Society

Nel Jayaraman's seeds of change

His was a festival with a difference. Every farmer who participated, walked away with seeds of traditional rice varieties, with the promise of returning double the quantity the next year. At the 10th Seed Festival held in May 2016, Nel Jayaraman (‘nel’ is paddy in Tamil), distributed 156 seed varieties to over 7,000 farmers across the State. Jayaraman died in December 2018 battling cancer. Ananthoo, founder of Chennai-based reStore and Organic Farmers Market, who has worked closely with Jayaraman, remembers his times with the organic farming visionary.

It must have been eight years ago. I was at Thiruvarur to attend the Nel Thiruvizha (Seed Festival) organised by Jayaraman.

I went there to volunteer; I’d heard about him from organic farming pioneer G Nammalvar and wanted to see if we could bring the varieties Jayaraman revived, to the market.

It was just a small affair then; some 500 people attended. But the festival grew exponentially from then on; from 500, the number of participants went up to 1,500 next year; and then to 2,500, 5,000… There was no looking back. When I entered the village of Adhirangam where the festival took place, I saw men carrying sacks of paddy; they came with five kilograms and returned with 10 kilograms the next year. That was how the seed exchange worked.

I remember how Jayaraman cycled across villages to find traditional paddy seeds and distribute them. I asked him how he planned to carry his vision forward; what would he do for funds? But he replied, “What do I need funds for? I have seeds and my cycle will take me everywhere. Or I’ll take a bus.”

If people called him asking for any number of varieties of seeds, he went directly to see to it that they got what they wanted. I participated in the planning of his seed festivals.

But the man didn’t believe in going by a strict plan. He was always cool when those around him panicked. For instance, if I told him there were many people coming for the event and that we had to plan for meals and plates, he would respond unfettered, “Thambi, it’ll fall in place. If there are no plates, we can buy banana leaves; if there’s no food, we can cook and serve rice; we have it in plenty, don’t we.”

What if the sound-systems don’t work, I insisted and he said, “Then we might have to speak louder.” I joked that I would refuse to come for planning meetings, because anyway, he didn’t need them. On a serious note, all the festivals he organised went on smoothly, like he believed.

During floods or droughts, he took the collector of Nagapattinam to show him how our traditional paddy withstood the forces of Nature. He visited collectorates to submit petitions against genetically-modified crops wherever he encountered them. Later in life, when his popularity grew, he spent more time at meetings and less time in the field; but that’s where his heart was.

Hundreds of people called me from India and abroad, enquiring about his health during his final days. He showed that if you worked selflessly for society, it will give back.

As told to Akila Kannadasan

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2020 5:02:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/seeds-of-change/article25959739.ece

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