Native varieties take back the show

Anitha Pailoor

“These are my air tickets to Thailand and Malaysia. Look at these photographs taken at the conference. That was a thrilling experience for me away from the routine chore of preparing ragi mudde (finger millet ball), sharing my experiences on use of indigenous seeds in agriculture, organic farming, livelihoods of women in my area, their empowerment and what not. I was excited,” As Mangamma carefully keeps her valuable records back in her old iron trunk her eyes twinkle. This trunk seems to be her close companion. It takes few minutes to Mangamma, a farmer in D. Madenahalli in Kolar district to passionately rewind those memorable events to make her presence felt at the present Janapada Jatre (Folklore Fair) in Kolar city.

Soon Krishnappa, a teacher walked in to a display of indigenous seeds with a bit of surprise and happiness, “This stall seems interesting. It reminds me the forgotten roots of biodiversity.” The stall looked unique with native seeds, traditional farm implements and household items that depicted the culture of the region.  It was part of an exhibition arranged at the Janapada Jatre organised by the district administration.

As many didn’t bother to enter this stall placed just opposite the stage, few who peeped in with curiosity spent enough time either to recall their childhood memories of diverse crops or to enjoy the brilliant show of colourful seeds in beautifully designed mud pots.

There were also people who wanted to take home native seeds. A couple from Mysore requested for bairnellu a local paddy variety. Mangamma, who was in charge of the stall, was happy. “I can give you up to half a kg. You have to register your name and address in the book. Next year after harvest we expect you to give us double the quantity, that is one Kg. This would add one more person to our team of seed conservers” She explained the way her community seed bank works and the ideology behind it. But this is not final, if the person has real interest and is from a distant place, they sell it wishing that the farmer would spread it there.

Mangamma, a farmer and native seed conserver is attending fifth Janapada Jatre in Kolar district in the last five months. Her team doesn’t give up a chance to participate in any such fairs or programmes. Their objective is clear – to pass on the lessons of self-sufficiency through conserving seeds and proper management of available natural resources. This also gives them an opportunity to market their produce and value-added products.

 Changing tones

A board member of Grameena Mahila Okkuta (Rural Women’s Federation) in Mulbagal Taluk, Mangamma represents its band of vibrant women leaders. Mahila Okkuta is the sister organisation of Grama Vikas, a non-governmental organisation which has been doing integrated rural development activities in Kolar district since last 25 years. Its thrust towards women’s empowerment has transformed the lives of thousands of women in 145 villages in the district. These newly formed women leaders have their own federation with 8,000 members.

Back to Janapada Jatre. As an elected representative pleading farmers to switch to organic farming in her speech, Mangamma comments with a sigh, “We have been practicing organic farming since past eight years. Give an exclusive market to our produce.” When she says, she symbolises organic farmers in six villages of Mulbagal Taluk where community seed banks exist and villages that are affiliated to them.

Transformation from chemical to organic farming was not easy. Eight years back, Mangamma’s twenty-acre land could not provide a sustainable livelihood for her family. “Loss in agriculture was either attributed to varying rainfall or poor quality fertilisers. Depletion in water level has limited our agricultural activities. A drought would take many out of the village to earn a living in the city. Agriculture depended on one’s capacity to manage loans. As the external input increased, production costs exceeded disproportionate to the yields” she said.

Seeds of change

High-yielding varieties introduced in the district in the early seventies had predominantly replaced traditional varieties. The race for greater production left behind all nature-friendly practices connected with farming. Chemical fertlisers became a must in new method of farming. Pest vulnerability of the seed varieties brought in pesticides and insecticides. In the late seventies farmers here opted for horticulture and sericulture. Being the agriculture hinterland of Bangalore, Kolar also started supplying vegetables to the ever growing capital city of Karnataka.

Everything was fine till water sources started drying up. Kolar doesn’t have any perennial rivers and the average rainfall is 760 mm. Tanks and ponds form major water sources. New varieties required more water. Unpredictable monsoon compounded the problem. Farmers resorted to bore wells as new means of irrigation.  In a period of 25 years, more than 50, 000 bore wells extracted ground water in the district. The water level that was available at a depth of 30 ft has gone down remarkably in the last three decades. Bore wells dug upto 800 ft depth have also failed to give water.

More than half of the tanks lost their water holding capacity owing to silting. Easily available chemical fertilisers had reduced farmers’ interest in fertile tank silt. Desilting was not a priority. A water deficient district could no longer afford commercial hybrids. But, people were not ready to give up these magic seeds. If there is drought they would migrate to the city and earn their living. The land would be left fallow. Indebtedness increased to gigantic proportions.

Understanding the situation, Grameena Mahila Okkuta sent a team of its members for a natural resource management workshop. Mangamma was one of them. She along with her group travelled widely to understand the various practices to utilise local natural resources available. This included rainwater harvesting, soil and water conservation, vermicomposting and green manure. The group of women were inspired by the self-sufficiency achieved by nature-friendly agriculture in different parts of the state.

“Commercial hybrid seeds had curbed our right to select and store seeds. Men had to choose a seed variety from the market followed by other inputs. We did weeding and harvesting. But, after we set up seed banks, we have been regaining the seeds we had lost in the name of high productivity which was not sustainable,” says Mangamma.

Community seed banks were introduced in four villages in Mulbagal Taluk under Community Seed Bank Network project by Gram Vikas in collaboration with Green Foundation, a non profit organisation, which has pioneered save seed movement in Karnataka. Community seed banks run by women’s collectives in the area, along with preserving indigenous seeds introduce agriculture related income generating activities like vermicomposting to the farmers.

