Beej Bachao Andolan (Save the Seed Movement) is not an organisation nor is it a registered entity. It does not take on projects nor does it crave funding. It is a loose, non-formal collective of farmers and concerned people who believe in the idea of seed and food sovereignty, local food system conservation and other related issues that concern small farmers. It is a more of a philosophy, a thought, a concept that can be anyone’s voice.
To see things in the seed, that is genius.
Farmers have saved and shared seeds for eons, and that is the reason why we enjoy a diverse platter containing foods with varied flavour, colours & taste, each bite distinct of a particular region. Seeds are a metaphor for origin, a new beginning. Rice is not simply what we cook and put in our bowls; it holds great spiritual and ritual significance in the Indian psyche. A symbol of auspiciousness, prosperity and fertility, it is also called ‘akshat’ or indestructible, which stresses the cultural and social economic value associated with it. Unfortunately this seed is no longer indestructible today. Uttarakhand once home to over 3000 varieties of rice, has all but lost this indigenous diversity.
Biju Negi talks to us on this shift in our thinking, and why we need to understand that forests, water and seeds are all interconnected. Only by protecting these can we ensure our well being and survival. Seeds matter as they are the hope for the endless possibilities that we dream of for tomorrow.
How would you define a seed?
‘Beej’ are central to our thoughts and our work, it is a symbol of hope. It is the means for a farmer for his livelihood and living. 'Desi beej' means 'desi gyan'. Our local seeds are not simply a ticket to the next crop but capsules of local wisdom and traditions passed down from older generations. Our ancestors understood the crop patterns and weather conditions. They preserved these nuggets of knowledge, and imroved and bettered the seed collected in every generation. And we need to save this expertise and the principles behind it, if we want to save our small farmers.
Why have the seeds disappeared?
The Green Revolution all but wiped out our local seeds. Earlier farmers never sold their seeds; they bartered it or exchanged it within the village itself. There was not just a physical exchange but an exchange of ‘gyan’ or wisdom collected through traditional, local know-how. Today, the farmer depends on the easily available seeds from the market which in all probability will give him a bigger volume of produce, so he has no incentive to save the hardy, local variety. Thus, old seeds have been left out and lost. Along with them has disappeared the science behind the creation of each seed that our ancestors passed on to their children, mostly through oral tradition.
Why is it so difficult to be a farmer today?
In school we read that India is an agricultural country and that her farmers are the 'annadatta' or those who provide food. That is no longer true. We treat our farmers badly, view them on the lowest rung of societal ladder. The old ways of farming has changed and a life with dignity for a farmer seems to be lost.
There was a time when even a small farmer with nominal land holding in Uttarakhand was self sufficient. Other than sugar, salt and cloth, he did not need to buy anything. He just came down the hills to sell off his surplus and was self contained. Earlier irrigation was the centre around which the economy revolved, which is not so now. A farmer even with a small patch of land grew multi crops, followed husbandry and even carried out some kind of handicraft or handloom work competent in his world. In fact our research suggests that a small farm is more productive as there is less land input, but more output.
What do you feel of the large corporate jumping on the 'irrigation' bandwagon?
We believe that the Green Revolution was not a system for agriculture but a busineess model. That is why small farmers lost out. What the small farmers did earlier, the corporates are doing today. The small farmer was self dependent, and a guardian of his seeds and his crop. Today the seed business is a multi crore business!
It is a business for profit. You buy their seeds and then you buy their fertiliser and then their pesticides to nurture the crop. If farming was not viable, then why would big companies like Reliance or Tata be putting their foot into it. The bottom line is that it is profitable for business houses but not for a small individual farmer.
Forest land is shrinking everywhere. How has it affected life?
We feel that the Chipko movement was not just a forest conservation movement, but a ‘kheti andolan’, a movement for farmers. Only if we save our forests can we save our water. Today large dams have blocked our rivers and a network of roads has covered land. What was most important in the hills, the small rivulets that criss crossed our lands, these have been lost. Further cutting of trees and the loss of forests have reduced these flows even more. For removing a stone on a new highway, 200 detonators are used! Obviously the water streams will change their course.
What is the relationship between water and people?
For drinking water sources, pollution has never been a problem. These areas were always held sacred, usually with a local deity’s statue kept close to it where people offered prayers and sub consciously kept the area clean and safe. In 2012, we had a bountiful rainfall and expected water to last. Sadly, there was water scarcity in the month of October itself.
Our bond with water is broken now, our relationship changed. People are no longer connected to the land, so they are not concerned about saving water bodies. Easy access to water through taps has changed the way we view water. We as a society need to rethink our bond with water.
Whatever happens to seed affects the web of life.
Is farming still an option with today’s generation?
Farming today faces it’s own peculiar challenges. A young 10th class student would rather run away to the city to find work. Also the whole social fabric seems to be unravelling, joint families are breaking up and the land holdings are becoming smaller in size.
But the good news is that people are realising the benefits of tilling their own farms. Like a woman farmer said, “Khana toh hamne bhi hai, kyun na acha khayen” (Why should we not eat healthy food that we can grow in our farms). People have started realising that the vegetables sold in the market may not be as nutritious or pesticide-free as the crop from their own patch of land.
Organic farming, what are your views on it?
Even the government is now talking of the benefits of healthy, organic food. People too have realised the benefits of eating chemical free food. So it does help the farmer, but only if he is able to find a market for his produce. The small farmer does not get a profit easily, where is the direct market for him to sell? In my opinion, Reliance cannot do organic farming. Their aim is profit, while the farmer is fighting for his livelihood.
Can you tell us an interesting anecdote on the importance of seeds?
Let me tell you a true story on how we valued our seeds in the past. In the 19th century, there was a severe drought in the hills. A British officer was sent to survey the effects of this calamity a few months later. As he travelled deep into the jungles, he saw dead bodies strewn along the path. The emancipated bodies all wasted with hunger, had no money and no food with them. Knotted to their waist were dried hollow gourd containers, called ‘tomari’, that contained seeds. Upon reaching the villages, he saw more death and destruction. The ‘kuthar’ or wooden granary in each house was empty as expected, but the ‘tomari’ used traditionally for storing seeds in the granary, still lay intact.
People died of hunger but did not touch their seeds, and those that ran away, carried only the most important item for their future survival and well being--the seeds! They knew that as long as they had these, they had hope for a life.
Thoughts that you would like to share with our readers?
If you want to save your forests, water and seeds, you will have to make up your mind and do something about it. There is no point looking at the government for a solution, it is you who will have to work on it. If you want to preserve your heritage, save your seeds.
This interview was done on the sidelines of ongoing sessions at the CMS Vatavaran Festival organised in New Delhi from Oct 9-13, 2015.