Sow the seeds of revolution

The Chipko spirit is still strong in the Garhwal Himalayas

By Harsh Dobhal
Tehelka, 25 December 2004

Tehri – “We suddenly wondered where the traditional seeds had gone? We realised that what we had won through Chipko, we were losing to new technologies in agriculture”

Thirty years is a long time for any movement to continue. But the famous Chipko movement lives on — thriving and pulsating, challenging and sustaining, albeit in a different form. The men and women who once hugged the trees to save them from commercial felling, continue their struggle against the harbingers of one-dimensional development, to save nature and its children, local diversity and culture. The slogan, “Kya hain jangal ke upkar: pani, mitti aur bayar, ye hain jeene ke aadhar, (What do forests bear: water, soil and air; these are the basis for life),” that reverberated in the Garhwal Himalayas for the world to take notice in the 1970s, is still echoing 30 years on, in the Hewalghati valley of Tehri Garhwal. This time in the form of the Beej Bachao Andolan (Save the Seeds Movement).

In the 1970s and 1980s, when High Yielding Variety (hyv) seeds were being introduced all over the country and cash-crop driven agriculture was destroying traditional farming, crop yields of the hyv started becoming less in Garhwal, while soil fertility was declining and dependence on toxic chemicals was increasing. The ecosystem was also severely damaged. As a result, Chipko activist and a local farmer, Vijay Jardhari, along with other activists from Jardhargaon and nearby areas, formed the Beej Bachao Abhiyan, later re-named as Beej Bachao Andolan (bba), to rejuvenate traditional farming and agricultural diversity. The aim was to negate “modern but destructive” agriculture practices, search and conserve indigenous seeds and promote traditional farming.

With the success of the Chipko movement, activists from Henwalghati started focusing on farming. Like others, they also used high yielding seeds initially as the Green Revolution had already been introduced in the hills in the early 1970s. Having reaped bumper crops in the beginning, they soon realised that productivity was declining and the land was becoming addicted to toxic chemical fertilisers. “As we understood the problem with the hyv crops, we wondered where the traditional seeds had gone? We realised that what we had won through Chipko, we were losing to new technologies in agriculture. This realisation was the birth of the concept of bba,” said Jardhari.

While discontinuing the cultivation of chemical-dependent seeds was an easy choice, the challenge was to convince other farmers to do the same. “Meetings were organised and we explained to the people that these new agricultural techniques were harmful in the long run,” Jardari said. “We were shocked. I could find only two varieties of local paddy available in my village Jardhargaon.”

This was followed by treks to distant villages in and around hill regions, still untouched by new techniques – to look for local, traditional, and diverse seeds. The activists collected different kinds of seeds, asking people to conserve the ones that faced extinction. The foot marches were also a moment of cultural re-assertion, reciting folk stories, re-thinking oral traditions, poems and songs.

Today bba, a non-formal collective of farmers and activists, is spread all over Uttarakhand. From the villages of Jardhargaon, Nagni, Paturi and Rampur in Henwalghati, it has spread to other areas of Uttarakhand among non-ngo organisations like Adhar in Almora, Samudayik Chetna Kendra in Nainital and Vividhara in Nahikalan in Dehradun.

In fact, the andolan produces over 200 varieties of rajma, over 350 varieties of rice, thapchini, jhumkiya, rikhwa, ramjawan, bangoi, hansraj and lal basmati, among other local products. It has also promoted the use of traditional farming method called “baranaja” whereby 12 crops are grown simultaneously in the same field. This system of bio-farming enables the farmer to get some benefit from certain varieties even in case of damage to other crops.

Today, when the onslaught of globalisation is fought by a multi-million dollar ngo industry, a non-profit initiative like bba has proved that even without funds and resources, those on the fringes of society can achieve for the people an impossible and lost dream.