Conserving heritage for better tomorrow

NewsBharati    24-Jul-2020   
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A jowar variety for Birds? An NGO was documenting Jowar landraces in Navapur tahsil, Nandurbar district as part of YOJAK’s Madhya Bharat Vananchal Samruddhi Yojana.
 
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It was rabbi harvesting season when they came across an old woman who had a typical landrace. The woman had small land holding and planting 3-4 lines of relatively low yielding variety means loss of production. When NGO karyakarta asked her why she keeps on planting 3-4 lines of this variety? She answered, new jowar varieties spike is very compact and birds are not able to take out grains. But the farm is for everyone. So, we sow this 3-4 lines of our variety for them. They can freely eat. This is our tradition.
 
The answer in today’s world is unimaginable. While the world is behind production and productivity, a poor woman in a small village in a remote tribal district plants a variety for birds. But this is India. These principles are developed over centuries and those are still present in these remote corners with so called under-developed people.
 
Seeds – conserved, developed by people
 
Seeds are the backbone of farming system. It is a very basic necessity. In India, seeds are developed as per local need, geographic and environmental conditions. According to Origin of Crops (https://blog.ciat.cgiar.org/origin-of-crops/) , Indian subcontinent has origin of 29 crops which covers pulses, spices, vegetables like okra, fruits like mango, banana etc. It means Indian subcontinent has maximum genetic variety of these crops. This has evolved over the years facing all kinds of environmental situations.
 
At the same time, the selection process helped people to choose specific landraces from available diversity for propagation on a wider scale. Traditionally people used to check various traits for selection of a particular race. They used to keep other non-selected races into cultivation at lower scale. Farmers used to consider traits like ability to withstand monsoon vagaries viz. heavy or sparse rains, in between drought spells, high temperatures, other climatic variations like low/high temperature, drought, physical traits like useful in poor soil, human interest like good taste, fodder quantity etc. A study in Javhar taluka shows that people consider on an average 8-10 traits for selection of variety provided a chance. These multiple traits ensure basic minimum production in difficult situation where as gives bumper crop in favorable situations.
 
In every corner of this nation, land races were developed by people. Today we have about 50000 land races of rice with community. A small tehsil of Navapur has more than 29 land races of Jowar. Brinjal, a much-talked vegetable in last few years for introduction of its Genetically modified variety, has around 650 known varieties across India. But you never Know what is lying in the remote corner of India.
 
Destination Food Security, where we are?
 
Green revolution brought remarkable changes in Indian Agriculture system. Productivity became major concern of policy makers. It has changed the variety scenario. Scientist developed varieties which can give high productivity with specific inputs and stipulated conditions. Government vigorously promoted these varieties. All kinds of promotional tactics including financial support, subsidies, doorstep delivery, buy back system were part of this exercise. This has resulted in reduction of traditional varieties. They are replaced by improved and hybrid varieties. After initial years of high productivity things become new normal with stagnated production and increased input cost. In 30-40 years, farmers of India became totally dependent on the market for all its input, basically seeds. It is estimated that we had about 2 lakh rice varieties at the beginning of the 20th century. Today we have less than 50000 of them. This loss is not considered while projecting progress of India.
 
These varieties were not stand alone. They were part of a system developed as per local situation. People identified set of crops and varieties which can grow together. The selection provides food to people, their animal, medicine, nutrition etc. It is not just staple food but other necessary plant species included in this system. There were tubers, fruits and others. It is a kind of complete system providing nutritional security. It was evolved in all parts of India. In Himalayan region, it was Bara-anaj. In semi-arid region of North Maharashtra, it is Irwad-Malav. Baiga’s of central India call it Bewar. Warli’s of Sahyadri’s had such system. Northern Karnataka practices kitchen gardens with 60 odd fruits and vegetables. All these systems evolved for centuries and we tried all our efforts to destroy them in last 40 years. We succeeded…. that’s irony.
 
Were these seeds so useful?
 
Today India is a grain sufficient country. Why make unnecessary fuss about these seeds and so-called loss? If they were so important, people should have retained them? Were they actually useful?
 
A small example helps us to understand its importance. West Bengal witnessed one of the worst cyclone in 2009 named Aila. It affected 125000 ha of cropland in Sundarban area. Thin line of salt appeared in the soil after water subsided. It was not possible to grow modern, high-yielding rice varieties in these fields. Dr. Debal Deb, founder of Vrihi- a rice seed bank introduced 4 local rice varieties in 3 villages. These varieties could tolerate high levels of salinity in the soil. These varieties were collected by Debal from Sundarban area in 1997 and grown on his field. With this effort, people were able to grow rice in their field. Others who did not use these, left rice cultivation for a few years. Many migrated to cities for livelihood.
 
Today millets are considered as super food. Just google it and you will get tens and thousand articles praising millets. In the government food system, they are minor crops which get minimum support. When the world is talking about millets, we have lost most of its varieties in the last 50 years.
 
