Updated: Nov 5, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic in India has brought disruption not only to the public health system but also to many other organised and unorganised sectors. Restrictions to the transport system posed significant restrictions on the movement of goods and people involved in service sectors. The slogan that COVID-19 brought – ‘break the chain’ – to contain virus transmission, was very quickly experienced in the supply chain of essential commodities. Due to India's population density and its dependence on neighbouring states and far-away places for the supply of everyday essentials, cities have been the worst affected during the lockdown.
People participating in informal labour and who rely largely either on the public distribution system or local markets had to adopt various coping strategies. People from urban and rural areas have been experiencing continuous multi-month lockdowns, practising social distancing, and dealing with disruption to food supply chains. COVID-19 has forced the food system to realign itself at both ends – consumers as well as producers. Promoting urban agriculture (UA) can realign demand and supply in such times. Recently, UA has been in the spotlight as COVID-19 broke down food supply chains and livelihoods in cities.
What can urban agriculture offer?
UA has been recognised as a way to enhance urban sustainability, improve environmental health and safety, and promote material and emotional human wellbeing. Multifunctional UA can bolster the resilience of social and environmental systems. It may also help addressing urban challenges such as unemployment, malnutrition, poverty, inefficient resource use, and water and air pollution. UA can transform urban communities from just consumers to ‘prosumers’, thereby enhancing their capacity to withstand compounding shocks such as COVID-19.
While urban communities are increasingly involved in scaling UA through innovative, bottom-up initiatives, policy instruments supporting UA are conspicuously absent in India. Policy initiatives for UA will need an integrative approach encompassing urban sustainability in its three pillars - economic, ecological and social - with varied emphasis based on location (e.g. rooftop, open spaces, empty plots) and the type of practitioners (e.g. individual, institutions, collectives).
A holistic approach to urban agriculture
Farming, irrespective of a rural or urban location, can be successfully adopted if four essential elements are fulfilled – land, labour, inputs (including water), and knowledge support. In the context of UA, urban planning will have to play a key role in ensuring the provision of land for UA practices. Urban planners should recognise UA as an important land use category and should determine the minimum threshold size for a given population and natural resources. Spaces like backyards, empty plots, rooftops, and vertical walls can be recognised as ‘urban agriculture’ land use and can be put to food production based on suitability.
In metropolitan cities across India, all these examples are quite visible, especially rooftop gardens. In Bangalore, Manjula has a mutual agreement with the owner of an adjacent empty plot for using it to grow vegetables. For the past 8 years, Manjula’s family regularly harvests fresh vegetables, fruits, flowers, herbs, and roots from their plot. They also share the produce with their neighbours.
A variety of plants grown on neighbouring empty plot between two houses.
Urban areas also have a great potential to provide organic manure. Ward-level compost units can ensure an uninterrupted supply of compost for farming plots within the same ward. Household-level composting is being increasingly practiced in Bangalore, along with gardening activities. A Pune-based urban farmer suggests that “urban farming is not about growing good crop as much as about growing good soil”. And to grow good soil he took up the initiative of community composting.
Compost setup on a terrace
Execution and maintenance of urban agriculture initiatives will demand manpower. A scheme that guarantees urban employment (a parallel of rural employment) can help in providing this manpower. UA can provide avenues for income generation for semi-skilled and unskilled workers required for preparing and maintaining roof-top gardens, open farms, compost units, and other farm operations. Skilled workers like engineers and agronomists will also be required, not only for guiding practitioners in setting up sustainable UA but also for supervising, monitoring and evaluating safety measures. Again, another example from Bangalore is an enterprise called Urban Mali. The enterprise has a network of garden specialists. They provide services to design, set-up and maintain urban gardens based on individual needs. Such initiatives are supported by government schemes that can address the manpower issue in urban farming initiatives.
The city corporation or state departments like agriculture, horticulture and urban planning can formulate a dedicated division for UA for imparting knowledge and the propagation of UA related schemes. The involvement of the education department will also help in bringing schools and colleges together to engage in UA activities. This will serve two purposes – innovative outdoor lessons for students and spreading awareness of the benefits of UA. Ward-level committees and resident’s welfare associations can engage in the planning and maintenance of community farming plots. Collaboration with NGOs and civil society organisations in promoting and imparting training on UA will help scaling up. Garden City Farmers is one such NGO in Bangalore that trains urbanites in setting up urban farms and connects many enthusiasts who then exchange ideas, resources and knowledge regularly through social media. A bi-annual event titled 'Oota From Your Thota' (translates to Food From Your Garden) is one such platform where urban farmers and other related stakeholders come to learn from each other.
Urban agriculture can significantly contribute to realise the idea of ‘atma-nirbhar’ (self-reliance) that was put forth as a way to mitigate the COVID crisis in Indian cities. Similarly, the slogan of ‘vocal for local’ perfectly suits the objectives of UA. Thus, the post-pandemic period is highly timely to realign the approach and strategy to urban farming initiatives.
Author: Sheetal Patil
Azim Premji University, Bangalore
Gangopadhyay S G (2011) Good Practice Urban Agriculture and Better Built Environment in India. Institute of Town Planners, India Journal, 8: 3(21-26).
Lal R (2020) Home gardening and urban agriculture for advancing food and nutritional security in response to COVID-19 pandemic. Food Security (LINK).
Sanye-Mengual et al (2019) How can Innovation in Urban Agriculture Contribute to Sustainability? A Characterisation and Evaluation Study from Five Western European Cities. Sustainability, 11-4221.