New Internationalist

Part 2

Issue 353

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Food and farming / INDIA

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A quarter of the world’s farmers are Indian. In this three-part report Katharine Ainger journeys through Andhra Pradesh to uncover their problems, solutions – and a grandiose plan to transform agriculture that will ride roughshod over the lives of millions.

PART 2: Crops of truth
The dryland Deccan plateau possesses an unearthly beauty - and the earthly knowledge of some of India's most disregarded people living on some of its most impoverished land.

Lakshmamma squats on the floor of her house sifting deep, black soil in a shallow tin basin. She reaches for a basket full of seeds, takes a cluster and mixes them in. Through her long fingers fall clumps of rich loam and tiny, glistening seeds. Then, slowly, she decorates the whole with already-drooping yellow flowers and lights an earthen lamp.

This is her puja, or worship as part of the Dasara festival - one of the most important in the Hindu calendar.

'I take nine varieties of seed and mix them into the soil,' she tells me. She will spend the next five days watching them gently push up through the soil. This intimate ritual is both an act of worship and an experiment in agronomy. When she emerges she'll be visited by other women who will discuss which seeds grow best and decide what they should plant for the winter harvest.

Her daughter, also called Lakshmamma, seats us on her wide porch. She goes in and out of the house bringing us multicoloured clay pots of seed until half the porch is covered with them.

She is beautiful, with a wide, strong, intelligent face and a powerful presence. Her husband and son left years ago - now it's just her and her mother, rural dalit (lowest caste) women living on the Deccan plateau, one of the most drought-prone and poorest districts in the whole of India. That's just about the lowest status that a person can have in this society.

'I began collecting seed seven years ago,' says daughter Lakshmamma. 'I collected 83 varieties of local seed from my neighbours, my friends - whenever I found a new variety I collected it. There were 10 varieties in particular that I made it a point to collect, because they weren't available anywhere else. They were becoming extinct. When someone comes to me for seed, I give them a pot and when they replace it they give me two pots.'

Mother and daughter with a treasure-trove of local crop varieties (right); Coloured powder used as markers in seed selection meetings (pictured). [image, unknown] Mother and daughter with a treasure-trove of local crop varieties (pictured); Coloured powder used as markers in seed selection meetings (left).
Photos: Katharine Ainger

Guardian of seeds
Daughter Lakshmamma has a leadership role in the community as a laboratory scientist and guardian of seeds. She's travelled as far as London and Peru and been visited by Swaminathan, India's top agricultural scientist.

She's also a member of the Deccan Development Society, an association of about 5,000 dalit women in the Medak district of Andhra Pradesh. This is a grassroots organization working with women's sanghams, or voluntary associations of the poor, in 75 villages, promoting food security, biodiversity, welfare and, crucially, democracy.

Words of hope
I'm sitting in the courtyard of the Deccan Development Society offices, eating a breakfast of sorghum and chatting with its founder and director, PV Satheesh. A gangly and furious langur monkey is hurling itself suicidally through the canopy of the tamarind tree above us. A group of boys sends fireworks shooting into the branches to scare it off.

'The farmers' lives are dictated by the market - their own knowledge is rendered useless,' says PV Satheesh. 'They are subservient. They speak the language of desperation. But you can hear for yourself the language of hope these women speak when they have control over their own production and knowledge. That knowledge is India's comparative advantage in the world.'

Gradually the courtyard fills with women preparing for a 'participatory rural appraisal' for seed selection - a long and democratic process. A couple of men sneer: 'They are just women. What do they know?' The men are encouraged to leave. Men are in charge of buying and selling commercial seeds - but it is women's knowledge of biodiversity and saved seed that has been crucial to the survival of agriculture here.

I'm struck by the difference in atmosphere between this porch and the one filled with desperate farmers in Warangal. The topsoil here is just 2-3 centimetres thick, far worse than the 12-30 centimetres that is the norm in Warangal. 'What about the drought?' I ask. 'How has it affected the harvests here?'

At first she doesn't understand the question. Growing mixed and traditional crops, the harvests are staggered. One crop might fail, but another will survive - there are heartbreaks here too, but no single moment of crisis, as with a monocultural cash crop.

Leaving Humnapur, the jeep rattles its way across the dryland Deccan plateau. A scarlet, stony wasteland of laterite soil stretches in all directions under a silver sky - an unearthly sort of beauty.

This part of the country remains invisible to policy-makers as a source of productive agriculture - though dryland areas like this make up 65 per cent of India's agricultural area.

Cheap rice from the Public Distribution System has flooded into even these areas that don't grow paddy because it demands so much water. It's kept a lot of people fed. But women from the Deccan Development Society began to realize that their local food crops were being wiped out. Land was being abandoned and returned to the wild.

Through the Deccan Development Society, women banded together and in 1994 set up a Community Grain Fund. Securing a single government loan they set about restoring wastelands, growing coarse grains that are locally produced, stored and distributed in villages around Zaheerabad. They have succeeded in creating autonomous food communities in one of the most degraded regions of India.

The festival after Dasara is known as Endlagatte Punnam, which precedes the harvest of the winter crops. During this festival in Medak district many house fronts are draped with thoranam, made up of earheads of crops tied to a thread and strung across front doors. Adapted to the dry local conditions, they won't let you down, even in a drought year.

Around here they call them 'crops of truth'.


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