Odisha schoolgirl saves 260 varieties of native paddy and millet seeds

Harshita Priyadarshini Mohanty, a class 8 student, began collecting and conserving native seeds in 2020. She has over 180 varieties of indigenous paddy and more than 80 types of millet seeds that she shares freely with farmers and promotes organic farming

Niroj Ranjan Misra
New Update
Harshita Priyadarshini Mohanty with some of her native seeds at an exhibition (left) and at a paddy farm (right)

Harshita Priyadarshini Mohanty with some of her native seeds at an exhibition (left) and at a paddy farm (right)

At a young age, Harshita Priyadarshini Mohanty from the tribal-dominated Koraput district of Odisha has become a well-known name for her efforts to conserve indigenous varieties of paddy and millets. A class eight student at Prakash Vidyalaya in Jeypore of Koraput, she has created a seed bank that now boasts of over 180 varieties of indigenous paddy and more than 80 types of mandia (millet) that has earned her the sobriquet of ‘seed girl’. 

Influenced by Padma Shri Kamala Pujari of the district, little Harshita flagged off her venture of collecting indigenous seeds in 2023. “Kamala ji gave me four varieties of paddy seeds – Koraput Kalajeera (which got GI tag in August 2023), Machhakanta, Umuriachudi and Asamchudi. Kamala ji said children must preserve the vanishing indigenous seeds for future generations as people like her are now in the evening of their life,” says Harshita.

“Our native seeds are locally adaptable and climate-resilient. They can withstand climate change, require less water for cultivation and the produce is rich in nutrients. Farmers don’t have to spend money to buy seeds every season if they conserve indigenous seeds,” says the young conservationist.

Harshita was felicitated in January 2024 as ‘Krushak Ratna’ jointly by Paradeep Phosphates and Siksha ‘O’ Anusdhan University in Bhubaneswar.

millet seeds
Harshita at an exhibition (left) and with her inspiration Kamala Pujari, Padma Shri awardee seed conservationist

Seed collection and conservation

Greatly influenced by Kamala ji, Harshita goes directly to farmers’ fields to collect seeds, says her father Harekrushna Mohanty, a social worker. “When we were on our way to Jeypore from Boipariguda to get Harshita admitted into Prakash Vidyalaya for her further studies, we stopped at Patraput, where Kamala ji was staying. The meeting with her infused a new zeal into my daughter’s seed collection efforts,” says Harekrushna. 

Also Read: Seed conservation: This Madhya Pradesh farmer grows 115 native varieties of rice over just 2 acres; gives seeds free to other farmers 

“With dwindling cultivation of native crops, many paddy and millet varieties are endangered or extinct now.  My collection will help farmers to save the existing varieties and cultivate them in the future,” she says.

Impressed with her work, farmers share their indigenous seeds with her. She has collected the paddy and millet seeds from various local ‘haats’ and farmers of Jeypore, Boipariguda, Kundra, and Borrigumma blocks of Koraput. 

Harshita conserves the seeds in plastic containers and earthen pots using neem tablets. “Neem is a natural insecticide and pesticide that has been used for seed and grain preservation for centuries,” she says.

Her seed bank includes rice varieties like Kalabati (black rice), Tulsi Bhog (high-fibre rice), Rogusai, Chhatianaki and Haladichudi collected during the harvesting season between December and January.

Harshita addressing the Global Symposium on Farmers' Rights. Pic: Harekrushna Mohanty

She keeps between 100 gm and 250 gm of each seed variety. If there are seeds beyond this, she distributes the surplus among farmers for free. “In 2023, I gave indigenous paddy varieties to 20 farmers. This year, I have distributed seeds among 50 farmers so far,” says Harshita who nurtures the ambition to be an agronomist. 

Also Read: How Tamil Nadu’s aeronautical engineer-turned-farmer is creating native seed bank to promote organic farming 

Along with indigenous landraces, Harshita also conserves different varieties of millet. The idea struck her when she visited the district-level festival for ecological diversity, organized at the Tribal Museum in Koraput town by NGO ‘Ekata’. The festival exhibited many varieties of paddy, millets and vegetables. She began with three millet varieties - Bhalu, Bhati and Mami. Now the number has exceeded 80, including five gifted to her by ‘Ekata’.

Community for conservation

Jagannath Mishra, the secretary of ‘Ekata’, says: “We suggested to her to form a team of youngsters who could persuade villagers to adopt organic farming and also cultivate millets, indigenous paddy and native beans as only storing would not help.”

Now Harshita has formed a group of 15 youngsters to flag off the first phase of this mission to promote organic farming in five villages under the Boipariguda block of Koraput. 

“We have promised to provide her with all the logistics support,” he adds.

Harshita interacting with President Droupadi Murmu at a symposium-cum-exhibition. Pic: Harekrushna Mohanty

Harshita also topped the list of 10,000 participants in the 12-17 age group at the virtual national level competition ‘Idea Youngsters’ and bagged a cash prize of Rs 2.5 lakh in April 2024 from organisers HDFC Bank and Red FM. During the virtual competition, she highlighted the importance of traditional seeds and organic farming and answered all the questions posed by the judges. 

When the state Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Empowerment came to know about this little conservationist, she was invited to the first International Millet Convention in Bhubaneswar in November 2023 where over 10,000 people took part. Harshita displayed her collection and also deliberated on methods of conservation, millet cultivation and health benefits of millets.

Also Read: Bengal farmer revives native paddy variety; earns Rs120 per kg with organic farming

Recognition for work

“During the convention, Harshita drew the attention of Dr Soumya Swaminathan who was the chief scientist of the World Health Organisation between 2019 and 2022. Impressed with her, Dr Swaminathan, the daughter of the father of Green Revolution MS Swaminathan, encouraged her to continue the work,” says Harshita’s father.

Harshita also attended the Global Symposium on Farmers’ Rights organized in September 2023 in Delhi by the Union Ministry of Agriculture, according to Tapas Chandra Roy, the agriculture officer of Kundra block in Koraput district. Roy is in charge of the Odisha Millet Mission in the entire district. 

Harshita with Dr Soumya Swaminathan (left) and speaking at a millet convention (right)

“Representatives from over 125 countries took part in the global symposium. There she displayed her collection and presented her views on seed and grain conservation,” Roy says.

“I spoke on ‘Community Seed Bank and Value Chain’ at the symposium inaugurated by President Droupadi Murmu,” says Harshita.

Harshita has also been collecting currencies of different countries since she was in class two. Influenced by her grandfather Sripada Mohanty, a police constable, Harshita has more than 2,000 coins from about 80 countries. She has also collected over 1500 postage stamps from 40 countries. 

Harshita excels in studies and extra-curricular activities, scoring over 90 percent in her examinations. “Though she is a bit of a laggard in sports and games, she excels in debate, essays and story-telling competitions,” says Krishna Nishanko, the principal of Prakash Vidyalaya. 

(Niroj Ranjan Misra a Cuttack-based freelance writer. He writes on rural and tribal life, social issues, art and culture, and sports)

Also Read: Debal Deb: Seed warrior who has conserved 1,480 traditional rice varieties & shared them for free with over 7,600 farmers 

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