When Sowmya Balasubramaniam was just a kid, she would help her father sow seeds and irrigate the plants on her family farm in Erode. Coming from an agricultural background, she was naturally interested in plants and farming. However, her parents wanted her to study and not become a farmer. So she completed her engineering in Information Technology from the Government Engineering College at Erode and got placed with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in Chennai in 2013.
A university rank holder, Sowmya had no idea what life in a metro would be like.
Since she had signed a two-year contract with the IT giant, she continued to work at TCS but also began to look for an alternate career. “While in Chennai, I turned to social work and began to volunteer for orphanages and old age homes over the weekends. That’s when I realised that I wanted to work with people,” she says.
While working at TCS, she learned about the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Asia's oldest institute for professional social work education. Sowmya cleared the entrance test on her second attempt and completed her master's in social work (2015-2017) from TISS Mumbai.
“I got many awards at TISS, including the award for the best research and best student in social work class,” says Sowmya. At TISS, she did her research on tribal women’s collectives in Maharashtra.
Sowing seeds of conservation
Subsequently, she took up a job at the Institute of Himalayan Environmental Research and Education (INHERE) in Uttarakhand. The institution is dedicated to sustainable development in the Himalayan region.
“I chose to work at the grassroots level to understand farmers on the ground. The work at INHERE brought me in touch with rural communities. There, women mostly looked after farms and families as men went to cities for work,” she says.
Sowmya started travelling to villages even in the remotest part of Uttarakhand and would also work on farms with women. She started learning about native vegetables.
On a visit back home in 2017, Sowmya sowed some seeds of Pinto Beans and all of them germinated and grew well. The next year, they grew on their own without any effort from her end. “I wondered that when these seeds are so regenerative in nature, why we buy from the market,” she says.
Sowmya was well aware of the harmful effects of genetically modified seeds which were driving farmers to poverty and debt. Her experiences in Uttarkhand around native seeds furthered her interest in the conservation of indigenous varieties and she began collecting them from all possible sources. “I started dwelling deeply into seed conservation and started collecting heirloom seeds.”
In 2017-18, while working with INHERE, Sowmya got a chance to be a speaker at the Organic Seed Growers conference in the USA. She was also involved in setting up a seed bank and a gene bank for seed exchange in Uttarakhand.
Collecting native seeds from across India
After quitting INHERE, Sowmya went back to Erode and started her social enterprise HOOGA Seed Keepers’ Collective. HOOGA stands for ‘Helping Of Oppressed Generation Of Agriculturists.’ It is working towards the conservation of native seed varieties, most of which are now endangered or lost as farmers have shifted to genetically modified seeds, which cannot be used the next year, require chemical pesticides and guzzle more water.
"Seeds and fertilizer industries are now so interconnected that it is difficult to separate them," she says.
The rising costs of buying seeds and chemicals annually are driving farmers towards debt. "It is critical to protect our traditional heirloom seeds which have higher nutritive value and can contribute to our global food security,” she says.
Sowmya reached out to elderly people in the remotest parts of the country to learn about indigenous vegetable, paddy and millet varieties which are not grown anymore. After two years of this journey, HOOGA started doing ‘seed yatras’ or travel to culturally important places across India where native seeds were still in use, with yields so high that one plant was enough to feed a family. “We have, so far, collected over 200 varieties of native seeds of vegetables including brinjals, gourds, tomatoes, greens and peppers,” she says.
The HOOGA native seeds collection also includes millets and 42 native varieties of paddy.
During the seed yatra, Sowmya and her team members also learn about the history of seeds, their source and for how long farmers have been growing them. “We bring them back and multiply the seeds at our research plot in Erode,” she says.
Sowmya works with local tribal communities and other seed keepers across India to maintain the purity of seed genes by avoiding cross-pollination.
"We give them native seeds for cultivation and then buy back the produce from them, providing them with a livelihood option,” she says.
With this methodology, HOOGA can maintain the purity of seeds and also create an alternate livelihood for marginalised communities. Like the Perandapally Women’s Self-Help Group in Tamil Nadu comprising 20 women who are small farmers. They grow regenerative seeds in their farms on less than one cent of land each. HOOGA has provided them with rare indigenous varieties of seeds after training them in quality seed production and the importance of native seeds.
“It allowed them to get involved in conservation work and also provided them with an income-generating opportunity as we buy back from them,” Sowmya says. There are many similar stories from other parts of the country.
Apart from bringing awareness about native seed conservation and seed sovereignty, HOOGA is working towards creating seed entrepreneurs who can provide native seeds in their areas, ultimately ending the dependence on modified seeds.
Children can take seeds from there, grow at home and bring them back to school. “It also provides them with an opportunity to learn about vegetables not seen in the market,” Sowmya says.
HOOGA sells seeds online and its buyers right now are mostly home gardeners, rooftop gardeners, and organic farmers. “We supply seeds to all parts of India and while we keep getting queries from abroad, we have not yet started selling outside the country,” she says.
Content with her work, Sowmya now wants to grow the number of farmers and seed keepers to conserve the vast food biodiversity of the country.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)