Vijay Jardhari and his team have so far collected nearly 250 varieties of rice and 170 of kidney beans among other seeds Image Credit: Supplied

Indian agriculture is going through a crisis. Farmer suicides have dominated the news in the country for quite a while. The Green Revolution, which was once touted as a solution to all that ails Indian agriculture, seems distant. Further, the land under farming has been declining steadily as farmers continue to give up on agriculture.

However, even this grim picture has a silver lining, which gives hope that all is probably not lost. One such ray of hope is the success of Beej Bachao Andolan (Save the Seed Movement), in the northern state of Uttarakhand. Started by Vijay Jardhari in the 1980s, the movement has played a key role in preserving the biodiversity of the region.

“The Beej Bachao Andolan has made immense contributions to conserving the biodiversity of the Garhwal region. The movement has managed to instil greater consciousness among farmers to conserve indigenous seeds, which have been underutilised,” says Dr Sunita Tewari, professor, G.B. Pant Institute of Agriculture and Technology in Pantnagar. She has been tracking the movement for many years now. The movement is an offshoot of the famous Chipko Andolan, which was started by local villagers in the 1980s to prevent rampant deforestation. Typically, the villagers would hug a tree to prevent it from being axed.

“Like the rest of the country, we [farmers in the region] also adopted high-yield seeds during the Green Revolution. After a few years, we realised that while the first crop was usually bumper, the yield consistently came down after the third year. By fourth year we were hardly producing enough for our own families. Moreover, our investment in seeds, fertilisers and pesticides was forever increasing,” says an extremely soft-spoken Jardhari.

The fact that the farmers were asked to grow crops such as soya bean, which they themselves didn’t consume, further led to disillusionment with the modern seeds. The villagers felt that they would need to purchase food for their own consumption. While the modern system of agriculture was based on business, the villagers believed in the concept of sustainable agriculture.

This realisation led to the start of this movement, to return to the traditional way of farming using native seeds. A group of farmers led by Jardhari travelled in remote villages of the hilly farming areas. They collected nearly 250 varieties of rice, 170 of kidney beans and many kinds of millets and oats. Jardhari claims that Uttarakhand was once home to nearly 3,000 varieties of rice, most of which are now lost.

“We started visiting remote villages to collect the seeds. Many varieties were already lost but still we managed to save some,” he recounts. Jardhari organised a number of meetings and workshops to educate the farmers about the long-term impact of using modern methods of agriculture. At times he faced strong resistance because farmers were unsure whether traditional methods would lead to the high yield modern methods promised. However, over time they realised that newer methods demanded huge investment, which was eating into their profits.

Twelve crops at a time

Possibly the biggest achievement of the movement is the revival of “baranaja”, which is basically a combination of 12 grains (in Hindi, “barah” means 12 and “anaj” means grain). This is a traditional form of agriculture that involves planting 10-12 crops at the same time.

“‘Baranaja’ has a unique place in mountain agriculture in India, which helps in conserving the biodiversity and agricultural diversity of the region. Farmers in many small villages of the region are still following this system,” says Dr R.K. Maikhuri, scientist in charge, G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development.

Under the “baranaja” system, farmers grow a combination of cereals, lentils, vegetables, creepers and root vegetables. It doesn’t require the use of additional fertilisers or pesticides. Legumes fix the nitrogen in the soil, which is beneficial for other crops as well. Diversity in crops helps to maintain soil fertility.

The system also works because land holdings are small in hilly areas and it is difficult to plant staple crops separately. Different crops harvested at different times of the year provide security against food shortage, drought and crop failure.

“There are two main advantages of the ‘baranaja’ way of cultivation. The first is it is extremely beneficial for the soil and goes a long way in conserving its bio-strata. The second is it helps the farmer. Today, farmers are committing suicide because the cost of production is more than the returns. But in ‘baranaja’, a number of crops are planted simultaneously, which ensures that the farmer can benefit from certain varieties even when other crops are damaged,” says Dr Tewari.

Today, “baranaja” is practised in most of the rain-fed areas of Uttarakhand. As organic food becomes popular across the world, it is important that India makes an effort to conserve its farming legacy. Jardhari recognises that organic movement has given an impetus to their philosophy.

“These seeds offer strong resistance to the extreme climate of the region. They are also not affected by climate change. These varieties need to be conserved and then distributed. It is extremely important to maintain the biodiversity of the region. In fact, this should be done on a war footing,” says Dr Tewari.

A key factor affecting the revival of “baranaja” and the use of indigenous seeds is the research bias in the institutes. In spite of the fact that most of the farmland is rain-fed in India, the research is focused on irrigation. While the government appreciates the efforts of Beej Bachao Andolan, the research push is surprisingly missing.

“There is a clear research bias. Till date there hasn’t been any research on ‘baranaja’. Instead, it is focused on paddy and wheat, which are not grown in the region. Traditional practices are not given due importance. There is a lot of potential in ‘baranaja’ but it didn’t get the government push. For instance, the government can sell the different varieties at cooperative level. But that is not happening,” says Dr Maikhuri.

Collecting seeds also meant that information related to them had to be documented so it could be available to the future generations. Kalpavriksh, an NGO, has been documenting the information since 1995. This information is available with the Beej Bachao Andolan as well as Kalpavriksh.

Today, Jardhari is a member of the National Seed Savers Network, which is envisaged as the largest such repository in India. He was also honoured with the Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar in 2009.

It is not surprising that Jardhari has been protesting against the use of genetically modified (GM) crops. “Our traditional knowledge should be preserved. GM crops are all about monoculture and growing crops for the world, but traditional knowledge is about diversity. Further, traditional knowledge is especially helpful to deal with the challenge of climate change,” Jardhari says. He is also working on popularising dishes made with local grains. They have also exchanged seeds with other states.

Jardhari is vocal about the role of women in the movement. Traditionally in hilly areas, women do nearly 90 per cent of farm work. “Women were the backbone of the Chipko Andolan and the same is true of Beej Bachao Andolan. Without their participation and commitment, the movement would have failed a long time ago.”

Jardhari, who is in his 60s now, continues to work to conserve biodiversity of his region. Though the Beej Bachao Andolan is considered a success, he feels that had there been government support, the movement could have led to further gains. He continues to wage a war against modern systems of farming, which he claims are destroying the country’s agro-diversity and harming farmers.

The slogan of Beej Bachao Andolan remains as relevant today as it was more than two decades ago:

“Kya hain jungle ke upkar, mitti pani aur bayar;

Mitti, pani aur bayar, zinda rahne ke aadhar.”

(What are the blessings of the forest — soil, water and air;

Soil, water and air, which form the basis for survival.)

Gagandeep Kaur is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. You can follow her on Twitter @Gagandeepjourno