Swati Thapa is an Uttarakhand based independent journalist writing on issues of gender, health, human rights and climate.
“There is a lot of work at home, and we have a daughter. So we cannot leave together. My husband goes for the training and shares the details when he returns,” says Bhavana Purohit, a farmer from Dunagiri in Almora district of Uttarakhand.
Seed banks & organic farming
Organised by Geeta Bisht in her position as a team member of Chaukhutia-based Institute of Himalayan Environmental Research and Education (INHERE), the training that Bhavana mentions revolves around conserving the best indigenous seeds through organic farming. A Naugaon resident hailing from a family of farmers, Geeta also conducts workshops and field trips for farmers every 15 days.
However, one thing that she noticed was that women missed all the sessions. “Bringing them to the forefront was a challenging task. Women never seem to have time. If you visit them during the day, it is either time to go to the jungle, pick children from school or tend to their cattle,” says Geeta, whose persistent efforts have helped form a group of 450 farmers that nurtures a seed bank, of which only around 50 are men.
Women are the true farmers of Uttarakhand, but agricultural data belie their status as farmers as they work in the fields owned by their husbands or fathers. According to Agriculture Census 2015-16, women hold 11.72% of the total operated area in the country and engage in agricultural activities in these lands. Women farmers formed only 7.3% of the beneficiaries under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana in 2020-21. As for PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi for the same period, they were positioned at 17.7%.
Seed bank initiative of INHERE
Despite the drawbacks, Geeta knew from the very beginning the role to be played by women in making the INHERE seed bank initiative a success. As farm work was viewed as an extension of a woman’s domestic responsibilities, she was the primary decision maker on the type of crop to be grown.
However, as their lives revolved around their families, Geeta had to visit them on Sundays or national holidays, when their children did not have to go to school, to enlist their support for the initiative.
While women were often the primary decision-makers on the type of crop to be grown, they were often too busy with domestic and field work and couldn’t be easily convinced to join training and knowledge-transfer programmes.
A vast majority of the people in rural Uttarakhand cultivate one or more crops. However, a shift from indigenous varieties to high-yielding genetically modified crops has triggered the use of urea and chemical pesticides in recent years.
A study published in the International Journal of Applied Sciences and Biotechnology suggests that inordinate application of urea can effect changes in soil macrofauna. Its continuous and excessive use may also alter soil pH, microbial population and biochemical parameters. All these factors have resulted in less production of local varieties in Uttarakhand, with some on the verge of extinction.
Importance of seed banks to preserve indigenous seeds
In 2018, Geeta developed a system wherein farmers cultivated the near-extinct local varieties and deposited the seeds coming out of their fields in the seed bank operating in the INHERE’s Chaukhutia office, so that all of them had equal access to indigenous seeds. “Open-pollinated seeds (they will produce plants genetically similar to the parent plant) are not easily available to farmers. Our initiative aims at ensuring access to such seeds,” explains INHERE secretary Chinmaya Sah.
Seeds are procured as per the market rate. For example, the market pricing of one kg radish seeds from Dunagiri region is Rs 2,000. After procuring for this amount, the seeds are cleaned, packaged and sold locally at the seed bank for Rs 2,500. This discounted price (the same seeds in the market would be priced at Rs 3,000) has attracted more farmers to the bank to either buy or barter, in case they possess seeds that the bank does not have.
Moreover, the programme has brought farmers closer through a WhatsApp group and telephonic conversations. Geeta has also helped Bhuvan and Bhavana Purohit to open a branch of the seed bank at their home in Dunagiri.
“Earlier, if we wanted indigenous seeds, we had to go to places like Ramnagar, located 107 km away. Even Himachali garlic had replaced our native variety. I realised the importance of traditional crops after I got in touch with Geeta ji. I learnt a lot from her and the farmers’ meets that I attended. We are no longer reliant on market seeds; we have our own seeds of garlic, spinach and millet,” beams Bhuvan.
According to Geeta, the INHERE bank presently has 23 seed varieties. “We mainly focus on madua (finger millet), Jhangora (barnyard), kauni (foxtail) and cheeda and more red-coloured millets. To convince farmers, I always remind them how consuming regional varieties would keep them healthy,” she says.
Seed banks, training programs, sharing best practices
However, it took at least one year to convince women to join her training programmes, where she educated them on the farming practices that promised more yield using less seeds.
Nandan Singh Bisht, a farmer from Dunagiri, remembers how local varieties of alsi, bhangira (hemp seeds), Jhangora and kauni were almost wiped out from their farms before they made a comeback through the seed bank initiative. “We have these crops again with us.”
Millets and indigenous varieties of crops
Many of the indigenous varieties that were brought back were millets, as they are the staple foods of the hills. At the same time, indigenous varieties of spinach, onion, garlic, gourd and pumpkin were among the vegetables that were saved from gradual extinction.
To tap the market potential of organic millets, considered as superfoods in urban markets, INHERE also set up a farmer producer company in Chaukutia. The certified organic products from Uttarakhand’s villages now reach every corner of the country through e-commerce platform Amazon.
“We want to create a system by which we could evaluate the yield in the hills during the harvest season every year and provide the farmers’ households with a decent incentive. This will encourage people to grow more,” Sah says.
With women’s low social mobility, gaining the support of men in their families has always been a major challenge. Initially, many were unhappy about their wives attending the INHERE’s training session. They even created problems at home for participating in the meetings.
Geeta agrees that there were several instances when upset and drunk men questioned her intentions. “However, when they realised the potential of this initiative, they could no longer question me. Anyone can lecture, but when one gets down to fieldwork, one realises the problems. Patriarchy is definitely one of them,” she says.
“We do not ask men for help because we know they will never do it,” Kaushaliya Devi, a farmer from Chinoni, sums up the problem in one sentence. Devi is in the field before 6 am and returns only by 11 am. After that comes the household responsibilities. “The body becomes so exhausted that at the end of the day, we have no idea where we are sleeping,” she laments.
The condition of women farm labourers is also pathetic. “I get Rs 250 to 300 per day. However, men manage to get around Rs 500. We do similar work, the only difference being that women cannot lift much weight as they do,” says Basanti Devi from Hat village.
When women work in their fields, they tackle labour-intensive work collectively. “Tilling the soil is hard, so village women help each other. If someone has oxen, we take their help. Otherwise, we do it collectively,” Kaushaliya explains.
Though women collectively hire tractors and threshers to get the farm work done, illiteracy and lack of technical know-how pose hurdles before them. “We have to depend on men to operate these machines and to get the meter reading, based on which the machine rental per hour is decided,” says Basanti.
Through the seed bank initiative, women are banding together to save what is vital for their livelihoods. However, facilitators like Geeta still have a long way to go. The fact that Bhavana is yet to attend a single training session proves it clearly.