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The Crops of Truth
Farmers' Perception of Agrobiodiversity in the Deccan region of South India
- By P V Satheesh

 

INTRODUCTION

Background

Indian agriculture, especially in the vast dryland belt covering nearly 65% of all farmlands of the country, is alive and robust thanks to crop diversity. The country is home to several thousand landraces of rice, sorghum, millets and oilseeds. The harsh environments and diverse production niches provide a challenging opportunity for farmers' creativity to select and adapt crop varieties to suit their environments and their community needs.

The Green Revolution model of agriculture, which started in India in the 1960's with a focus on varieties of seed that respond to high external inputs, resulted in widespread monocrops and the chemicalisation of agriculture, destroying in its wake much of the agricultural biodiversity of the irrigated tracts. Nevertheless, large pockets of rainfed agriculture not targeted currently by governmental proponents of the Green Revolution model, have continued to sustain not only their biodiversity, but also the farmers' knowledge associated with this biodiversity.

In view of the fact that the irrigated areas in the country have reached a plateau in production, not much can be expected from them in terms of further yield increase. Therefore, the policy makers in India, in their quest for national food security, have been seriously considering pushing through a Second Green Revolution in the dryland belts of the country. In tandem with this quest is the new threat posed by the globalising agricultural system, which in the name of increased production, advocates contract farming and the consolidation of holdings, which can lead to a new rash of monocultures, this time over in the drylands.
These twin attempts present an alarming context for Indian agriculture, whose experience of the four-decade-old Green Revolution model has been far from satisfactory. It has no doubt created small pockets of affluence in parts of the country where soils are well endowed and where water for irrigation is available at low cost, and chemical pesticides and fertilisers are subsidized by the state. However, these benefits have reached only the upper strata of rural society and have been instrumental in widening the rift between the rich and the poor in these societies. The Green Revolution has also caused untold deprivation to the small and marginal farmers.

The last four decades have more than amply demonstrated that the hybrids and high yielding varieties of food crops, brought in by the Green Revolution model, have failed to yield significantly more per unit area than the traditional varieties, especially when these are grown under their own management conditions, by small and marginal farmers.

Meanwhile, the traumatic changes it has brought to the economic, political and ecological landscapes of the country are fraught with disastrous consequences. If these consequences spread to dryland agriculture, the country may have to pay a heavy social, economic and ecological price. A major socio-ecological price being already paid in dryland areas can be evidenced by the fact that various millets have disappeared from cultivation. A major ecological effect of this change is that more and more lands are being left fallow, at the mercy of the vagaries of nature and resultant degradation. In the district of Medak where the current study was taken up, the extent of current fallows is as high as 450,000 acres, all of which practised a vibrant biodiverse agriculture as recently as a decade ago. Consequently, the farming families' dependence on external supply of food grains is steadily increasing.

Consider the following trends.: In 1998, in one district of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, over 400 farmers committed suicide because they were unable to meet the input demands of the cotton monocrops they were growing. They spent money on everything: seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, and water for irrigation, since all these were external inputs. Consequently their debts started mounting and at one point of time they understood that they would never be able to repay them. Having climbed the treadmill, they did not know how to dismount. The only way out for them was to take their own lives. Even in the agriculturally prosperous state of Punjab, several farmers committed suicide recently because they were unable to bear the mounting debt incurred to support their Green Revolution model of agriculture.

The globalisation of agriculture has brought another challenge before Indian agriculture. The policy circles are looking for a market solution to the problems brought in by the WTO regime. They would like to invest more in technofixes by bringing increased mechanisation, consolidating land holdings, installing corporate agriculture, and displacing over 20 million small and marginal farmers from agriculture.

Within this mindset, it is increasingly difficult to make the policy makers understand that there are inherent strengths in the traditional rainfed agriculture in India, which can offer the country a natural, comparative advantage. One of the most important of such advantages is the biodiversity it supports through the ecological means of production it adopts.

This study incorporates all these concerns and works towards defining the strengths of the traditional biodiverse agricultural systems in rainfed India, especially from the perspective of the farmers who still practice and preserve these systems.

