In a bid to support indigenous knowledge about local produce from the eastern Sahyadris, four Mumbaikars join hands with village elders and a research foundation to start a seed bank in early February
Development, or the one-track, dominant idea of development that most modern societies believe in, is a double-edged sword. The ones it eludes hunger after it. And those it touches grapple with it like an albatross around their neck. For centuries, farmers dwelling in the tribal villages on the eastern Sahyadris around Ahmednagar grew crops that had the gene pool to survive in the hilly areas that was prone to soil erosion and where it would rain incessantly for months on end. Fruits and vegetables were picked from the forest, and life went on in perfect harmony with nature.
Then came the realisation that chopping down their forests would make way for intensive agriculture, giving them unprecedented yield and returns. But with the fury of climate change unravelling, the harmful impacts of chemical-intensive cultivation started becoming apparent. Ironically, the farmers had the armour to combat crop failure all along, but it took one elderly village woman, a committed official of a research foundation and four Mumbaikars, who had given up their day jobs, to come together to rekindle their belief in traditional knowledge systems and indigenous varieties of crops. The farmers in the villages located inside the Harishchandra Kalsubai Wildlife Sanctuary still have a long way to go, but things are beginning to change.
The festival will showcase over 300 varieties of rice
A festival that will celebrate over 300 indigenous varieties of rice from the region is a case in point. To be organised next Sunday, it is the initiative of OOO Farms, started by Shailesh Sakharam Awate, Abhay Bhatia, Pranav Khandelwal and Karan Khandelwal. In 2017, the four friends from Mumbai set out in search of farmland untouched by chemical fertilisers in Maharashtra, and found that it’s only pockets of mountainous regions inhabited by tribals that remain pristine. They tied up with 50 farmers in the region by promising them a market for their traditional produce. And in this mission, they were helped by Sanjay Patil of Pune’s BAIF Development Research Foundation.
"Our biggest hurdle was to convince Mumbaikars, used to having basmati and kolam rice, that varieties such as Sahyadri black, aajra ghansal and ambe mohar were far more nutritious. The Wild Food Festival we hosted last year helped spread the word," says Awate, referring to the venture’s first such festival held in the city in September, which mid-day had featured. With chefs and food mall owners dropping by, they received queries for supply tie-ups, but that’s when they hit another roadblock.
Shailesh S Awate
"We couldn’t assure them a constant supply because for bulk production, you need seeds in bulk. And the seeds for these indigenous crops had been lost over the years," shares Awate. That’s when Patil put the four friends in touch with Rahibai Popere, now known as the seed mother of Maharashtra. The elderly farmer had preserved seeds of various grains, vegetables and millets over the years, and Patil helped categorise them. The friends then came up with the idea of expanding and formalising the seed bank, which now boasts of 250 varieties. It will be inaugurated in early February.
"The bank involves no money. All farmers do is take the required quantity of seeds, and once they yield a harvest, they pay back with double the amount of seeds," explains Awate. "Monetary transactions have wreaked havoc on farmers. Here, it is all about paying back to Mother Earth."
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