturing!

    ZBNf is a diverse methodology that is adapted by farmers to their local ecosystems, and is flexible enough to allow for all geographies and weather conditions. One has to first learn, understand and then attempt to criticise.

    This article is unfortunately a propaganda piece, that can be characterised as ill-educated rants by some jokers.

    • Hello Sandeep, thanks for writing in! My entire piece does not opposs ZBNF, so it would be nice if you could point out exactly what you are finding problematic, and I’ll be happy to have a good conversation and discussion around it, which was my suggestion the last time you posted a comment too. 🙂


      • Ok, let me ask you, apart from the fact that Leo is running a campaign against ZBNF, is there any reason why you wrote this piece? that will answer your question.. WHAT WAS THE PRESSING NEED TO WRITE THIS ARTICLE? 😀

        The title is propaganda, the quotes in it are purely malicious propaganda. You have only carried quotes that are anti-ZBNF. Where is the balance? I don’t see any quote from Subhash Palekar, or from any of the millions of farmers practising ZBNF? Isn’t it too obvious?

        more pertinently:



        Do you even know what you are writing about?

        I guess these answer all your questions.. 🙂



        • To answer some of your accusastions, Sandeep, I can see that you missed out the very second paragraph in the piece that sites a study which shows that ZBNF HAS HELPED FARMERS IN ANDHRA PRADESH. You can have a look again, if you’d like. Secondly, if you find problems with Leo Saldanha, I am sure you would have seen that the article also mentions National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) which claimed that the technology was “unproven”. There are many more like Vandana Shiva, P Sainath etc. who have been signatories on the letter that raised concerns; if you have personal grudges with Mr. Saldanah, I don’t think the best way is to document it on a comment on an article.

          The basic question is, is it really zero budget farming, when you have a budget of over 16,000 crores? Those figures are not from any “propogandists” but rather from the official website of Andhra Pradesh.
          I did try to get in touch with Mr. Palekar, but that did not work out since I did not hear anything back.
          And about visiting places with ZBNF, yes I did, but I guess for you it would not classify as ZBNF as long as it is a farm not in AP an under Mr. Palekar. This kind of exclusivity is dangerous, I believe, and is also something that I point out to in the article.

          The problem is not with ZBNF, nowhere does the article say that. The problem will emerge if we think this is the one solution for all the problems, and for all types of farming. Farming, which you must be aware of, is very contextual to geographical regions, and hence, requires contextual solutions. One single solution—whether ZBNF or any other—will not help the cause.

          About interviewing farmers who do ZBNF: here is another story I did:


          • that’s a sad attempt at redeeming yourselves, but sorry! One line about SPNF in Andhra, and then a pile of ignorant comments and opinions against SPNF by some obviously motivated folks… and you call that a balanced article? As a journalist pretending to be investigative, are you naive enough to think that Govt institutions such as NAAS which have destroyed farmers over the past decades supporting the ‘Green’ chemical and poison revolution, are not under the control of chemical industry lobbyists, and will not allow any method that requires no inputs to be purchased from their industry?

            The article, for anyone who reads it, has only one objective, to defame or discredit Zero Budget Natural Farming.

            HOW YOU MISSED THE OBVIOUS: ZBNF is not a Govt program, it is a technology utilised by lakhs of farmers across the country. It does not refer to what the andhra govt is doing: that is the ‘Andhra ZBNF’. “ZBNF refers to a technology of farming without or with minimal inputs”. It has nothing to do with the andhra govt’s program. The Andhra govt may have adopted it as one of the technologies in their program.

            If the Andhra Govt has launched a scheme to spends16K Cr for conducting trainings or to set up producer groups or marketing infra, , why should you badmouth the technology used for farming? Badmouth the Govt. and their scheme. Your headline should be ‘scheme by Andhra Govt’ not ‘ZBNF’. You see how you have wrongly framed the whole issue?

            If you lack the integrity or spine to admit that this article is part of an orchestrated propaganda campaign, the whole discussion is a non-starter right? 🙂

            For your information, ZBNF is being practised by farmers in all geographies and climatic zones across India, and even in other countries, and is flexible to adapt to all of them. If you don’t know this, you have done no ‘research’! You need to first research ZBNF before you write about it, or to use the term.

            All the rest of your lame excuses, are simply that. Not being able to contact Subhash Palekar, someone whose phone is always available for farmers from across the country to call, that is the silliest excuse ever! Here is his no: +91 98503 52745 , go ahead, call him.

            I read your other article too, you suffer from an already adopted filter with all this propaganda in your head, so you wont see things in balance, or as they are… You have a reductionist approach, and you clearly lack RESEARCH….. Your sample size is pitiable… will take some time for you see things in a holistic manner… Good Luck!

            Am signing out, and leaving you to your fate…. Good Bye!


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