Staff of Gram Vikas and Green Foundation started their search for indigenous seeds in 25 villages in 2002. After several meetings, they collected considerable diversity of seed varieties. Surprisingly, they also came across women farmers who were still using native seeds and thus, conserving them on field. One of them was Papamma in D. Kurubarahalli who maintained 15 varieties of grains, pulses and vegetables in her store. Such farmers boosted the entire movement in the area.

People’s participation

The movement became popular when Mangamma and 20 other women went house to house on a jatha (procession) and requested households to lend the local varieties they had. “Even if they didn’t have, they developed an interest about native seeds. This helped us to take the concept to each house.”

Initially seed banks were set up in Yerajenahalli, D.Kurubarahalli, Yedahalli, and Shettikal. After two years it was continued in D. Madenahalli and Nagamangala. As part of the project, these seed conservers started participating in seed fairs, seed exchange programmes and visited seed banks in other parts of the state. Consequently, their seed store became bigger.

Mangamma says, “After collecting seeds from different sources, we had to conserve them. This pushed us to have kitchen gardens.” Around 350 farmers are accessing the seed banks every year. Gram Vikas records show that the number of native ragi varieties in Shettikal has increased from two in 2000 to nine in 2004.

 Panchayat seed bank

Changalarayappa, former President of Devarayasamudra Gram Panchayat went a step ahead to set up a seed bank in the panchayat office with the help of Gram Vikas. He says, “It gave a different look to the Panchayat. As many visit panchayat office everyday for one reason or the other, the concept stretched its canvas.” It went on well till he was in power. When his term was over, the seed bank vanished. M.V.N. Rao, Executive Director of Grama Vikas feels that, women members should have been given training to manage the seed bank to take it forward. He feels that since women’s lives are interwoven with seeds, they can handle the responsibility properly. Gram Vikas is also planning to set up community seed banks in schools to sensitise children about indigenous seeds and farming methods.

When it comes to hybrid varieties, Changalarayappa has a clear observation, “Though native bairnellu paddy is the best variety from all aspects,  high-yielding varieties like IR 64, Jaya and Rasi have dominated daily food by their appearance. Now people grow bairnellu to sell in the market. It fetches them Rs.100 to Rs.150 more than other varieties per quintal. Even if bairnellu yields slightly less, the cost of production is also less.” When it comes to milling also, only 20% gets wasted as husk, but with high-yielding varieties it is around 35% loss. Bairnellu is a guarantee crop as it survives fluctuating rainfall. Even if rains fail, it yields at least 50% of the expected. But, high-yielding varieties cannot grow in such condition.

As Changalarayappa’s has observed, even if the native varieties are reintroduced, the concept behind it has not touched everyone. A literate farmer Ramamurty in D. Kurubarahalli confirms this by saying, “We can refrain from putting fertilisers and spraying pesticides only if we are not bothered about the yield. Water is a problem but we have to struggle for that.” Being a person who buys paddy in the village to sell in the market, he says that bairnellu accounts to only 10 percent of the total production. Considering the difficulties involved in any transformation, ten is a good percentage.

Women lead the way

In places where women run the family, organic farming has entered the fields along with native seeds easily. They have seen it as a livelihood opportunity.  This has changed their lifestyle. With the declining input cost and predictable yield, dependence on loans has reached tolerable limits. Surplus vegetables and seeds from the kitchen garden provide a supplementary income to the family. Activities like vermicomposting have made women like Parvathamma, financially stronger.

All these developments have enhanced the position of women in the family and society. Mangamma says, “Now ask anyone in the village, they would know me. But it is not so with my husband. From my father-in-law, the entire responsibility has been transferred to my shoulders. Women’s movement made us. Along with managing the farm we also manage our lives, solve problems in the village and know how to access allotted allowances.”

Mangamma has two bore wells in her 20-acre farm. Now in ten acres she grows paddy, ragi, maize, saame, cowpea, avare, green gram, horse gram, togari and the like. She intercrops ragi with avare, togari and other pulses in three acres. All are sown together. While ragi ripes in three to four months, the pulses take seven months time. In case ragi fails due to lack of rains, pulses overcome drought and there are some returns. This is an age-old practice that has come back. In the rest of the land, she grows around 20 varieties of vegetables including tomato, brinjal, chilli, onion, leafs, gourd and lady finger. Mangamma has half a gunta for kitchen garden near the house.

Her friend Papamma says, “Kitchen garden enhances the dietary variety and also provides nutritional food throughout the year. Many dishes that had disappeared are returning through native varieties. This has enhanced our health. Bairnellu or red rice is considered most nutritious and that is evident when we seed our healthy elders. We also grow medicinal and flowering plants in the garden. This has also become an income generating activity for many of us. We sell flowers, vermicompost and earn our savings.” She uses neem cake, green manure, vermicompost and other organic manures for her crops. In case of pests or any disease, bio controllers and bio pesticides are used.

CSBN project ended in 2005. Now even after two years, the seed banks function with the same enthusiasm. Ever-growing collection of seeds and the concern of women like Mangamma and Papamma to conserve and popularise it have sustained the concept in these villages. The organisational back up behind them is an added advantage. But the challenge of finding a proper market for organic produce remains.

This feature is written as part of NFI Media Fellowship. 

Anitha Pailoor, Development journalist, Krishnalaya, 1st main, 4th cross, Narayanapura, Dharwad – 580 008, Karnataka; Email:; Phone: 0836-2748277





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