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Science Of The Ages

Garhwali villagers resist new central farming plans, stick by age-old ways attuned to nature

Science Of The Ages
Photographs by narendra bisht
Science Of The Ages

Jardhargaon is a sprawling cluster of villages tucked away in the Himalayan folds in Tehri district of Garhwal. A panoramic view of pine- and sal-covered mountains, green and freshly showered, surrounds us, as little streams spout out of boulders at every turn of the winding hill roads and clouds hang like a dark cover overhead. But it’s not an idyllic vision that defines Jardhargaon. These days it’s the nerve-centre of a sustained protest by the gentle local farmers against what they perceive as government interference in the region’s traditional mode of agriculture.

The farmers are agitating under the umbrella of Beej Bachao Andolan, a unique people’s movement aimed at saving indigenous seeds and traditional techniques of farming in the hills against rampant and thoughtless modernisation. The point of conflict is one such ostensibly “progressive” measure: the state agriculture department’s “mini kit” of seeds, chemical fertilisers, fungicides and micro-nutrients being distributed free to small farmers to increase the yield of local millets—mandwa and jhangora. It’s part of a `300-crore government programme that has been introduced in 16 states and one union territory this year under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana. While the farmers are all for millet promotion, they are sceptical about the ways of doing it, contesting that the overt thrust on chemicals is against the very credo of the officially “organic” Uttarakhand; for years the farmers here have been growing pesticide-free crops.

Vijay Jardhari, Chipko movement activist and initiator of the BBA, compares the situation now to what happened in the ’90s, in the aftermath of the Green Revolution. “That was the time when wide-ranging experiments in agriculture were initiated. We were given new, improved seeds and chemical fertilisers to increase the yield,” remembers Jardhari. The first produce turned out to be excellent but subsequently things began to deteriorate rapidly. “The soil got spoilt by the chemicals over the years,” remembers another BBA activist, Sudeshna Behan. Also, people started using new seeds, and indigenous ones fell into disuse. For example, there were over 3,000 varieties of wheat sown in Garhwal before the Green Revolution. Now it is down to 320.

The farmers fear that the soil will get degraded yet again with the newfound stress on pesticides and hybrid seeds. They believe in staying organic, not messing with nature and also sustaining the agricultural biodiversity and heritage of the region. “Our traditional methods are instinctively scientific. We have tremendous agricultural wisdom that goes beyond the use of chemicals. We should aim at conserving those practices instead,” says a senior BBA activist, Dhoom Singh Negi. They have for years worked diligently in this direction without any support from the government, and have looked for indigenous seeds in far-flung villages. As a result of these efforts, they have a big bank of native seeds: 250 varieties of rajma, 350 types of paddy, 30 kinds of wheat, 12 of mandwa and ragi, eight of jhangora, four of gahat, seven of bhatt and about nine types of navrangi. “We distribute these seeds to villagers. They have a right to them,” says Negi.

Photograph by Narendra Bisht

Residents feel the new farming moves of the government are all motivated by interests of agro-chemical firms.

According to Jardhari, the overt thrust on “monoculture”, or sowing only one type of millet in a field, will also bring the traditional Baranaja mode of mixed crop practice under threat. It’s an agricultural system under which 12 different varieties, a combination of cereals, lentils, vegetables, creepers and root vegetables—like rajma, mandwa, chaulai, kuttu, gahat, bhatt, lobhia, urad, moong, toor etc—are grown together in one field. “The synergy of seeds makes the soil fertile. It’s a scientifically balanced mode of farming,” says Jardhari. After Baranaja, the field is kept fallow and allowed rest. The next crop sown on it is jhangora and rice, then wheat in the cycle after that. “The rotational system gives a good yield and helps sustains the soil,” he says.

However, besides the erosion of soil, what is being questioned the most is the reason behind introducing the new millet plan in Uttarakhand. Unlike in the hill region, the programme is pushed in areas where productivity of millets is less than the national average yield. “While mandwa yield is almost as much as the national yield, jhangora produce in Uttarakhand is 2-3 times higher than the national average. Why disturb an already high produce?” questions Jardhari. Jardhargaon has been a rather unassuming cradle for “swadheen kheti” (sovereign agriculture), but its residents feel that the recent government drive seems to be motivated more by the interest of the agro-chemical firms than that of farmers. “Independence in agriculture is critical. But multinationals have started interfering, hybrid seeds are being pumped in. It’s a new slavery and we have to fight against it,” says Negi.

There is a traditional saying in these parts: “Apna aaloo bazaar becha, birana aaloo thopda thecha”, which roughly translates like this—you sell your own potatoes in the market, then are forced to buy it for your own consumption at a higher rate. As against this perceived threat, the BBA’s aim has been to make local farmers self-sufficient. “The movement is about food safety and assurance,” says Sudeshna Behan. “But innocent villagers get taken in with the promise of more money. The thrust on business eventually endangers their self-reliance,” she adds.

So we have 75-year-old Bachani Devi, who greets us with a slogan: “Kheti par kiski maar. Jungli jaanwar, mausam aur sarkar. Mitti, paani, beej aur ped, band karo tum inse chhed. (Agriculture is adversely affected by three things—wild animals, weather and the government. Stop interfering with the soil, water, seeds and trees).” She wants the government to stop meddling in their agricultural methods. “In the old method we reap, keep and eat ourselves,” she explains. “The produce remains at home.” She has many young farmers supporting her. Like 30-year-old Ravi Gosain, who has been spreading the message of traditional agriculture by writing and singing songs, one of which states: “Katu bhalu lagdu baranaja ku swad, pahad ki dharti ku yu gun sada ralu humte yaad” (The taste of the Baranaja produce has a unique taste and this quality of the hill soil we shall always cherish).

For now, BBA intends to cap the simmering protest by organising a rally against the government’s seed programme in New Tehri this week. But the movement has further, bigger aims for “natural” ways of sustaining and promoting millets. Negi hopes to impact and change the local, contemporary way of life. The urban, global influences in Jardhargaon are evident. Noodles are a favourite indulgence. “But the local food is the best diet, enriched with vitamins and proteins,” says Negi. So BBA is also promoting local dishes in public functions and “sarvajanik bhoj” which, they hope, will boost demand for local millets. We, too, are served mandwe ki roti and jhangora with pahadi dal for a sumptuous lunch, all produced in Jardhari’s own fields. “For us farming is not a business, it’s an ideology, a practice, a philosophy and a culture,” Negi says. The government, he hopes, would have the good sense to come round and agree.

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