One can cite similar examples from various parts of the world. Now scientists are also convinced that in climate change scenarios these traditional varieties are a source for developing new, efficient varieties.
 
We not only lost seeds but lost knowledge, independence too
 
Seed/Crop variety development is a science which our people knew from centuries. They developed thousands of varieties as per need in different parts of India. Dr. Richaria, senior rice specialist wrote about knowledge of tribes in Chhattisgarh regarding rice cross breeding. People saved these seeds for multiple of reasons. From food to God, from Dance to Demon, from self-motivation to just an elder told to keep… You will get all sorts of reasons why people kept those.
 
Seed conservation was not only for providing food. It was for cultural activity too. A variety of bottle gourd is protected in Kokan region to make a traditional music instrument – Tarapa. No other bottle gourd variety is useful to make it. Many rice varieties were conserved as they required for specific rituals or in the name of local deity. Some varieties were kept for drought years where some for heavy rains. Medicinal properties also ensure conservation of some of them. Some are conserved for their smell, some for taste. A variety of rice in Bengal is conserved by laborer’s as it does not require to boil it. Just add into water and rice will cook. So they can cook it anywhere.
 
During British period, we lost our strength as a knowledge society. Britishers not only looted us but broke our confidence regarding self-development. After independence, policy makers were happy to keep us dependent on them. So, process continuedand we further lost our identity.
 
Let’s take example of oil seeds. Indian varieties of oils seeds are relatively soft. We developed crushing based technology to extract oil. It was much easier and every village has an oil mill. It was within the range and no complicated technology is required to extract oil. Today we replaced our oil seeds with soybean and we just not lost seeds, we lost a local industry. Today, soybean producing farmer is procuring soybean oil from local shop. He spends 5 times more money for oil than what he gets for his soyabean. In the process, we are sending our hard earned money outside village and country, destroying opportunities for local employment and sending out youths to cities as wage laborers.
 
Too little, but better than nothing
 
After realizing this loss and feeling much pressure, the government started considering traditional seeds as an important aspect. Even before, scientists from government agencies used to collect seeds and store them in national system called National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. It is a national treasure for genetic resources. But it is a one way system. Only scientists have access to the same. Also if they are successful in developing some new variety from collected varieties which they often do, no profit sharing system with community was in place. After the 1992 Rio conference where the convention on Biological Diversity was declared, countries started working on national legislatures for protection of biodiversity. Protection of Plant Variety and Farmer’s Rights Act was enacted in 2001. It provides registration of farmers varieties like registration of developed varieties by agriculture universities and /or private companies. This way farmer’s varieties can get legal protection from IPR theft. They can also work with private organizations for commercial use of variety. But after 20 years of enactment, it could register only a few farmers' varieties. The procedure established is beyond the capacities of farmers and the government needs to think more on these lines. The authority has also started rewarding farmers, organizations working on conservation of traditional varieties. (http://www.plantauthority.gov.in/)
 
Reviving seeds, reviving India
 
In the last few years, we started getting this identity back. Traditional seed conservation was started in various parts of the country. Thanks to Beej Bachav Andolan and similar efforts to revive this tradition. A conference in January 2019 organized by Akshay Krushi Parivar along with others showcased more than 100 such efforts across India. People are conserving because some elder has told them. Some got prerana from an incident and they started conserving those. Sau. Rahibai Pophale is a tribal woman from Akole tahsil, Ahmednagar. After some health issues in her home, she realized the importance of local seeds and started conserving the same. She is conserving more than 150 crop varieties and recently awarded Padmashree for the same. A farmer from Gujarat developed carrot variety from traditional varieties and now able to develop an economic model of the same. Many NGOs are promoting village level seed banks for local consumption. In Javhar tahsil, BAIF is conserving more than 200 varieties of rice and promoting community-based production of 10 local varieties.
 
As we understood more about our strengths, new systems are being developed to revive traditional varieties. Baliraja Producer company is one such effort from Maharashtra. It started in 2006 when Lokpanchayat , an organization from Sangamner found a rare rice variety Kalbhat (Back Rice) on high slopes of Sahyadris. Few farmers were cultivating this variety. Variety has a nice fragrance and people in this part knew about this variety. Lokpanchayat worked with people to revive the variety and other local crops from the area. A new tool, farmer producer company was used to ensure financial returns from the same. After 10-12 years of continuous efforts gave some success. Now more than 200 farmers are cultivating this variety. Market linkages were established and they are getting good returns.
 
Communities tried hard to conserve traditional varieties in Punjab, laboratory of green revolution
 
Seeds for Antyodaya
 
Reviving our seed systems can ensure multiple benefits. It will provide food security, it can ensure circulation of local wealth inside the village, it can help to continue our cultural practices, it will help to save our knowledge. It can help the poor to ensure minimum production on their small lands. In the climate change scenario, it is our bank balance to save our farms. It is our fix deposit to develop new varieties. It is our insurance to save major varieties in case of pandemic situation. Overall, it is our true wealth. If we conserve seeds, they will protect us.
 
(English language input from Pradnya Joglekar)