Sowing history, one seed at a time

It was an innocuous statistic that changed the course of ecologist Debal Deb’s life in 1995. Deb, now 51, worked at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) back then, and came across a study which reported that the gene pool of almost 90 per cent of local rice varieties in the country had been wiped out since the Green Revolution in 1965. “Influential organisations, like the WWF, spent millions on saving ‘charismatic mega fauna’ (the tiger and rhinoceros) but didn’t care about rice seeds.”

Since 1997, Orissa-based ecologist Debal Deb (second from right) trains farmers from West Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand, Assam, Bihar, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu to sow rare folk rice seed varieties. At his seed farm in Bankura district near Jharkhand, he has conserved 600 rice varieties that would have otherwise been extinct. Pic Courtesy/Debal Deb

Turns out he cared deeply enough to quit the WWF in 1996 and gather rare rice seed varieties from across India to distribute them among farmers and encourage their production. Till date, Deb has distributed rare rice varieties to over 1,200 farmers across West Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand, Assam, Bihar, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

In 1996, Deb began travelling across West Bengal and shifted base to a remote town called Baliatore in Bankura district, bordering Jharkhand. “That was all I could afford after quitting my job. Also Baliatore was well-connected to three districts — Vardhaman, Purulia and West Medinipur — where marginalised, tribal farmers grew rare rice varieties. I decided to collect rare rice seeds from them and distribute them to other ‘modern’ farmers around West Bengal to encourage production,” he says.  Old, folk rice seed varieties, he adds, are only found with tribal farmers who cannot afford pesticides, urea and other modern equipment. Deb never charged money for the seeds because they were not his to begin with. 

But soon, he came to know that many farmers gave up sowing his varieties at whim. “I realised they didn’t value the seeds because they came free.” That’s when, in 2001, he bought 1.8 acres of land in Bankura and started a seed farm called Vasudha. “Commercially, we have no access to more than 860 rare folk rice seed varieties. I grow 600 varieties at Vasudha and, in Orissa alone, more than 200 farmers receive over 150 varieties of rice seeds,” he says.

Teaching at universities abroad and fellowships are his sources of income now. Collecting rice seeds from farmers in remote areas costs him dearly, but that’s the only way to do it. “Once, I walked 13 km in search of a farmer who had a rare folk rice seed. But when I reached his home, he had passed away. His son then destroyed his folk rice seeds and ‘modernised’ the setup,” he rues. “I am against the attitude that all things modern are good while everything that is traditional is unscientific — so let’s convert our farming regardless of the damage to productivity.” 

But tradition, he says, has proven to be innovative. Farmlands in South Bengal suffer from floods every year. “There are eight old, rare folk rice seed varieties that can be cultivated even if your farm has been washed away by a flood and the water level has reached up to 15 ft. The stem of this variety rises up to 18 ft, and no modern hybrid seed can boast of this.” In Jharkhand, Deb distributes 15 seed varieties that can be grown in laterite soil even if the area receives 20 mm rainfall. In 2009, after the Aila storm devastated the Sunderbans, Deb distributed folk seed varieties to the farmers there, and rice grew just fine.

He also conducts 60 workshops every year to educate farmers about community ethos and its role in preserving traditional methods. With his help, villagers in over 12 districts of West Bengal have formed 2,000 sacred groves (forest fragments that have a significant religious connotation for the community that vows to protect it). “Construction of roads and power lines destroys these areas which are home to many endangered species of plants and animals,” says Deb.

Even after the success of a seed festival he organised in March this year in Bengaluru, he remains unsure whether interest can translate into action. “I am more comfortable working with farmers, because they can directly take this cause ahead. I am not really sure how many members of the urban elite will change their lifestyle to preserve rice seeds,” he says, with a smile.  

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