Rupantar has had the good fortune of having worked with the indigenous communities of south Chhattisgarh for over two decades. The indigenous communities of Chhattisgarh have been food sovereign in ways not fully comprehended by the scientific community right up to the present time. To make an attempt to understand this reality, one has to understand the production and distribution systems in some detail. Chhattisgarh has had an amazing variety of food production systems. It is one of the last places on the earth to have a remembered history of an enormous diversity of food resources. These food resources include many varieties of rice germplasm, a wide range of millets and other dryland crops, pulses, oilseeds, fruits, edible flowers, tubers mushrooms and other gathered foods. Many of these are dependent upon access to and close proximity of the forests. The cradle of rice Chhattisgarh has traditionally been known as the rice bowl of India. The region is known to have grown a very amazing diversity of rice varieties in the not too distant past.
These include indigenous rice varieties capable of giving the equivalent of, or even higher yields than the green revolution varieties. These varieties are adapted to various micro ecological conditions, and give reasonable yields under normal conditions and with organic manuring. Individual varieties vary in maturity period ranging from 55 days to more than 180 days, and possess drought resistance and water tolerance capacity. There are low rain fall area varieties and deep water ones; short rices barely 50 cms in height to tall ones that tower over 150 cms. The grain size also varies from short fine to long fine, long bold to short bold and round, oval ones, beaked and awned ones, awned with various colours, sizes and shapes. The kernel may be coloured white, dull white, red opaque and the grain can also be of one of many possible colours. The grain may be scented or unscented
The world’s longest rice dokra-dokri is found in Chhattisgarh . Much of our current knowledge of the diversity of rice strains in Chhattisgarh is based on the research done by Dr R.H. Richharia, the famous rice scientist of the region, whose path breaking work on indigenous rice varieties was put down by the proponents of high yielding monocultures. His research demonstrated quite clearly that it was possible to obtain and maintain remarkably high yields of rice while using indigenous seeds, local resources and skills. Diversity in production techniques The farming communities in Chhattisgarh have held secure this amazing diversity of seed for many generations through their traditional farm practices. Whatever we have been able to do has only been possible through learning from them. Rupantar’s1 own collection and accession of seed varieties exceeds 2000 in number, and each is adapted to a different ecoclimatic regime, just as each has its own peculiar requirements for production. This is because the diversity in crops is matched by the diversity in production techniques.
There has been a range of technical and production practices that the farmers of Chhattisgarh have practiced .For example, the biyasi system of rice cultivation was practiced both in the low lying plains, as well as by the Maria tribal, the original inhabitants in the Abujhmar hills in Bastar. The method was based on the theory that the ploughing of standing crops at a point when the plants were a few inches tall, would flatten the entire field, but that the rice crop with firmer roots would rise up again, while the weeds would die out and be converted into green manure. There was also a variety of sowing practices known to the farmers. Apart from broadcasting, there was laichopi, in which the seeds were germinated in a controlled environment and then sown. This was useful in areas/years where the rains came early, and the fields did not retain enough warmth for in situ seed germination.
To cover seed shortage, the farmers knew the technique of chaalna, in which broken ear heads were replanted in the soil using the technology of clonal propagation, that Dr Richharia tried to popularize among farmers who were power drunk with hybrid seeds and canal irrigation, and were quick to forget their traditional knowledge base. Again, the utera system in which gram and oilseeds are sown in a planted rice field before it is due to ripen and left to grow with the residual moisture remaining in the rice fields.
