"Jote Boye Jo Zameen
Beej Usi ke Rahe Adheen
Evam Mitti Paani Beej Aur Pedh
Band Karo Tum Unse Chhedh"
(He who tills and cultivates the land
The seeds belong to him alone
The earth, water, seeds and trees
Stop messing with these resources)
This slogan of the Beej Bachao Andolan (BBA; Save the Seeds Movement), which originated in the Heval valley of Tehri Garhwal, spread like fire among the farming communities of Uttaranchal in the late 1980s.
The early 1970s had seen prominent Sarvodaya thinkers and environmentalists - Sunder Lal Bahuguna, Pratap Shikhar, Dhum Singh Negi, Kunwar Prasoon and
Vijay Jaddhari, among others - start a movement against the ruthless felling of trees by timber merchants and contractors in the Heval valley. This movement - now known in history as theChipko Movement - saw men, women and children uniting against these outside forces. It was in the spirit and momentum of Chipko that the BBA emerged.
Once again, the people are united against the inorganic chemical farming practices that the government and scientific farming institutes were propagating strongly. There had been a move away from sustainable, traditional cultivation practices. Vijay Jaddhari, a stalwart of this movement, says, "After Chipko, farmers realized that they should fight for their farming rights as well. Why should they have to buy seeds, manure and fertilizers, when for ages they have been using their traditional knowledge to tend and preserve their seeds, land, water and forests?"
"We had many traditional varieties of rice and wheat in our hills earlier. Rikhwa, Ghyasu, Chawaria, Jiri are all old rice varieties that are easy to grow, suit our farming and animal rearing techniques, and are delicious. But now the new variety of dwarfed rice has taken over. Instead of growing the traditional crops, likejhingura and mandua, people have started growing soyabean and tomatoes," says Jaddhari. Growing cash crops kills the sustainable mountain farming that has been practiced in the region for generations. "These crops are only good for the market," he says. He explains that agriculture institutes encourage the heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In the long run, this ruins soil quality and fertility.
However, for the BBA, it was a difficult journey. Inorganic fertilizers initially produced high crop yields, which seemed almost like a windfall to many farmers. The cultivation of cash crops also seemed economically lucrative. In these times, with the men looking to the 'markets', it was in the women that the BBA found its staunchest supporters.
Says Kamla Devi, a woman farmer from Nagini village, "In our hills, traditionally, men only set the plough and till the land. These roles are physically too strenuous for a woman, I guess. Most of our men have migrated to the cities to seek employment in any case. So, in that sense, farming is a woman's domain. But the use of new techniques threatens to take way the woman's prerogative. Our mobility is limited; we cannot go to towns and cities to buy seeds and fertilizers. Nor do we know the economic aspect of such farming. Our role in traditional farming is usurped by these new methods; it alienates us from our land and our livelihood."
BBA collaborated with women's Self Help Groups (SHGs) in the villages to set up seed banks of traditional crop varieties in order to preserve them from extinction. Kunwar Prasoon, one of the chief proponents of the movement, reflects, "The cash crops, fertilizers, chemical manure - the use of all these are based on the paradigm of 'bikao kheti' (farming for monetary benefit alone), whereas our own farming practices encourage 'tikao kheti' (sustainable farming). Women in the hills work in close unison with their natural resources. They fetch fodder from the forests, get water from the natural sources, work on farms etc. They tend nature like their own child. The men, on the other hand, are more mercenary in their approach. They want immediate gains; women are more foresighted in that sense."
In the Chipko movement as well, it was the women who hugged trees and faced the axes of the contractors. In BBA, it was the women who nursed the saplings, distributed them among other women members and fought with their men to preserve older techniques.
In order to encourage the time-honored farming practices - such as dryland mixed cropping systems (Barahnaja or twelve grain system) - against the newer monoculture techniques and to preserve dying traditional crop varieties, BBA members undertook a padyatra (a march). They travelled the length and breadth of Uttaranchal - from Askot in Uttarkashi (Garhwal) to Aarakot near the Pithoragarh border (in Kumaon).
Dulari Devi, a woman farmer from Koti village, says, "It is wrong to say that our traditional crops are economically unviable. Pulses like Gahad, Pahadi Rajma etc are sold at Rs 40 a kilo. The traditional rice varieties grown in Nagini, Uttarkashi and Jaunsar belt are very much in demand. What people do not understand is that our land, our seeds, our food are an integral part of our heritage - all these constitute our pahari (literally, of the mountains) identity. Why should we give up who we are, and try to become someone else? I do not wish to become a stranger to my own self, to my own culture and people."
With the support of the farmers, especially the women, the BBA has been able to preserve around 305 indigenous varieties of rice, and 170 species of other traditional crops and pulses, like the pahari rajma, mandua and jhingura. Now, they are trying to distribute them locally.
Meanwhile, BBA continues to enthuse and inspire many similar people's movements elsewhere in the world. Thoughtfully summing up the spirit and philosophy of Beej Bachao, woman farmer Chunchura Devi, says, "In our hills, there is a saying that a farmer may beg for food or shelter but he will never ever beg for seeds. So why should we cripple ourselves and depend on others now?"