The Seed Supremo

The Beej Bachao Andolan boasts of a collection of native seed varieties that could put any genebank to shame

By Indira Khurana
Published: Thursday 31 December 1998

The Seed Supremo

THE winding road from Hardwar, the base of the Garhwal Himalaya, leads towards Chamba, a comparatively large village (often confused with the better known Chamba of Himachal Pradesh). Ten kilometres off Chamba lies the village Nagni, whose claim to fame is the relatively shy farmer Vijay Jardhari, founder of the Beej Bachao Andolan (BBA, "Save the Seeds Movement").

Jardhari, with a sickle slung across his frail shoulder, was leaving for the fields. I asked his wife about his whereabouts and she called out to him, "There is someone to see you about your work." The unassuming Jardhari turned around and said almost accusingly, I was just off to work." I was not going to let the opportunity to talk to him about his work pass me by so easily. Giving in to my requests, he relented and we went to BBA'S modest office. And once Jardhari got talking on his collection of native varieties of seeds, there was no stopping him.

Success with seeds The seeds of BBA were sown during Jardhari's involvement in the 1973 Chipko Andolan. "It was around that time that I realised the problems associated with the high-yielding varieties (HYVS) of seeds introduced during the Green Revolution and the gradual loss of our traditional seed varieties," he says. The movement took form in 1989 when Jardhari, along with a few fellow farmers, walked the hillsides of Uttarkashi, Chamoli and Tehri districts in Uttar Pradesh collecting as many varieties of traditional seeds as they could.

Jardhari has a two acre experimental plot. So far, he has tried out 130 varieties of rice, 110 of beans, 40 of finger millets, eight of wheat and a whole lot of other crops. He maintains a rice nursery and a herbarium, documenting the local names, growing period, grain colour and other characteristics of rice varieties.

Jardhari also boasts of a collection of 150 varieties of rajma beans (Phaseolus mungo), ranging in size from a small shrivelled pea to an almond. The colours are amazing, some even multi coloured, striped and often a mixture of more than one shade.

Besides these, Jardharl also has a collection of native varieties of soybean, wheat, millets and seeds of the crops grown in the baranaja system of cultivation. Earlier practiced in the Garhwal Himalaya, baranaja system literally means " 12 grains". This system involves the sowing of a mixture of crops in a single piece of land. Thus a mixture of ra) .ma, urad (black gram, Phaseolus mungo), mung (green gram, Phaseolus aureus), kulth (horse gram), ramdana (Amaranthus frumentaceus), mandua (finger millet, Eleusine cora cana), jhangora (barn yard millet) Oplismenus frumentaceus), bliat (soy- bean, Glycinia soja), lobiya ( Vigna catiang) and other crops are grown together in what appears as carefully orchestrated chaos. The diversification provides food at times of drought or crop failure. The crops are harvested during different seasons around the year to ensure a constant supply of food. Selective nutrients from the soil are not mined and the use of leguminous crops maintains soil nitrogen. Sadly, the practice is on the decline.

Jardhari is a seed breeder too. He does his bit of breeding and segregating the seeds. "Seeds with a different appearance are segregated and planted in the next season," he says. A number of farmers in the surrounding villages have also shifted to native seeds. "They needed no convincing. Their own experience was enough," says Jardhari.

In the first year, the HYVS gave the farmers increased yields with the inputs they used. The next year, the yield was very low. The increase in expenses coupled with pest attacks on the seeds saw the farmers scurrying back to traditional seed varieties. And now they claim to be better off.

Seeds of discontent But Jardhari is not very pleased with the way the movement has spread. "More people need to be involved, our efforts need to spread," he admits. "But one good point is that we get requests for seeds from places as far as Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka," he adds.

However, Jardhari is a disillusioned man. His experience with non government organisations (NGOs) has not been very pleasant.

"We started working with one NGO only to find out later that the organisation was working on a project financed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome," he says. Raghu Jardhari, a young man working with him, feels the same. "Every person has his or her own personal agenda, and the farmers' rights have nothing to do with it," says Raghu.

It is precisely for this reason that the director of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources in New Delhi has been unable to convince Jardhari to give seeds from his collection for cold storage in the -20'c genebank. Storage at such low temperatures ensure long-term viability of the seeds. "The government is still undecided on the modalities of germplasm exchange for research and rights of farmers. The issues need to be sorted out or else, in the blink of an eye, the genes of these native seeds will be patented," Jardhari warns.

The Save the Seeds Movement is not financed by any donor. It is sustained by the sale of its produce and a few publications. The movement is not even a registered one.

How profitable would be a return to planting native seeds and practicing traditional agriculture is difficult to answer. Food production demands have increased. Agriculturists and policymakers need to rethink seriously given the huge genetic treasure trove that India has.

Meanwhile, Jardhari and his associates deserve to be encouraged as they plod along the mountainous regions, doing their bit to preserve traditional seed varieties.

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