HE is better known as Dr Pumpkin and Mr Grapes. Professionally, he is the country's foremost agronomist. Shripad A. Dabholkar denies all this. "I am not an agronomist. Just an ordinary social scientist," he says. A scientist who pioneered the 1960s grape revolution in Maharashtra, when vines proliferated—from the monopolising Nashik and Baramati districts—into the state's drought-blighted parts that today yield Rs 5 crore worth of grapes. A fact you confront as soon as you reach his house in Kolhapur, which screams publicity for his forthcoming book, Plenty for All. Where rust-red pineapples and golden cane grow alongside. As also bamboo reeds and tiny trees which in season are pregnant with fruits and vegetables—papaya, custard apple, aphus mango, sweet lime, tomatoes, beans and lemon—sandalwood and lavender. The magician further rakes his fingers through the soft, darkly-rich loam and produces potatoes and other tubers. Plenty for all. And as fecund as his 73-year-old life.
Even today tales of Dabholkar's 1967 breakthrough, when he prodigiously cajoled 17 grape-bunches to crowd on a single cane, continue to reap international recognition, like with the Euro Fruits award. But typically, he says: "The grape revolution is only one part of the entire Prayog Pariwar movement (a decentralised education system that has actual experiments and life's experiences for its databank). In fact, many make me out to be a terrace-garden specialist! But I am trying to live as the Last Man, on minimal resources. I am now focusing on wasteland, working on the 10-gunta land experiment."
Dabholkar not only believes, but has proved that a family can subsist on an ordinary 100 sq mt plot solely by harnessing the energy of the sun, tapping the recycling process and working in tandem with nature's energy chain. The government's only commitment should be in meeting the family's daily minimum requirement of 1,000 litres of water. For the rest, "the waste water generated by the family will suffice for farming if one knows the rules of nature and listens to them constantly. There is almost a mathematical precision in its laws which, if followed, will provide plenty for all." An MA in Mathematics, he should know.
Dabholkar's dream is now being transplanted in Busaver and other centres. Natueco culture, the new farming concept introduced by Prayog Pariwar, "is not natural or organic farming", he notes. "In Natueco culture, we farm by knowing nature more and better through critical scientific inquiries and experiments. It is an ever-growing tryst between man and nature and is no way related to today's commercial techniques of farming." He has also rewritten the agro-lexicon by introducing words like techniracy (technical literacy), sagriculture (sun science in agriculture) and venturananda (one who delights in discovering ventures). The last is yet another sobriquet conferred on him by Sevagram Gandhians.
Playwright Vijay Tendulkar discovered this quiet genius more by accident than by design when he decided to make a film on a revolutionary agricultural scientist. "I've always avoided the media, shunned financial grants because they exert an artificial control. When Tendulkar came to film me, he was amazed that he hadn't heard of my work till then. Now he is nodal in the publication of my book. With me things have happened more by chance than with planning."
As was his encounter with international expert Ivan Illiych in 1970, which introduced him to conference circuits and the information web abroad. "My thinking was appreciated 20 years ago abroad," Dabholkar points out, an unstated rebuke in his voice. He remembers, without rancour, how when his grape-growers overran rural Maharashtra with luscious fruit, an impressed bureaucrat had organised a meeting with him, but later cancelled it following virulent objections against a "mathematics graduate being allowed to discuss agriculture".
His life, like his assays, has been simple but different. He recounts how his neighbours indulgently laughed at his persistence in growing plumb prize water-melons in a scant bucketful of soil in his backyard at Gargoti. Education was never a goal for Dabholkar since he fiercely believed in Tagore's adage that real education must make us "vitally savage but mentally civilised".
So Dabholkar set out on a voracious self-study of the sciences, including psychology, medicine, anthropology, political science, yoga and philosophy. He also formed the Shastra Sidhi Sadhanalay, an organisation for the like-minded to meet and brainstorm. His advocate father and nine siblings supported his belief, culled and reaffirmed through the Quit India Movement, that "it was a sin to build an individual academic career in a country of ignorance and slavery". Mai Samachar, Dabholkar's news bulletin, which threads about 100 family members over three generations, is a source of "family pride and warmth".
Armed with will-power, chalk-and-board and an MA in Mathematics, the young Dabholkar decided to deschool education with his "open self-study courses", which encouraged participation from school dropouts and elderly women through an information card system. Here the student was often the teacher, depending on the information he had to share. It made Dabholkar self-sufficient and gave him "remuneration more than the pay drawn by contemporary college principals nearby".
BUT since any permanent institutional form choked his free spirit, Dabholkar shut down the course in 1958 and joined the New Delhi-sponsored Mouni Vidyapeeth experiment, founded by Dabholkar's mentor and educationist, Dr J.P. Naik, where "covering the syllabi rested with the learner and the guide friend" and where a student could, without fee, "acquire coveted degrees by studying in their free time".
His flash report in 1966 in the Marathi magazine Kirloskar, on mining nature's cache through innovative experiments, struck a responsive chord among many. In a year's time, Dabholkar was flooded with 10,000 letters from across the country. He responded individually to each, set up the fraternity of Swashraya Vikas Mandal, where invaluable information was exchanged through letters. It soon matured into a family that is the Prayog Pariwar, and which, over letters, discourses on every aspect of nature. The grape revolution, which tags his name, is only a part of this, Dabholkar maintains. His achievement became a legend when he miraculously transformed a stolen vine graft (since Baramati grape-growers jealously guarded their vineyards) into a fast-spreading runner that precociously bore fruit in the first year itself (normally it needs a three-year maturity period) and yielded a rich unseasonal harvest of 16 tonnes per acre even in the monsoon.
He is constantly invited to partake in various experiments but Dabholkar takes care not to rend his link with the Prayog Pariwar's information web, personally answering letters from industrialists like Kanti Shroff of Excel inquiring on how to harness power with bullock carts or advising NGOs like Vasant Gangavane on their Rs 3 crore Indo-German venture in Ratnagiri. But the wisdom he imparts to one and all is: "There is no wasteland anywhere in this world. You can create a rain forest in your backyard and an equatorial forest on your terrace." You better believe it. For, the miracle is there for all to see. And taste.