When Rajkumar Choudhry was studying in class 11, he would go to school on his second-hand bicycle from Lotmara village in Balaghat district, Madhya Pradesh, to Paraswada town about 11km away. His father, a farmer who struggled to make ends meet, had bought the bicycle for Rs250. For the onlookers, it was a rickety two-wheeled structure but for Rajkumar, it was the vehicle that took him closer to his dream every day – of pursuing graduation in agriculture.
“It appeared like the world’s oldest bicycle. But I wanted to study and it took me daily to the Utkrisht Madhyamik Vidyalaya in Paraswada,” recollects Rajkumar, now 32.
After class 12, he cleared the ICAR All India Entrance Examination for Admission but his family did not have the money to let him pursue agriculture studies in a college outside the district. “My dreams crashed. I had to take admission in the Rani Durgavati Government College in Paraswada where I pursued BA and also learned computer,” he says.
But Rajkumar’s passion for agriculture made him gather knowledge about farming from all the sources around him, including his elders, Pradan’s professionals, and agriculture seminars and meetings. “Due to financial conditions I could not study agriculture but that did not stop me from learning,” he says.
He also shares them free of cost with other farmers from across Madhya Pradesh.
Sowing the seeds of conservation
It was in 2011 that officials from Pradan (Professional Assistance for Development Action), a civil society organisation working with the poorest communities in rural India, visited his Lotmara village to form a self-help group (SHG). “They hired me for data entry work but it also gave me the opportunity to attend all the meetings and learn from their work,” he says.
“The turning point was a meeting in 2013 where Pradan’s Chandan bhaiyya spoke to farmers about the benefits of native seed collection,” Rajkumar says.
At the meeting, he learned that native seeds required less water; were pest resistant and flourished well with just farm manure and natural bio fertilisers, which reduced the costs of cultivation. Moreover, they could be stored for the next season, unlike hybrid seeds which had to be bought from the market every year at high rates.
This number was 1,10,000 before the traditional varieties were lost to the Green Revolution which emphasised monoculture and a handful of high-yielding crops.
Inspired by Pradan, Rajkumar first collected the paddy varieties his family was growing on their land. He went to his maternal grandfather’s house and collected two types of traditional paddy seeds from him. He began travelling to nearby villages and asked those farmers, who were still cultivating native paddy, for sharing the seeds.
“In the first year, I saved seeds of 13 indigenous paddy varieties,” he says. They were Pili Luchai, Janaki, Uray Boota, Gurmutiya, Kakeri, Chipda, Sathiya, Pandri, Piso, Jeera Shankar, Kali Mooch (with blackish husk), Badrfool and Jhorai.
“Given my interest in traditional seeds, Pradan began inviting me to seed collection meetings, which allowed me to travel to Odisha, Chandigarh and other places,” he says, adding that the training from Pradan has helped him turn into a seed conservationist.
While travelling from one place to another, Rajkumar kept collecting traditional paddy and vegetable seeds for conservation.
Traditional wisdom for native seeds
In the first year of cultivation, Rajkumar realised the unevenness in rice grains of some varieties. “Some were long but others were short. I asked my maternal grandmother, who told me to only save the longest grains for sowing next season. When I planted them next year, I saw that all parameters had improved – quality, production and even the height of the plants were up to 5 feet,” he says.
Otherwise, cross-pollination takes place which hurts the seed quality and strength, he adds.
Similarly, for vegetables, seeds from the first crop must be kept for preservation and not consumed. Even if the plants get infected later or die, at least the seeds will be preserved. Also if other varieties start flowering later, there will be no chance of cross-pollination as one would have already saved the original seeds.
While following traditional wisdom, Rajkumar also attends agriculture-related meetings to keep himself updated. “I met Prof B K Rai from Jabalpur when he came for training farmers in Paraswada. I now call him my Guru as I have learned a lot from him,” he says.
“I grow some of them in larger quantities for sale and my family’s consumption,” Rajkumar adds.
Pollinating native seeds
When he started collecting and sowing these varieties, people made fun of him as most of the farmers have moved to hybrid varieties. “Today, I am known for my work. Farmers from across Madhya Pradesh come to take native seeds from me,” he says.
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“I maintain a register of farmers who come to me and tell them to further distribute the seeds after their crop as widely as possible. With the records, I know which farmer is growing which variety and in which area. It helps to introduce farmers to each other and grow the network.”
He, however, charges Rs 100 per kg from institutions and universities that approach him for buying native seeds. “That provides me part of the income to run my household. I also sell about 1,000 to 1200 kg of rice I grow in larger quantities to buyers who approach me directly. It is mostly through word of mouth and I don’t have to go to the mandi,” says Rajkumar, who continues to work as local staff for Pradan.
While most people know of only Basmati as fragrant rice, Rajkumar says there are many indigenous scented rice varieties too like Jeera Shankar, Jeera Phool and Doobraj among others.
For storing seeds, he says the harvested paddy is dried in the sun for three to four days. Then it is stored in earthen pots and there is no spoilage till the next season. “Moisture is the biggest cause of seed deterioration. Sun-drying also disinfects them besides removing the moisture,” he says.
Well-dried vegetable seeds can, however, be kept in glass bottles or plastic jars and earthen pots are used only for storing large quantities of seeds.
After almost 10 years, Rajkumar’s quest for seed collection continues like before. His mission is to help spread awareness about native seeds and help in their propagation. “This is just the beginning. There is a long journey we need to cover,” he says.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)