Paddy warriors: This couple in Karnataka is preserving rare native varieties through cultivation

Asma and Aboobakar want to save as many indigenous paddy varieties as possible; they have so far documented 840 such plants

By M Raghuram
Published: Saturday 27 January 2024

Asma and Aboobakar of Murathangadi, Karnataka“Conservation of indigenous crop varieties does not mean just collecting and storing seeds in a container. We need to cultivate and harvest the crop every year to ensure its conservation,” says Asma Aboobakar, a teacher from Murathangadi town in Karnataka.

For the past 13 years, Asma and her husband Aboobakar, a hotelier, have been working to conserve indigenous paddy varieties. The couple has so far documented 840 native varieties, including nagasampige, karingajavili, raktasali, jugul and rajamudi. Of these, almost 85 per cent have been successfully germinated. “We aim to collect 1,000 varieties or more in the coming years, with 100 per cent germination,” says Aboobakar. One variety, nagasampige, has also been revived for commercial use.

The couple’s mission began with a desire to have their own paddy field. In 2010, they attempted to cultivate the crop on their 0.4-hectare (ha) land in Murathangadi, located on the border of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts. However, they found that several farmers were, in fact, turning away from the crop due to its labour and resource requirements. Moreover, traditional paddy varieties had nearly disappeared with the focus on high-yielding crops. “I believe there will be a time when we will realise the importance of indigenous crop varieties. We want to save as many of these crops as we can for future use,” says Aboobakar. The couple began finding indigenous paddy varieties by visiting places with a history of the crop’s cultivation in Karnataka and some parts of Kerala. They cultivate the collected seeds on their land as well as on three other plots taken on lease from acquaintances. “We first sun-dry the seeds and plant them on natural soil, without spraying pesticides or fertilisers. After harvest, we mulch the fields to preserve the soil nutrition levels,” Aboobakar says. While the seeds are collected and stored, the paddy is sold to farmers as livestock fodder. As both Asma and Aboobakar have their own careers, they use the earnings from selling the paddy to fund their preservation efforts.

Over the years, they have obtained seeds from, and exchanged them with, various collectors. “Along with seeds, we share ‘advisories’ with the collectors and cultivators on how to get a potent seed that can be cultivated for conservation," says Aboobakar. They are now attempting to initiate a regular exchange programme with paddy conservationists and cultivators in Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

The couple’s efforts are now being appreciated by scientists and experts, who travel to Murathangadi to see their paddy seed collection. “Conservation is a highly intensive and micro-level activity which only a few visionaries can take up, and Aboobakar and Asma are on the top rung of this group. Their collection is of a national scale, and has inspired many of our scientists and students,” says Dhananjaya B, head and senior scientist, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Zonal Agricultural and Horticultural Research Station in Brahmavar, Udupi district.

This was first published in the January 16-31, 2024 print edition of Down To Earth

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