Society

Going native

Rajesh Krishnan in his paddy fields in Wayanad. He won the Government of Kerala’s Youth icon award for organic cultivation of traditional paddy seeds and for saving such seeds from extinction   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Rajesh Krishnan is sowing seeds of change in a little village by a stream in Thrissilerry in the misty hills of Wayanad. The biotechnologist-turned-farmer is in a hurry when we meet up at the Thanal office in Jawahar Nagar. “It is the paddy transplanting season and so I am returning to Wayanad tonight itself,” says Rajesh. He was in Thiruvananthapuram, his home town, to receive the second Kerala youth icon awards given away to six achievers in different fields by the Kerala government. Thirty-eight-year-old Rajesh won the award for integrated, organic cultivation of traditional paddy seeds such as the reddish Thondi, white Mullankaima, fragrant Gandakashala and Veliyan, and for saving native seeds from extinction.

Rajesh Krishnan Government of Kerala’s Youth icon award for organic cultivation of traditional paddy seeds and for saving such seeds from extinction

Rajesh Krishnan Government of Kerala’s Youth icon award for organic cultivation of traditional paddy seeds and for saving such seeds from extinction   | Photo Credit: S. Goapkumar

“It is believed that there were more than 3,000 varieties of native rice in India. Now, we have less than 300. Around 219 kinds of paddy seeds are cultivated in Panavally in Wayanad by Thanal. What is special about native seeds is that they are ideal for local weather conditions and are disease resistant to many of the local bugs,” he explains.

A member and activist of the Seed Savers Network, Rajesh has much to talk about his work on the ground as a catalyst of change. After putting in his papers as a campaigner at Greenpeace, Rajesh settled in Wayanad where he and his brother had bought a little more than five and a half acres in 2008. Since 2011, he has been practising what he had been preaching, learning and observing in his work for Greenpeace.

“Farmers need to be assured of markets. And that is one of the things I have been able to do in Wayanad. Thanks to organic bazaars like the one run by Thanal, traditional rice varieties have many takers and so in the first year itself, I was able to sell the entire produce on the stalk even before the harvest and that too at prices higher than what the farmers were selling earlier. For instance, if the government procurement price was ₹22 per kg last year, I was able to get the farmers ₹28 for a kg,” recalls Rajesh.

Rajesh agrees that he is still learning on the job. If at first, he tried cultivating 15 varieties of rice on his fields, he found out how difficult it was to keep apart the different kinds of rice grains during the harvest and threshing. “ So, now I cultivate five kinds and on a smaller plot, on an experimental basis, I am cultivating 40 kinds of paddy,” he explains. He also grows banana, pepper, vegetables and tuber crops on his fields.

His success in farming paddy has motivated many other farmers in the region to convert to organic paddy farming and learn from each other to improve their prospects as a community. He points out that unlike many places in Kerala, where the links between agriculture and community have been snapped irrevocably, the ties between farmer and community, farmer and labourers, and community and land have not been erased in Wayanad. “So the agrarian culture is still alive in Wayanad and that is why farmers like me can find a place there. To have some kind of interactions with other farmers, we have an informal weekly meeting every Wednesday evening, where we discuss everything under the sun, including agriculture,” says Rajesh with a smile.

These discussions have helped the farmers to garner information about government policies, new projects, bank loans and the like and empower themselves in a new scenario where information can often make the difference between survival and suicide.

“In the course of my travels for close to 10 years as a campaigner for Greenpeace, Vijay Jawandhia, a leader of the farmers in Vidarabha in Maharashtra, showed me how one person can make a difference in a community. At a time when farmer suicides was at its peak in the region, Vijayji’s village was spared that trauma. When I spoke to the farmers, I learnt that Vijayji’s leadership and intervention had helped them secure loans and vital information about government policies to help farmers. That helping hand and words of support motivated the farmers and spared them the trauma of bank closures and bullying officials.”

Today, Rajesh tries to play that role in his village. Recently, he along with 10 other farmers founded the Thirunelli Agri Producers Company, a NABARD- supported venture, of which he is the chief executive officer.

Going native

He is also part of a local farmers self-help group that has leased in land last year and this year as well to do traditional paddy cultivation.

“We have managed to get an interest-free loan from the local cooperative bank and this year all of us put together have taken 35 acres for traditional paddy cultivation, more than half of which is on leased land,” says Rajesh, confident that organic farming can be a profitable venture for farmers.

Looking back, Rajesh says he always knew that someday he would become a hands-on farmer.

Fed on a steady diet of stories of farming and food by his parents, both government employees hailing from farming families, Rajesh says the many diversions he took before he eventually found his field have only helped him all the more as a farmer.

After graduating in biotechnology from the University of Kerala, Rajesh moved to Pondichery to do his masters in ecology. His father’s illness forced him to forsake his doctoral studies. Instead, Rajesh took up a job with Greenpeace and worked at the organisation for a decade in various capacities.

A fierce opponent of GM crops, Rajesh continues to be actively involved in national struggles to keep fields free from GM crops. He was a co-convener of the Coalition for a GM-Free India, a loose alliance of more than 400 organisations across the country fighting against GM crops.

Rajesh’s Facebook posting thanking his well-wishers after winning the award, lists his concerns and hopes: “I'm a 1st generation settler farmer in Wayanad who believes that there should be another way of farming and living possible where woman and nature can work together and not against each other. Many 've walked this path and many more will....

Thanks also to all my fellow women in arms on struggles to sustain our food, farming and freedom. Its those struggles, be it against chemicals in farming or GM crops or corporatisation of food and farming and for ecological farming where one could pursue truth and was encouraged to speak truth to power, that helped me decide on what i'll do with my life. Farm life is fun life. Welcome all to it.”

Plateful of tales

Rajesh remembers being amazed by the tales of the food his parents told him about. “There was so much of diversity and the same food we are having today were eaten in so many different ways and with myriad other foods. Now, in my farm we eat the food we have grown, including the vegetables, rice and fruits.”

“For about 5 years, I had been living out of a suitcase until I met Uma, my wife. It was our common interest in food and movies that brought us together. In those days, I was neck-deep in work trying to collect information and explain to the public why we had to oppose plans to bring in Bt brinjal into India. As soon as the government said no to the genetically modified brinjal, a big load was lifted off my mind. And we married the same year,” he says with a smile. Now Uma and their six-year-old daughter live in the sylvan environs of their farm.

Kambalanaatti

Rajesh Krishnan and a self-help group of farmers revived Kambalanaatti in Wayanad

Rajesh Krishnan and a self-help group of farmers revived Kambalanaatti in Wayanad   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Last year, Rajesh, along with other farmers of the self-help group, revived an age-old tradition called ‘Kambalanaatti’, a traditional paddy transplanting activity, in their village. The entire village, whether farmer or not, pitches in to transplant the plant.

Last year, Rajesh Krishnan, along with other farmers of the self-help group, revived an age-old tradition called ‘Kambala naatti’, a traditional paddy transplanting activity, in their village.

Last year, Rajesh Krishnan, along with other farmers of the self-help group, revived an age-old tradition called ‘Kambala naatti’, a traditional paddy transplanting activity, in their village.   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

The challenge was to complete five acres in one day. In the meantime, the older members drummed up excitement with songs and dance. “Students from two schools, local panchayat members and many others joined in. This year, the event is on August 12 and I am looking forward to it,” he says.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 5:19:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/rajesh-krishnan-wins-government-of-keralas-youth-icon-award-for-organic-cultivation/article19428321.ece

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