Akshaya Kumar Sahoo
They are called "mothers" for the role they play not for themselves but for the entire nation. People in the locality honour them for their exceptional service — the affectionate acts of nurturing and nourishment they do are for the sustenance of local agriculture system and the bio-diversity they are greatly dependent on.
Once the local seeds are sustained, it ensures protection of local birds, animals and human food production chain.
Fondly called Bihan Maa (seed mothers), the women belonging to Koya tribes in Orissa's Malkangiri have boastfully conserved and preserved innumerable varieties of paddy, pulses and millets using their traditional wisdom and technology.
Some rare varieties of aromatic paddy like Kalajeera, Samudrabali, Kala Basmati, Kalamahura, Masuridhan, Sapuridhan, Chudidhan that are seen anywhere are grown by these Koya women and preserved carefully at their homes so as to ensure that the posterity inherits the precious wealth.
Kalajeera rice is claimed to have got more fragrance than Basmati variety. The tribals, who still dare not get influenced by the strong seed and fertiliser market forces, sell it at '40 at the local weekly market. The other varieties sell a little cheaper.
Malkangiri, formerly a sub-division under Koraput district, is dotted with high hills, number of rivers and rivulets which provide ideal conditions for different varieties of paddy, pulses and millets. Some are grown alongside streams and rivers and a few others are cultivated on sloppy, hilly terrains.
The conservation of seeds by the Koya tribals have now turned into a passionate culture. And this culture has of late assumed the hues and colours of a festival called Bihan Mela or Annual Seed Fair. Thanks to the efforts of the Organisation for Rural Reconstruction and Integrated Social Service Activities (ORRISSA) and the state agriculture department which have not only acknowledged the role of seed mothers but also inspired them to continue their activities more ardently and energetically.
Since 2005, the adivasi farmers' organisations around Malkangiri and Kandhamal have been organising the Annual Seed Fairs in line with their cultural values and celebrating the bounty of the nature and local wisdom of food productions.
In February this year, similar seed fairs were organised at Chandanguda, Podabhata and Burudabahal villages in Malkangiri district which saw huge turnout of Koya people.
The seed mothers, carrying seed baskets well-decorated with palash flowers and leaves of medicinal plants, congregated at the fairs and exchanged their seeds with farmers who came from far off places like Bolangir, Kalahandi, Mayurbhanj, Kandhamal, Rayagada, Nawarangpur, Khurda, Balasore and Ganjam.
Eighty-one-year-old Kart-ik Das, a farmer from Nuapally village under Buguda block in Ganjam district who came to Chandanguda fair under Padmagiri gram panchyat, said he found several new varieties of paddy and collected them to grow in his area. He, however, claimed that farmers in his region had got more varieties of millets than the Malangiri tribal farmers.
Himanshu Sekhar Behera, an educated farmer from Balasore, who claims to have grown 671 varieties of paddy, came to Padmagiri fair in search of some new breeds.
"Such types of fairs offer an opportunity to interact with the local farmers and exchange ideas and wisdom with them, besides giving you a chance to collect new varieties. I have identified some new varieties which I want to carry home," said Mr Behera.
Biswamohan Mohanty, secretary of ORRISSA, who is instrumental in converting the seed conservation practice of the tribal women into a festival, sums up the utility of the fair in his own words.
"The adivasi or tribal women play a key role in nurturing the local seeds. They have enormous knowledge on seed conservation. They have been carrying this practice since long with dignity. We have just made a little effort that this beautiful tradition gets embed in their culture," said Mr Mohanty.
These fairs bring dignity to local food and reiterates that the adivasis are capable of producing their own food and this is the only way the locals can conserve the bio-diversity in the area.
[Courtesy: Asian Age, March 13, 2012]