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Kudrat, Karishma and other living seeds

Prakash Raghuvanshi has developed dozens of high-yielding, disease-resistant, open pollinated seeds, distributing them to 2 million farmers in 14 states. He also trains farmers in the basics of selection and plant breeding at his small farm near Varanasi. His aim is clear: to conserve and protect desi (indigenous) seed varieties, thereby freeing the farmer from the stranglehold of foreign seed companies and the cycle of debt and dependence. Anjali Pathak reports

 Prakash Singh Raghuvanshi epitomises the Indian tradition of grassroots research and innovation at the village level. Far more than a dry, mechanistic form of enquiry and a reductionist attitude to nature and farming, it is the approach of listening and learning that has led to Raghuvanshi’s success at plant breeding.

Spurred by crop losses and financial setbacks caused by chemically-dependent farming nearly 15 years ago, Raghuvanshi resolved to overcome these difficulties and help out other farmers too. He began developing a living seed bank on 3 acres of land and chose wheat, paddy, arhar and moong seeds for their high yields, disease resistance and ability to adapt to sudden climate changes. His father had begun the process but could not take it to its conclusion. Raghuvanshi continued from the point his father left off, and in the process developed several high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties of paddy, wheat, arhar, moong, peas and vegetables.

Dr Mahatim Singh, former professor at Benaras Hindu University and a former vice-chancellor of Pantnagar Agricultural University, encouraged Raghuvanshi to develop new varieties of seed that would perform well and help small and marginal farmers improve their yields and thereby their incomes. This timely encouragement from an agricultural scientist inspired Raghuvanshi to do his best and come up with good results within a short period of time.

Ever since his work on plant breeding began, Raghuvanshi has been participating in kisan melas and meets. He has met several agricultural scientists and they have been amazed by the results he has produced despite lack of modern research facilities, a well-equipped lab, or research grants.

Raghuvanshi’s body of work is indeed remarkable: he has developed 80 varieties of wheat, 25 varieties of paddy, 10 varieties of arhar, besides moong, peas, mustard, papaya, ladiesfinger and vegetable varieties. All of their seeds can be saved as they are open pollinated seeds.

Raghuvanshi has named his paddy and wheat varieties Kudrat and Karishma respectively, and they have performed well wherever they have been sown. The chief characteristics of his seed varieties are: they adapt very well to extremes of temperature, rainfall and other aspects of climate change; they are open pollinated and can be saved by the farmer for the next season’s crop; they are superior in taste and flavour as they have been selected and developed from traditional varieties; they deliver greater yields while not requiring massive chemical inputs as do high-yielding varieties that have been developed by India’s agricultural research system. Cowdung and some irrigation are all that Kudrat and Karishma need.

The proof of Raghuvanshi’s methods is seen in the field. His paddy varieties yield 25-30 quintals per acre and his wheat varieties 18-20 quintals per acre. He has gone on several beej yatras distributing his seeds freely and widely -- by his own estimate, 2 million farmers in 14 states, over 15 years. Raghuvanshi also trains farmers in the basics of selection and plant breeding at his small 15-acre farm near Varanasi. His aim is clear: to conserve and protect desi (indigenous) seed varieties, thereby freeing the farmer from the stranglehold of foreign seed companies and the cycle of debt and dependence.

Raghuvanshi is a practitioner and advocate of organic farming and of protection of indigenous cow breeds. He welcomes farmers and visitors at his farm to observe and learn firsthand.

Raghuvanshi’s extraordinary work has been recognised by the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), Ahmedabad. He was given a National Award for Innovation in Agriculture on November 18, 2009, by President Pratibha Patil. The Foundation gave him a grant of Rs 1.9 lakh under the Micro Venture Innovation Fund for nursery development, cultivation and scaling up manufacturing channels for his improved seed varieties. He has also been supported financially by Shri Narayan Saiji, a religious teacher based in Ahmedabad who owns several large farms and has used the improved seeds developed by Raghuvanshi in his farms to produce bountiful harvests. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, another spiritual teacher based in Bangalore, is also a Raghuvanshi supporter.

