East India and Dr Richharia are in the hearts of every person who works on rice diversity. I have heard and read a lot about the region and the person several years back and have recently begun travelling there. I am also meeting and hearing about rice from many of my friends who work on agro
biodiversity in eastern India. We have alsobegun hearing about the erosion of agro biodiversity from east India and it is critical to stop this erosion.In the last two years the Save Our Rice campaign could join hands with some of them. Our friend and colleague Soumik Banerjee , already working with tribal communities in Jharkhand could easily identify the villages and communities where we could start working on rice biodiversity conservation. The recent understanding globally about climate change, sustainability and food security warrants this intervention at all levels, wherever possible. So we were happy when we could start some work here with indigenous people and seeds.
By November end my colleague Sridhar and I travelled to Jharkhand and Chattisgarh villages where they have started rice diversity blocks(RDB) and seed banks(SB). The first place we visited was Sundar Pahadi in Jharkhand where Soumik has been living and working for several years. Here, Sagar village, mainly peopled by the Santal community is where Hemlal Murmi has joined with the rice campaign to start a beautiful rice diversity block(RDB). This is the first time a RDB is created in this village . Other farmers in this village are watching his work as well as the varieties . Soumik and Hemlal conducted a field day for other farmers to come and see and choose their varieties of preference . The whole field looked beautiful with huge trees surrounding the field and a yellow flower carpet of a herb around the trees. Hemlal enthusiastically showed us his field with different varieties of rice with panicles . He knows the name and main characteristics of every variety .
The second village where we visited was of Pahadi community . They live in the hills and practice a kind of mixed cropping of maize, pumpkin and long beans . They also do silk worm rearing in the forest seasonally . The whole family will live in the forest during this work. There are around 100 villages of Pahadi community . When we went there in the morning we could see a festival like mood where men , women and children moving here and there, anxious, some making food etc. They welcomed us in the traditional way. They washed our feet with water, dried it using a cloth and put some oil . Women came forward to put garlands made with local flowers. Then we all sat together and talked about rice campaign, indigenous seeds, pesticides etc. There were panchayath members in this meeting from other villages also. There were discussions on how panchayaths can take an active role in preventing the use of pesticides and promoting traditional agriculture . Both men and women spoke . After that we had lunch cooked with different varieties of millets and wild leaves .
On the same day evening we left Sundar Pahadi for Ambikapur in Chhattisgarh. It was a long journey by train through the heartland of mineral rich Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. On the second day morning we reached Ambikapur. We got down at a beautiful clean railway station which looked like a heritage area. . Bhupendra Singh of Sangata, an organization working on rural development came to pick us up.
They have initiated a rice RDB, it is located in a place called Lalithpur which is few kilometers away from Ambikapur. We had a meeting with the local farmers from around seven villages about the rice campaign and the need to conserve indigenous varieties of crops. That belt is rich in scented rice varieties . One of them is called Jeera Phool. Some high yielding varieties (HYVs) are also popular among farmers . They also have black and red varieties of rice. Karhani, a black rice variety is supposed to have many medicinal properties.
Another oil seed plant Niger is also grown in this region. The oil from this plant is said to have high omega 3 and 6. The area is like a plateau with sal trees and in between farmers cultivate rice, niger and some pulses. We visited the RDB with around 50 different varieties of rice and the seed bank , which is in the final stages of completion. Paras Nath , working with Sangata manages the RDB. We had a discussion with the women farmers who came for the meeting . Sangata is working many villages in this area to develop sustainable agriculture and they said that marketing is an issue .
Babulal and his colleague from Madhyapradesh also joined us. Babulal is a writer and cultural activist from Madhyapradesh who is working on conservation . He also maintains a RDB now as part of the rice campaign and also conserving wheat varieties . He also interacted with the farmers and shared his views on agri-culture.
Next day we visited a hill station Mainpat where there are Tibetan settlements. We were fortunate to see the village market, a feast to the eyes with lots of agro biodiversity. The market took me to the description about Vavilov’s trips in Gary Paul Nabhan’s book Where our food comes from. Vavilov’s exploratory trips involved first visiting the village markets to understand about diversity. We bought some seeds of small potato , buck wheat, chilly etc directly from farmers in the market. After that we visited an organic processing unit run by a society. They also run a shop for local organic products. In addition they also supply to Bangalore organic shops. They said that climate change and increasing drought is impacting their production.
Although we could see only a small part of Eastern India , it revealed to us how rich this region is . But the region and people face threats from mining companies and other development projects. The hopeful fact is that the Chhattis- garh government is keen on developing organic agriculture in the state. We hope that they also realize the need to protect the agro biodiversity and its holders.