This is urgent in order to find clues for conservation and enhancement of agro-biodiversity in the region. The study may also provide some policy guidelines for ways of encouraging the cultivation of a range of major and minor millets and pulses to ensure local food security.

Women play an invaluable role in the cultivation and conservation of this biodiversity on dryland farms. Their role and knowledge are being steadily marginalised and undermined by the market forces. Unless documented soon, there is a grave threat of the extinction of this knowledge. Such a documentation and analysis of women's role and knowledge may also help to establish policy guidelines that may place women's practices at the centre of Indian agricultural policies.

The present study is devised to respond to these challenges.

Scope

The area represented in this study is a part of the vast region of the Deccan plateau in South India. But, agro-ecologically, the area covered is the Zaheerabad region in the Medak District of Andhra Pradesh, through which runs the semi-arid tract, hosting some of the poorest populations of the country. It also represents the most degraded farm areas in India.

The area represented in this study is a part of the vast region of the Deccan plateau in South India. But, agro-ecologically, the area covered is the Zaheerabad region in the Medak District of Andhra Pradesh, through which runs the semi-arid tract, hosting some of the poorest populations of the country. It also represents the most degraded farm areas in India.

The Zaheerabad region is characterised by laterite red soils as well as alluvial black soils, and because of their character host a wide variety of agricultural crops including sorghum, a range of millets, pulses and oilseeds, all of which grow under rain-fed conditions. The diversity of this cropping system and its suitability to highly infertile soils receiving no irrigation or external inputs, makes it uniquely significant for the survival of ecologically sustainable agricultural systems.
As a matter of fact, the local populations call these crops Satyam Pantalu (Crops of Truth), a powerful imagery to signify the fact that these crops grow with virtually no inputs at all surviving on the available sub-soil moisture. This perception guides the study of this biodiversity based agricultural system through a series of agro-economic, social, cultural and spiritual paths.

Specifically, we examine:

  • Farmers' perceptions of agricultural bio-diversity and the variation in these perceptions based on gender, caste and age.
  • Reasons both for the disappearance of diversity in dryland agriculture and the survival of some landraces.
  • The farmers' [especially women's] unique understanding of their soil and crop types and the profound influence of local farming practices on the conservation and use of biodiversity;
  • The benefits and disadvantages of traditional and hybrid seeds as identified by farmers. Farmers', especially women farmers' criteria for seed selection.
  • The direct and beneficial relationship between biodiversity and
    people's livelihoods and lands;
  • Women's control of seed in the service of food production for their
    families and communities. Their dietary practices, nutritional perceptions, and their relationship with the agro-biodiversity.
  • Linkages between community culture and farming practices and the special significance of rituals and festivals as celebrations of biodiversity; the significance attributed by women to rituals related to agricultural diversity;
  • Options for promoting dialogue and shared understanding of the value of biodiversity among farmers. The potential of a biodiversity festival to promote farmer-to-farmer dialogue.

Methodology

The Deccan Development Society has worked in the Zaheerabad region of the Deccan for a decade and a half. Our study involves farmers from more than 60 villages most of whom are women. Their perceptions were obtained using participatory methodologies in order to make the study transcend the simple objective of data collection and work towards enhancement of horizontal communication and analysis on agro-biodiversity issues between the groups with whom DDS works.


There were some interesting and important methodological themes and issues that came up during the study. Different participatory tools were used to discover them. (Please see annexure for details of the groups that we had an opportunity to interact with, their villages and the dates).

The specific tools used were:

  • Resource maps to understand what kind of soils promote what kind of crops;
  • Matrix scoring to understand the multiple reasons behind the use of specific crops;
  • Ranking to understand crop preferences;
  • Seasonal calendars to understand the availability of food at different times of the year
  • Time lines to understand the availability/disappearance of specific crops.

OPP PAGE ; FULL PAGE PIX MATRIX SCORING : P R A

Semi-structured interviews with farmers in the region were also part of the research process of interacting with them regularly, in order to understand the fascinating vistas of the traditional agricultural practices here. As their knowledge unfolds in front of our eyes the wealth of practices they employ to survive in the dryland rainfed farming under extremely hostile and fragile conditions and the rationale behind them sounds more and more compelling.