What shaped Raghuvanshi’s thinking and approach, and how does he live?

Nationally recognised for being an innovative farmer and plant breeder, Raghuvanshi is 50 years old and lives in a joint family with his mother, wife and six children, and one of his brothers. His family comes from the village of Tadia, 30 km from Varanasi. The land he tills and sows is held jointly by the brothers, and Raghuvanshi uses 3 acres to do his plant breeding work and to preserve his seed varieties in a living seed bank. Another 9-10 acres are given over to growing rice, wheat, pulses, oilseeds and vegetables to meet the family’s needs and to grow green fodder for the cows.

Raghuvanshi’s greatest advantage perhaps -- and his greatest success -- is that his three young sons are also farmers in the village and assist him in his plant breeding, advocacy and outreach work. In a time when farmers’ children are migrating to cities and do not want to make agriculture their livelihood, Raghuvanshi’s sons are an example of what concerted team effort by a farm family can achieve over the years.

Coming from a conservative rural background, Raghuvanshi has stayed away from becoming fully commercial or selling his seed varieties to seed companies. Nevertheless, in order to sustain his Beej Dana Mahadana campaign, and to support his large family, he has felt the need to raise funds. At present, he has verbal agreements with growers in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Assam and Orissa. The arrangement is simple: Raghuvanshi provides the initial batch of seeds and his partners get them multiplied by various farmers in their respective areas. A rough sale price for the seeds is agreed upon when the crop is harvested, and the partners proceed to sell the seeds to farmers, acknowledging Raghuvanshi as the source of the particular seed variety. Raghuvanshi gets a commission after the sale is over.

Although the arrangement is straightforward, Raghuvanshi has been duped several times by unscrupulous partners in the past who refused to give him his due while profiting from the sale of his seeds. As the patents for his seed varieties are still pending, Raghuvanshi cannot resort to legal action against the defaulters. He relies on support from an NGO and the speedy registration of his seed patents to deal with what amounts to commercial crime. Yet, his true aim is the country’s food security. His view is that foreign seed companies like Monsanto -- that sell hybrid rice and wheat seeds -- are holding farmers to ransom and are undermining India’s food security. Wherever Raghuvanshi’s seeds have been distributed to farmers, sales of companies like Monsanto have dropped sharply.

A regular at kisan melas in northern India, Raghuvanshi has distributed varieties of his wheat seeds to farmers in Varanasi and Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh; Jabalpur, Narsingpur, Khargaon, Indore, Bhopal and Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh; Raipur, Bhilai and Dhamtari in Chhattisgarh; Jalgaon, Yavatmal, Amravati and Pune in Maharashtra; Kota, Bharatpur, Jaipur and Sikar in Rajasthan. He was invited to NIF’s informal Research Advisory Committee meeting in May 2006 to interact with fellow innovators, and also participated in the traditional food festival, Saatvik, organised by Sristi-NIF in November 2006, where his seeds evoked a lot of interest. In 2008, Raghuvanshi went to Italy with Vandana Shiva and was granted life membership to the Slow Food Movement.

While aware of the controversy raging around the introduction of Bt brinjal, Raghuvanshi believes the solution lies in showing farmers the superior yields of his improved brinjal variety. He says using neem cake and mustard oil cake as soil conditioners prevents the aggressive attack of pests to which hybrid brinjal varieties are susceptible. Although aware of the importance of millet in the Indian diet, Raghuvanshi’s focus has been on paddy, wheat and pulses as he lives in a fertile zone where irrigated farming is the norm.

At the start of his campaign, Raghuvanshi recognised the importance of having strong allies in the struggle to save indigenous seed varieties. He has linked up with various small organisations working at the grassroots level in different parts of India. The Rashtriya Asmita Manch in Mumbai, convened by Ramakrishna Pandey, is one such organisation; Madhavashram in Bhopal, which has done good work at the grassroots level to promote agnihotra farming amongst farmers, is another; Yashpal Bansal, a philanthropist based in New Delhi, has extended valuable moral and financial support to Raghuvanshi and has helped make his beej yatras a success; Dr B K Sahu of Kota has popularised Kudrat paddy in Rajasthan. These are only a few examples; numerous other individuals and organisations have extended their support to Raghuvanshi, who has also benefited from regular and appreciative media coverage.

