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Leaving tiger watching to raise rice
Ecologist Debal Deb gave up a job at WWF after he read that 90 per cent of indigenous rice varieties had been lost to the Green Revolution. His seed bank in the remote Kerandiguda village in Odisha preserves 920 local rice genes and trains farmers to grow them.
Ecologist Debal Deb is far from the urbane Kolkata home of his youth. The farmer-scientist lives in a mud shack without electricity in the tiny village of Kerandiguda in Odisha's Rayagada district. The 52-year-old not only grows indigenous rice varieties on a two-acre farm using organic methods, but also distributes the seeds and teaches other farmers to preserve India's native varieties. He has created a seed bank for 920 indigenous crop varieties and has been trying to prevent farmers from becoming dependent on multinational seed companies.
When Deb, who did his post-doctoral research in human ecology from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and ecological economics from University of California-Berkeley, started his folk rice gene bank Vrihi (Sanskrit for rice) in 1997, he had 400 native rice seeds. The number, of both seeds and farmers, has been growing each year.
Kerandiguda, where he set up the bank, is home to about 30 families, mostly tribal. "We chose this village because it is still far from 'developmentality', " he says. It's a term Deb has coined to describe the lopsided forced development which he says is responsible for the malaise in rural India. In his book Beyond Developmentality (Earthscan, 2009), Deb writes that endless growth is neither possible nor required, and chasing such a possibility will only lead to calamity.
Every harvest season, Deb tests the crop varieties, each distinct from the other, for gene purity. He preserves them in recycled paper bags or earthen pots for the next year. He plants each variety in 2m x 2m plots, and observes and records the growth. After keeping aside enough for the next year's planting, he gives the rest to farmers under an exchange programme he runs with them.
As genetically-modified (GM) crops make inroads into the tribal hinterland, local seeds passed down to farmers by their ancestors will be lost, believes Deb. The farmers will be left at the mercy of seed companies, and will lose their freedom to choose what kinds of crops to grow, he points out.
Hundreds of heirloom varieties are dying every year because a seed dies if it is left unsown for two years. Seed makers collude with state forces to mislead farmers by promising high yields from GM crops, alleges Deb. "Once the local varieties are destroyed, each year farmers will have to queue up before these companies for seeds. GM crops need far more chemical fertilisers and pesticides than the indigenous ones. This increases input costs several times, " he says. If ecological impact, input costs and nutritional values of the original seeds are considered, the local ones are far better yielding and sustainable. Besides, these are more aromatic and have higher nutritional value, he says.
Working with different NGOs, Deb runs advocacy campaigns to influence national policies in biodiversity conservation and indigenous people's rights. "I give 90 per cent of my time to the farm and the seeds, except when I am on a fellowship or attending a seminar. Fellowships sustain me financially. I don't earn anything from the seed bank, " he says.
The rice man Deb is today grew from a startling statistic he read in 1995: The Green Revolution ruined 90 per cent of local rice varieties in the country since it started in 1965. Deb, who then worked with World Wildlife Fund, realised that huge sums were spent on saving tigers but nothing to salvage rice varieties. He quit WWF in 1996 and embarked on the rice route.
Till 2010, Deb had his research station 'Basudha' at Binodbati village in Bankura district of West Bengal. The tranquil Niyamgiri hills in Odisha is home for the time being. "We may shift to another location in Andhra Pradesh or Chhattisgarh to preserve and popularise these pure seeds there. We are in talks with some like-minded people and organisations, " he says. The strategy is to reach out to newer farmers and save more varieties. It's a strategy that's growing fast if one goes by the thousands of farmers from Rayagada and the adjacent Malkangiri district as well as from Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh who are coming to Vrihi to plant indigenous seeds and take back some knowledge about older methods of farming.
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