In the 1990s when Debal Deb was working with India’s largest conservation NGO in Kolkata, he recalled how the country boasted of more than 1,10,000 folk or native varieties of rice until the advent of the Green Revolution in the late 1960s. In the two decades that followed, this number dropped to less than 7,000.
Over the past 25 years, this rice warrior has collected more than 1,420 native rice varieties from 12 states across India. He also collected a few varieties from countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Thailand, Korea, the Philippines and Italy.
Apart from starting a one-of-its-kind open-access seed bank—Vrihi, for farmers, he also cultivates each of the 1,420 rice varieties on a 1.7 acre model farm, Basudha, that he set up at the foothills of Niyamgiri in Odisha.
When he started his conservation journey, Deb distributed these varieties at the doorsteps of Bengali farmers hit by the drought in 1998, flash floods and later cyclone Aila in 2009 which swept 20,000 hectare of land out of production in the Sunderbans.
But he was shocked at what the farmers did when farming activities resumed.
“All modern hybrid varieties had perished and these native varieties were the only ones that not only survived but also furnished substantial grain yield. But what was heartbreaking was, once the drought or cyclone had passed, the same farmers who were saved from hunger by these native varieties abandoned them to go back to modern varieties. They had no value for the native seeds, because they were getting it for free.”
When Deb travelled to the Chinsurah Rice Research Station to donate some of these varieties, they rejected his offer. He then approached the Director of Agriculture at the station who ridiculed him,
“Being a scientist yourself, why are you trying to get the old seeds back? Do you want to push our farmers to the caveman’s age?”
(So he created a living seed bank, Vrihi because only about 20% of seeds in seed banks are still alive – seeds must grow every year to keep adapting to the environment and climate.)
According to Deb, about 20 per cent of the varieties in these seed banks are still alive and even those are inaccessible to the ordinary farmers. tho big seed corporations have easy access..
While these native varieties are distributed free of cost in half kg packets, the rules are very clear. Farmers who take these packets from Vrihi, have to cultivate them, return one kg next year as proof of cultivation, and later pass the seeds on to other farmers. The rice grown from these seeds can be a commercial product. But the seeds can never be sold. They have to be shared for free only with farmers, not with government institutions or seed corporations.