Over the years, Raghuvanshi has become proficient at coining slogans to get his message across to farmers: Apni kheti apni khad, apna beeja apna swad, and Beej bachao, desh bachao are two favourites. During beej yatras these are supported by a variety of banners, posters and the distribution of pamphlets.

Raghuvanshi takes a philosophical-spiritual view of his knowledge and work, crediting entirely the traditions of Indian farming for the appeal of his message and success of his campaign. “I am only an observer,” is his simple, essential description of what has become a life’s work.

Seed varieties and the Beej Dana Mahadana campaign

Raghuvanshi has listed the characteristics of his improved seed varieties:

Wheat: The three wheat varieties, Kudrat 5, Kudrat 9 and Kudrat 17, have plant heights of 85-90 cm, 95-100 cm and 90-95 cm respectively; yields per acre are 20-25 quintals, 15-20 quintals and 22-27 quintals respectively.
Paddy: The three paddy varieties -- Kudrat 1, Kudrat 2 and Lal Basmati -- progress through a maturity period of 130-135 days, 115-120 days and 90-100 days respectively, while yields per acre are respectively 25-30 quintals, 20-22 quintals and 15-17 quintals.
Pigeon pea: The Kudrat 3, Chamatkar and Karishma varieties possess 500-1,000, 400-600 and 450-650 pods per plant respectively, while yields per acre are 12-15 quintals, 10-12 quintals and 10-12 quintals.
Mustard: Kudrat Vandana, Kudrat Gita and Kudrat Soni have bunchy pods, a greater number of seeds per pod, and higher oil content. Their average seed yield per hectare is 1,430 kg, 1,405 kg and 742 kg respectively.
Moong: The Kudrat Jan Kalyani variety contains 24% protein; it can be grown by small and marginal farmers and the urban poor to make up the protein gap in their diets.

Recognising the importance of saving indigenous seeds, Raghuvanshi launched his Beej Dana Mahadana campaign nearly a decade ago. Its objectives are:

  • Introduce the various Kudrat and Karishma seed varieties to farmers all over India through free distribution of 100-200 gm seed packets.
  • Encourage farmers to start their own living seed banks in villages to conserve local seed varieties.
  • Teach farmers the basics of plant selection and plant breeding so that they can develop their own varieties to meet future needs.
  • Encourage farmers to keep local breeds of cows.
  • Inspire and urge farmers to give up chemical farming and convert to organic farming.
  • Inculcate pride in farming, and so halt migration to cities.
  • Enable small and marginal farmers to harvest improved farm yields and earn higher incomes through cultivation and sale of Kudrat seed varieties.
  • Return control of seeds to farmers thereby neutralising foreign seed multinationals, putting an end to farmer suicides, and improving India’s food security.
  • Improve the health of both rural and urban populations through consumption of cereals, pulses, oilseeds and vegetables produced from indigenous seeds.
  • Propagate ancient Vedic practices like agnihotra which have a beneficial effect on farming, farm animals and farming households.

The seeds developed by Raghuvanshi are under trial at various agricultural universities and government research stations. They are awaiting patents and are not available commercially. Raghuvanshi sends small seed packets of 100-500 gm free of cost to individual farmers. If planted under good soil conditions, a 100 gm seed packet can produce up to 40 kg of seed in one growing season. This can then be utilised to plant 10-15 acres of land with paddy, in the next season. His address is: Prakash Singh Raghuvanshi, Tadia village, Jakhini post, Varanasi district, Uttar Pradesh.

(Dr Anjali Pathak is a naturopath, writer and organic farming consultant who has worked with growers and planters of the northeast, the Dooars and the Nilgiris)

Infochange News & Features, July 2010