As the phenomenon of mass suicides by farmers turns into a major national issue, small cultivators in this sub-Himalayan state are demonstrating that the way forward to sustainable agriculture may lie in sticking to traditional methods.
In the lush and fertile valleys of Uttaranchal, farmers have long been suspicious of branded seeds that are being aggressively promoted by trans-national corporations (TNCs) like Monsanto that are now having an increasing presence in the country. The idea that crops can be grown without viable seeds for the future or that they have to be dosed with specific chemicals and other costly inputs is abhorrent to them.
"So many changes have been seen in recent years, but I continue to grow traditional varieties of crops without using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. I also exchange seeds with other farmers and participate in efforts to save our forests. I think all this is very important for our welfare,'' says Sivdeyi Devi, a woman farmer of Jardhar village.
Earlier this month, after a fresh spate of suicides was reported among distressed farmers, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh toured the worst-affected state of Maharashtra and announced a bailout package worth 840 million US dollars. That was the first major intervention by the government on behalf of farmers who fallen deep in debt by taking loans to buy costly farm inputs.
The independent Human Rights Law Network, which has been working on farmers' suicides believes that more than 10,000 farmers have committed suicide over the last five years, in important farming states such as Punjab, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.
But in Uttaranchal, farmers and peasants, unlike their counterparts in other states, are keenly aware of the exploitative practices of money lenders and contractors and know the value of organised resistance. This began with the ‘chipko' (hug-the-tree) movement of the 1970s and 1980s that saved entire forests from greedy lumber contractors.
‘'The movement to save forests was followed by the campaign to save seeds as both are crucial for protecting our villages," explains Sudesha Devi, a typical hardworking peasant woman from Rampur village who finds time to be active in both movements. She was even jailed briefly for her participation in the chipko movement which attracted international attention.
Devi's rationale for growing healthy organic food is simple. "After all this back-breaking work on hill farms we can survive only if our food is based on the high-nutrition traditional crops using healthy (organic) methods to grow them."
For villagers here, it has been important to retain confidence in their own seeds especially in the face of a campaign by the government's farm extension network which decried putting seeds by for the next crop as a symbol of backward farming. But the farmers benefited from a counter-campaign by non government organizations (NGOs) such as the Save the Seeds Movement (SSM).
Vijay Jardhari, a key co-ordinator of SSM says, "About two decades back the government's scientists started propagating the idea that the 'twelve-grain' (barahanaja) traditional inter-cropping system grown on higher land is backward and should be given up in favour of soyabean.''
Fortunately, better sense prevailed among the farmers and they refused to have anything to do with the government plan. ‘'Inter-cropping is a remarkable, risk minimising system that makes available a rich diversity of millets and legumes which are high in nutrition. In hindsight it would have been suicidal for us to sacrifice this for soyabean monocrop,'' Jardhari said.
For activists, one worry is the Seeds Bill tabled in Parliament that seeks to allow TNCs to deal directly with small farmers. Several TNCs already have in place extension networks that are inducing farmers with promises of seeds with bigger yields and better profits.
Activists have warned that the new legislation could destroy forever India's vast biodiversity in seeds and crops, and take away the independence of some 700 million farmers in this country with population of 1.2 billion people.
Kunwar Prasun, who walks long distances to spread the message of SSM , says: "When we carried out padyatras (foot-marches) to several parts of the state, we discovered that traditional varieties are preserved and greatly valued by people. We collected some of these varieties and made them available to other farmers who had lost them in recent years."
Prasun has catalogued many rice varieties which he discovered in distant villages. SSM also made a rich collection of many varieties of grains, millets, beans and other legumes as well as medicinal herbs.
Dhum Singh Negi, a senior activist of SSM, said, "We are convinced that sustainable progress of our hill farming is possible only on the basis of preserving these traditional varieties and using traditional cropping-systems.''
However, some villagers are yet to be convinced. Bharat Singh, a youth said: "Our people are passing through a phase of lack of self-confidence and overdependence on the market. Somehow many people prefer to buy staples like rice from the market rather than stick to home-grown millets that have a much higher nutrition value.''
Ramlal Senval confessed that one problem was that ‘'we are tempted too easily by short-term gains and the fact that the government also gives loans and subsidies for exotic seeds, although these require costly agri-chemicals."
So it is not surprising that despite all the recent campaigns of groups like SSM, some farmers in these parts still think of maximising short-term profits by adopting chemical-intensive methods to grow exotic varieties of tomatoes and other crops.
"Such trends will come and go. We need not worry too much about these but at the same time we should keep on exploring ways to improve returns from organically grown traditional crops,'' says Bhupal Singh, a youth from Nahin Kala village.
Singh has begun tapping the growing market for organic foods among wealthy urban buyers in the national capital of New Delhi where, lately, awareness of the values of naturally grown foods has been spreading rapidly.
Bhupal Singh, Vijay Jardhari and others from SSM participate regularly in fairs for organic produce and are attracted by the possibility of exporting organically grown crops. In such efforts they are helped by friends in city-based NGOs like 'Kalpvriksha' and 'GRAIN' .
As Shalini, a representative of GRAIN, said, "The cooperation of groups based in villages and those in the cities for similar objectives like seed rights and organic food will benefit everybody."
In addition, there is a need for greater cooperation with scientists. Sundarlal Bahuguna, veteran environmentalist, believes that ‘'farmers need to be more like scientists and scientists to be more like farmers."
It is when scientists ignore close contacts with farmers and their traditions that conflicts emerge with movements like SSM, observed Bahuguna. ‘'This is particularly true of scientists who are employed by big agribusiness and seed companies. ‘'
‘'History records instances of the high value people in Uttaranchal placed on their seeds -- in times of famine, families have perished from hunger but refused to touch seeds stored away for the future in ‘tomris' (special storages),'' said Bahuguna.
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