It was a hot afternoon. But even as the temperature soared to 37 degrees, I didn't see the enthusiasm draining from among farmers waiting to exchange traditional seeds of rice. 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 of Tamil Nadu, and they didn't want to return without getting their share of native rice seed varieties.
This is the eighth year of the traditional rice seed sharing festival. Beginning in 2007 with just 15 varieties that some farmers had conserved, this annual seed festival - organised under the auspices of Save our Rice Campaign, Thanal from Kerala, CREATE from Tamil Nadu and Sahaja Samrudha from Karnataka - has now become a keenly-watched event. Last year, 4600 farmers had participated in the rice seed exchange. Following the success, I am told, some 13 NGOs/civil society groups are now organising similar seed exchanges every year in Tamil Nadu.
This must be the biggest living repository of traditional rice varieties in India, in the form of what scientists call in situ conservation. Sridhar R of the Save Rice Campaign claims that 151 rice varieties from Tamil Nadu, 200 from Karnataka and 140 from Kerala are now being exchanged between farmers.
At a time when the Central government and the agricultural universities are aggressively pushing hybrid rice varieties throughout the country in what appears to be a misguided effort to augment production, I am witnessing a silent revolution taking place right from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat, and from Himachal Pradesh to Kerala. More and more farmers are coming forward not only to take care of the 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, however, beg to convey that the best way to preserve these native strains is to cultivate and share the seed with fellow farmers.
It all started in 2004 when I had gone to address the launch of the Save our Rice Campaign at Kumbalangi in Kerala. R Poonambalam, managing trustee of CREATE and one of the driving spirits behind the seed exchange event, said in his welcome address this year that they had merely followed what I had suggested ten years back in 2004.
In my inaugural talk at Kumbalangi I had narrated the little-understood politics that was behind the 2004 International Year of the Rice, wherein the international community actually applauded the control of rice seeds going into the hands of the multinational seed giant Syngenta. I recall suggesting that the best way to thwart these global efforts to monopolise and control the seeds would be for farmers to begin to exchange seeds among themselves.
“Ten years back, you gave us the idea, Mr Sharma. You are responsible for this," Mr Ponnambalam said and added: "But we have gone a little beyond the regional seed exchange. Besides Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, we now have states like Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh also joining the effort."
I still recall the state-level conference of farmers and traders at Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu in 2006 where I and the late G.Nammalwar were invited to speak. It was here that I reiterated my suggestion of seed exchange by farmers which 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 resurgence I see towards native seeds is something amazing. More than 2,000 farmers had paid registration fees, made their own travel and stay arrangements only to attend the numerous workshops and interactive sessions at the two-day seed exchange festival. Each farmer is given 2 kg of traditional seed with the promise that they would return at least 4 kg seed the next year.
When the first batch of seed exchange farmers were presented before me I found some of them had brought in 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," said Jayaraman, Save Rice Campaign coordinator for Tamil Nadu.
What kind of rice varieties are being exchanged by farmers, I asked. "Farmers are looking for specific traits in these native varieties, mostly medicinal," replied Jayaraman. "There are people who are looking for brown rice varieties, some looking 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 libido," Sridhar explained. No wonder, Mappilai in Tamil means son-in-law!
The usual practice in some parts of Tamil Nadu is to provide Mappilai rice variety to the bridegroom's family once a marriage is fixed. Bhaskaran, who has devoted some 57 acres to cultivating Mappilai Samba variety, calls it "Rice Viagra".
Interestingly, I found that Jayaraman was popularly addressed as Nellu Jayaraman. Nellu in Tamil means paddy. So in a way, it was an honorary title that the people had bestowed on Jayaraman for the exemplary work he was involved in, promoting traditional rice varieties as well as safe food. 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/Create were quick to pick up. This year too, they have announced the name of a farmer who would get the honorary Nellu title.