Biodiversity and food security
It is not possible to have a discussion on the biodiversity in food resources without referring to the many kinds of uncultivated foods used in Chhattisgarh. These include many kinds of roots and tubers (jimi kanda, keu kanda, karu kanda, chind kanda to name a few), many kinds of greens, and the many seasonal edible mushrooms. There is a large range of leaves from trees, creepers , bushes and shrubs that are eaten here as bhaji (edible greens). Some of these like the tinpania and chanori bhajis grow naturally in the many rice fields after the rice harvest. As a matter of fact, the distinction between what is a bhaji and what is a weed is a product of the philosophy of agricultural monoculture that is in complete contradiction to the culture of biodiversity prevalent in Chhattisgarh. These foods lend richness to the diet and in times of drought and food scarcity it is these food resources that have sustained generations of people . It is this complex heritage that has kept the indigenous people of Chhattisgarh food sovereign to a large extent, and not the highly centralized and inefficient Public Distribution System (PDS)
Tradition of decentralised distribution
This amazingly complex production system was supported by an equally comprehensive distribution system. The charjaniha (literally belonging to several people) is a community based grain bank that is found in several areas of the southern hills, and variants are seen among the different tribal groups of the area. Procurement is through voluntary contributions, and/ or preferential collection from the more affluent families, or those wishing in any given year to donate to a public fund. Community collections through the cherchera2 rituals or through groups of women dancing the relo3, also help build up the collection. The charjaniha resources can be held in paddy, in the minor millets, and even in a nontimber forest product (NTFP) like mahua, and are used for community functions, as well as for distribution to individual households in drought years.
Women’s role in food production, gathering & distribution
The network of local traders or kochiyas were originally the link persons between the many local markets, and were the major agents in the local trade in primary food resources. It is interesting that the kochiyas operating in the food trade were mainly women, while those dealing in forest produce with commercial value or utility items were mostly men.
Today, the system exists in a distorted form, with male kochiyas having become agents of a centralised trade system . However, the role of women belonging to the sonkar (vegetable farmer) community in primary marketing survives up to the present day , and institutions like the turi hatri (women’s market) of Raipur bear witness to the vibrancy of women centered local distribution networks. The role that women have played in maintaining these systems is relatively little understood.
In Chhattisgarh, women are the major agricultural workers. They work in each and every aspect of crop production, preservation and storage. In certain parts of the state like Abujhmar and Sihawa, women are also known to use the plough, a function that is considered a taboo and prohibited for them in almost all other parts of the country. Apart from crop weeding, maturing, harvesting, women are the leading players in all post harvest and storage operations.
Women also play a major role in the collection and processing of the many kinds of uncultivated foods. Many of these foods are collected from the forest, and women use them for maintaining household food security and nutrition needs outside the market system. Women are the primary gatherers of all uncultivated foods, and inheritors of an ancient knowledge system about food biodiversity.
They are also the gardeners and herbalists with primary knowledge and responsibility for maintaining the homestead gardens called the baris and the bakhris. Again it is the women who take the produce to the primary markets and barter or trade in the items related to primary food needs.
Agricultural scientists would do well if they attempted to learn from women about their existing knowledge of seed technologies, varietal preferences, and even breeding experiences and procedures. Women- the seed keepers! Women were also the keepers of the seeds. Traditionally, the crop to be harvested for seed was identified in the field of standing crop, and women always took special care while reaping these. A wide variety of seed storage structures were used in subsequent stages, and the exact storage structure used for seed depended on the length of time the seed was needed to be stored, the moisture content, and other factors.
Some seeds like rice are even today stored in bamboo dholgis (or dhongis), thatched and sealed with cow dung, and kept away. These can last for up to three years. Other seeds like the minor millet seeds or vegetable seeds are stored in sal leaf containers, and often hung up in the kitchen above a wood fire, so that the smoke can act as a natural pesticide and preservative. The extremely complex knowledge of seed storage and preservation including its technical aspects has always been in the hands of the women.
Loss of heritage Today this entire system, as well as the seed heritage of the people is gasping for life. Misguided government effort aimed at so called maximisation of production, the commercial pressure of the market, of banks and the seed corporations, the so called ‘model’ PDS of Chhattisgarh that procures paddy from farmers at a flat rate (i.e. regardless of quality or special characteristics) often leaves the farmer with no perceived reason to grow the traditional varieties.
This is apart from the threat of biopiracy by seed corporations. A major crisis in Chhattisgarh occurred when Syngenta attempted to enter into a ‘collaborative research project ‘ with the Indira Gandhi Agricultural Univesity at Raipur, where Dr Richharia’s own academic work is housed. On that occasion, shortly after the new state of Chhattisgarh was created, it was civil society pressure that led to this plan being aborted.
Today, civil society is fragmented on the issue of development options for the new state. Rupantar battles on with its programme of ex situ conservation of rice diversity and its attempts at in situ conservation, but unless there is a validation of the importance of seed diversity and an assured outlet for farmers growing diverse varieties in our system, the task seems really uphill.