Bihan Mela: A seed festival aims to help tribal Kondh farmers in Odisha return to their agricultural traditions

The seed festival and bank will facilitate use of indigenous varieties and traditional farming which farmers have abandoned since the Green Revolution

By Rakhi Ghosh
Published: Saturday 29 April 2023
Banking on tradition
The indigenous seed bank at Raisar village, Nayagarh district, Odisha The indigenous seed bank at Raisar village, Nayagarh district, Odisha

Since 2019, members of the Kondh tribe in Odisha’s Nayagarh district have added one more event to their calendar of festivals and celebrations. Called Bihan Mela, literally the seed festival, the event is participated by farmers from as many as 40 villages in Dasapalla block, sorrounded by hills and forests.

Preparations begin as soon as farmers have harvested kharif crops, which includes both hybrid and indigenous varieties of paddy, millets, maize and sorghum.

Women, who are at the helm of this festival, carefully collect seeds of the indigenous varieties and store them in earthen pots. Then, on a designated day in December, they decorate the pots with red and white motifs, place them in a bamboo basket and carry it on head to the village where the fair is being organised. Along the way, they are accompanied by men beating drums and other traditional instruments.

Nirola Jani of Bidapaju village, who has participated in both the seed festivals organised so far, says the event could not be held for two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet, when the festival resumed in December 2022, an overwhelming number of farmers participated in it. Jani carried to the festival four varieties of paddy and millet seeds that her family grew on their 0.5-hectare (ha) land, and brought back seeds of finger millets to sow this year.

“The fair mimics a traditional market where farmers used to exchange seeds,” says Kailash Sahoo, programme coordinator of non-profit Nirman that works with the tribe on forest rights and agro-ecological farming and has initiated the seed festival.

Farmers in the region are mostly marginal and depend on the monsoon rains. In recent years, they have seen repeated crop failures either due to erratic rainfall or pest attacks.

“Since the Green Revolution, farmers in the region have abandoned native crops and varieties that are naturally resistant to pests and better suited to the region’s climate,” says Prashant Mohanty, executive director of Nirman.

Even in dongars or hilltops, where families used to practice mixed cropping until recently, have shifted to monoculture cash crops like cashew. This has not only affected their food and nutritional security, but also degraded the soil and made the farmers more vulnerable to crop loss.

“The seed festival was thus introduced to help farmers return to their traditional ways of farming like mixed-cropping,” he adds.

To facilitate access to indigenous seeds, Nirman in 2019 also set up a seed bank in Raisar village. The bank works on a simple premise: collect and preserve indigenous seeds from across Kondh villages and lend those out to farmers.

“The farmers have to return double the quantity of seeds or two different seed varieties within the first year of cultivation,” says Kanchan Behera, Raisar resident and in-charge of the bank.

The change is palpable. The bank, which was set up with just 12 varieties of paddy, now boasts of 62 varieties of paddy, four varieties of millets, five varieties of pulses and eight vegetables.

The bank is open to all Kondh farmers and has benefitted 750 families so far, says Sita Pradhan, one of the bank’s members. After seeing the demand, Nirman plans to open three more seed banks in the region.

This was first published in the 1-15 April, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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