Living by design
Can life learn lessons from organic farming? Harsh Singh Lohit tells Lopez Design about his small farming venture, Aman Bagh
A big conflict for humanity today comes from our self-imposed constraints to constantly compete and succeed, thereby revoking a harmonious lifestyle. There is less time to experience the world as we are processing it simultaneously. With faster and faster communications and technology made available, the turnaround time for every action has become frighteningly instantaneous. Designing for better lives requires we purposely slow down the system, something over-achievers of our present age cannot imagine doing neither even comprehend. Are we letting life pass us by?
After 24 years in the software industry, Harsh Singh Lohit, founder of Headstrong made a U-turn to a slower course in life. In 2011, Lohit’s firm, which he founded in 1998, was acquired by Genpact. Lohit found himself in a sweet spot, financially independent, with the free choice to make a major life changing decision: he could leave the well-trodden corporate path if he so desired and walk into an unstructured, new life. The idea was tempting for Lohit who had spent childhood vacations on his paternal grandparents’ farm in Ghaziabad. He strongly related to the village in both a physical as well as sensory way, having empathy for its natural rhythm and ways. Lohit puts it very simply, “I’m looking to live a meaningful life, a fulfilling life, to be close to nature, working with people who work with soil and their hands.”
Lohit’s practical concerns for adopting this path are because it is his ideal way of life – healthy and balanced, also embracing grassroots activism where he is doing not just saying. But more so, he taps in on a deeper truth, which has been ignored in the 21st century. He talks about nostalgia, the need to be close to his own roots by smelling the upla burning, sitting next to the choolah, eating wholesome meals, being lulled by the sounds of cattle and rural life. As a child, he was sent for a month to the village to learn about the farmer’s life, get connected to his roots, living with the cycle of nature. He remembers the burning of cow dung, farming in the seasons and eating seasonal food. He treasures the endless love from his grandmother who was also called Doctor as she had great empathy and sympathy for people. It is this powerful reservoir of memory and place he returns to, its sights, smells and sounds.
Lohit does not sound ambitious like he wants to change the world, just that he needs to do what he does to be happy. In retrospect, he describes his corporate life as “working 18 hours a day, one incomplete day to the other.” His feeling of being condemned to a 9 to 5 job would resonate in many and he felt liberated to experiment in small farming with its natural pace and rhythm. “There was no grand plan. I just started to explore. Go where it takes you. I looked for land – 100 to 150 km of Delhi. If I had to make it an occupation and a passion, I had to do it everyday.” Yet, Lohit says he could have been as happy in the corporate world if he had found relationships without conflict, eliminated competition, opened up to happiness and love. Adversarial relationships lead to problems of attitude and the constant need to win over. Sound hip, unrealistic and dreamy? Of course, Lohit is speaking for a place that does not exist in the system, but he makes us question where the problem lies – not in the job itself, but our interpretation of it.
The location Lohit found was in the Aravalli Valley of Faridabad, serendipitously 10 km away from his hometown of Sihi. He started with an unambitious size of 6 acres, just enough to create a self-sufficient lifestyle. The endemic poverty and caste barriers in villages had left Lohit deeply disturbed and on his farm, the principle he follows peters through vegetation, animals and humans alike – to create diversity in the group. “We’ve got 850 trees, half are fruit – mango, kinnow (a hybrid orange), chikoo, guava, lemon, anar and sharifa as well as other trees. We have five families from different communities – all wonderful people. There is a fairly intensive but not extensive knowledge required of farming. There are ten heads of cattle – cows and bullocks. I am here for five-six days from 12.00 mid-day till the night. I go home for dinner. When I am here, I’m constantly looking at what’s going on.” Like most who have chosen the off-beat track, Lohit has little patience for fast food, plastic and consumerism. Yet, he acknowledges that these are trends hard to change. They are convenient and within arms reach to city people. Yet, in his own dogged way he has made a model for others to replicate, those who are interested. Says Lohit, “Aman Bagh, with 5+ acres of land, provides a model for sustainable farming for other small farmers and for consumers wanting to understand what ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ means. Aman Bagh and the peasants who work the farm are maturing in knowledge and now have the confidence of success to share our model with those who want to listen and learn.”Aman Bagh gets visitors, the best influencers being school children who are learning about climate change.
Social relationships are given importance – there is a Dalit girl who cooks the food and Muslim men who work on the farm. Organic and permaculture coexist and are dependent on each other. They don’t use the tractor on the farm. “Every area has its own micro climate and micro-ecology. We learn from the forest how to farm. We may mix up lemon, drumstick, vetiver, lemon grass and toor dal and make it bio-diverse, which also means I get different foods throughout the year.” The key line that grabs my attention, pivoting me, is something Lohit lets out, like a moment of truth, “Thousands of years, we have lived within these miles. The micro small peasant farmer who farms himself.” It makes me think of the reversal of our fortunes, how quick we have been to grab the sails to take shortcuts, erasing centuries of learning to become less self-sufficient. The foundation of farming, says Lohit, is healthy soil, one of the most difficult things to do in a hot arid climate. He explains, “Lots of organic matter makes the soil healthy. The forest is self-generating. Without watering most profuse form of plant world are suddenly realized – flowering trees.” One wishes and hopes for such a self-sufficient budding life and it must start with the soil of every vocation, reducing effort and returning to simpler choices.Written by Sujatha Shankar Kumar