The untiring efforts of a crop breeder

Pioneering work:Thanks to Lakshmanaiah’s efforts, the yield per hectare of ragi has increased manifold.— Photo: M.A.SRIRAM

Pioneering work:Thanks to Lakshmanaiah’s efforts, the yield per hectare of ragi has increased manifold.— Photo: M.A.SRIRAM  

Selected as a clerk in the Indian Railways, in what was a “coveted job” during the 1950s, he chucked it to pursue his passion for agriculture.

While it may not have been the Railways’ loss, it was definitely a gain for agriculture and helped popularise ragi as the mainstream diet in the rural areas of south Karnataka.

And at a time when farmers in drought-affected areas in the district and rest of the State are making a switch to ragi for sustenance, it is appropriate to recall the contributions of the late C.H. Lakshmanaiah who singularly pioneered the development of many of its hybrid varieties.

Thanks to his untiring efforts as a crop breeder, ragi, which was known to be cultivated only in dry conditions as a kharif crop, can today be cultivated under any climatic conditions throughout the year. The average yield of this drought-resistant crop, which was stagnant at three to four quintals a hectare for centuries, has increased to 15 to 18 quintals now.

The story of Lakshmanaiah is the stuff that legends are made of and his work in ragi breeding is no less important that the pioneering work on wheat by Norman Borlaugh. But since ragi for long has been perceived as a “poor man’s crop”, Lakshmanaiah neither got international laurels — the way Borlaug received encomiums and was capped with Nobel Prize — nor was he accorded due importance during his lifetime. Born in a poor agricultural family of Harohalli in Mysore taluk on May 15, 1921, Lakshmanaiah went through the grind for his education, learning to write alphabets on sand-spread.

After completion of intermediate course from the Maharaja’s College in Mysore, he joined the Central College, Bangalore, for a degree with Botany as one of the subjects.

On completion of his graduation, Lakshmanaiah got an appointment in the Railways as a clerk. But he found his calling in agriculture and was selected as a Junior Botanist at the VC Farm in Mandya where he was in charge of the crop museum. It was here that Lakshmaniah decided to take up crop breeding with thrust on ragi.

As Lakshmanaiah’s son Vasanthkumar, an agriculture scientist himself, explained to The Hindu : “My father was discouraged by his superiors on the grounds that Lesli Coleman, the then Director of Agriculture Department in the erstwhile Mysore State, had given up ragi breeding in the absence of an established and tested method. Lakshmanaiah persisted and came out with what is called ‘contact method’ which was a major breakthrough.”

But since Lakshamanaiah was “not qualified enough” and his superiors scoffed at him, he hesitated to make his findings public and silently worked in the kitchen garden at Ponnampet. What followed was nothing short of miracle.

“In the late 1950s and early 1960s came varieties such as Poorna, Sampurna, Annapoorna, Udaya, Shakti, Aruna etc , This was followed by the path-breaking Indaf series which was a combination of Indian and African variety of ragi while Indaf-7 was developed exclusively for cultivation in cold conditions,” Mr. Vasanthkumar said.

As a result of this pioneering development, ragi spread to other parts of the State and is now recognised as an important source of food security and is recommended even for diabetics. Though no individual has bred so many varieties of crops, Lakshmaniah died relatively unknown on May 14, 1993. But, a biography detailing his work is under preparation and is likely to be released this year and will help rescue him from obscurity.

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