It was a hot afternoon. Even as temperature soared to 37 degree Celsius, I didn’t see enthusiasm draining among farmers wanting to exchange traditional rice seeds. They pushed and jostled for space to make their presence felt. For two days (30-31 May) they had camped in Athirengam village in Thiruturaipondi taluk of Thiruvarur district in Tamil Nadu, and they didn’t want to return without getting their share of native varieties of rice seeds.
This is the eighth year of the traditional rice seed sharing festival. Beginning in 2007, with just 15 varieties conserved by some farmers, this annual seed festival is organised under the auspices of Save Our Rice Campaign, Thanal from Kerala, create from Tamil Nadu and Sahaja Samrudha from Karnataka, and has now become a keenly watched event. Last year, 4,600 farmers participated in the festival. Following the success, many NGOs and civil society groups are now organising similar seed exchange festivals every year in Tamil Nadu.
What scientists call as in situ conservation, this must be the biggest living repository of traditional rice varieties in India. Sridhar R of the Save Our Rice Campaign claims that 151 varieties of rice from Tamil Nadu, 200 from Karnataka and 140 from Kerala are now exchanged between farmers.
At a time when the Central government and agricultural universities in the country are aggressively pushing hybrid varieties of rice, in what appears to be a misguided effort to augment production, we are witnessing a silent revolution taking place right from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat, and from Himachal Pradesh to Kerala. More and more farmers are now coming forward to not only preserve traditional seeds but also cultivate these lost varieties. This is also happening at a time when India is more than keen to deposit 1,000 crop varieties in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the arctic region of Norway for ex situ conservation. Farmers are now begging to realise that the best way to preserve these native strains is to cultivate and share the seeds with fellow farmers.
It all started in 2004, when I addressed the launch of Save Our Rice Campaign in Kerala. As R Poonambalam, managing trustee of CREATE and the organiser of the seed exchange event, said in his welcome address this year, they had merely followed my suggestions from ten years ago. In my inaugural talk at Kumbaangi, I had narrated the little understood politics behind the 2004 International Year of the Rice, when the international community applauded the control of rice seeds going into the hands of the multinational seed giant Syngenta. I had suggested then that the best way to thwart these global efforts to monopolise and control seeds would be when farmers exchanged seeds among themselves.
“But we have gone a little beyond the regional seed exchange. Besides Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, we now have States like Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh also joining the effort,” Poonambalam says.
I still recall the state-level conference of farmers and traders in 2006 at Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. It was here that I reiterated my suggestion of seed exchange by farmers. The seed exchange festival was launched the next year in 2007 with 15 varieties. What made that event memorable was the presence of the late G Nammalwar, an ecologist, naturalist and a crusader for non-chemical farming. In fact, he remains the motivating factor behind the seed exchange.
The growing interest and enthusiasm towards adopting native seeds is amazing. More than 2,000 farmers paid registration fees, made their own travel and stay arrangements and attended the numerous workshops and interactive sessions at the two-day festival. Each farmer was given 2 kg of traditional seeds with the promise that they would return at least 4 kg seeds the next year. When the first batch of farmers returned, some of them brought back as much as 10 kg of the same seed they got the previous year. This practice has helped the seed exchange to grow over the years. “This year, I am expecting more than 5,000 seed exchanges to take place,” says Jayaraman of the Save Our Rice Campaign in Tamil Nadu.
“Farmers are looking for specific traits in these native varieties, mostly medicinal,” he adds. “There are people who are looking for varieties of brown rice, some for traditional scented varieties, some farmers are keen on drought-resistant varieties, and most are now hooked on to Mappilai Samba rice variety, which has medicinal properties that can enhance the libido.”
No wonder, Mappilai in Tamil means son-in-law. The usual practice in some parts of Tamil Nadu is to provide the rice to the bridegroom’s family once a marriage is fixed. Bhaskaran, who has devoted some 57 acres to cultivating Mappilai variety, calls it “rice viagra”.
Another amazing farmer at this year’s festival is Karikaalan from Thiruthiraipoondi village. A playwright, actor and poet, Karikaalan accidently discovered the dual ability of the traditional rice variety Kattuyanam. He had planted Kattuyanam accidently. But suddenly the season dried up, and the area was struck with drought-like conditions. It was then that he observed that Kattuyanam plants could weather a drought. While his neighbour’s crops suffered, his crop stood out. Since then, he has taken to promoting the Kattuyanam variety, which also has medicinal properties. “Kattuyanam is a variety that is suitable for climatic aberrations. It has become so popular that it always fetches me a premium price of Rs 100 per kg for its seed, and I have bookings for the next two years in advance,” says Karikaalan.
Kuttuyanam is a wonder of nature. I haven’t ever come across any improved high-yielding variety of rice developed anywhere in the world that can withstand both droughts and floods. Karikaalan’s remarkable ability to identify the unique characteristics of this prized variety makes him a custodian of traditional knowledge associated with native rice strains. A crop scientist in his place would have won the World Food Prize.
Jayaraman is now popularly addressed as Nellu Jayaraman. Nellu in Tamil means paddy; an honorary title the people bestowed on him for the exemplary work he was involved in. To my suggestion that every year the organisers should award the honorary Nellu title to a promising rice farmer, I must say the Save Rice Campaign were quick to pick up. This year too, they have announced the name of a farmer who would get the honorary Nellu title.