Theme/issue addressed Methods used
  • LANDRACES THAT ARE STILL UNDER CULTIVATION
  • SOIL CONDITIONS REQUIRED
  • CROP DURATIONS
  • CROP QUALITIES
  • MAPPING, MATRIX EXERCISES,
  • SEASONALITY
  • REASONS FOR CHANGES IN THE AGRICULTURAL SCENARIO IN THE AREA
  • TREND CHANGE
  • PAIR-WISE RANKING
  • FLOWCHART
  • SEEDS: QUANTITIES, SOWING TIMES, TYPES OF LANDS REQUIRED
  • REQUIRED MOISTURE REGIME FOR GERMINATION
  • SEMI-STRUCTURED INTERVIEWS
  • MATRIX EXERCISES
  • CULTURAL AND SOCIAL
    LINKAGES WITH VARIOUS
    CROPS AND SEEDS
  • SEMI-STRUCTURED
    INTERVIEWS
  • TRADITIONAL FOODS:
    NUTRITIONAL PERCEPTIONS,
    LOCAL FOOD CULTURE
  • SEMI-STRUCTURED INTERVIEWS
  • MATRIX EXERCISES

Focus group discussions were held to understand the relationship between different crop varieties and various rituals in which they are used and the myths related to them.

Focus group discussions were held to understand the relationship between different crop varieties and various rituals in which they are used and the myths related to them.

Finally, large group discussions of the findings were held during a huge Biodiversity Festival organied in February, 1999 by the women's Sanghams (voluntary groups) working with the Deccan Development Society. The Paata Pantala Panduga or Festival of Biodiversity was a three day event involving more than 6,000 women farmers of the Zaheerabad region.

Each day a facilitated discussion of several hours took place in one of the many enclosures, involving no fewer than 500 women at a time. It, and the festival as a whole, provided a unique opportunity to widely disseminate the findings among farmers and create a critical and broad-based discussion on the issues.

Instead of keeping the discussions at a sterile, intellectual level, the Festival, or jatra as it is known locally, converted them into a celebratory occasion. This ensured that the debate become a part of the cultural life of the community in the same manner that the practice of the biodiversity is. This spirit was continued subsequently by taking the festival on the road the following year in a Mobile Biodiversity Festival, reported elsewhere (see annexure I)

PAATA PANTALA PANDUGA : festival of biodiversity ; enthusiasm,
innovative organisation of the space, seed exhibits
and recreation of women's biodiverse farms

All these tools and methods helped the Deccan Development Society engage farmers in a dialogue on biodiversity and to bring out their perceptions on a number of key issues related to agro-biodiversity.

 

PEOPLE & BIODIVERSITY

Diversity, Soils & Gender

Diversity cannot be discussed without understanding the farmers' perceptions of individual crops and their farming practices. The practice, cultivation and conservation of diversity at the farm level, includes the need for the farmer's control over knowledge systems related to seed selection, germination, sowing, and other cultivation practices. Therefore it was important to understand how much of these knowledge systems is still alive.

In a series of discussions and participatory exercises, these issues were taken up leading to an awareness of the critical need of the following requirements in order to carry out the study:

  • An inventory of the traditional agricultural implements of the area
  • A matrix scoring of the traditional pest control practices of the area
  • Soil-building crops of the region
  • Various seed sowing practices for different crops
  • The traditional inter-cropping and mixed-cropping practices of the
    region and the rationale behind these .
  • The nutrient needs of various crops and their inherent productivity
    qualities, the number of sub varieties within each crop etc.

Crop diversity in the Zaheerabad region is to be understood in terms of two main cropping seasons: kharif [rainy period of monsoon from June till October] and rabi [rainless winter period from November to March]. Crop diversity is also closely associated with specific soil types, which have in a sense nurtured it. These soil types are:

  • Red soils
  • Black Soils
  • Sodic Soils
  • Rocky soils
  • Submersible muddy soils

Each of these soil types hosts a range of crops during different seasons.

  • Red soils are further divided into shallow soils, mixed soils, featuring a good capacity for water retention, and deep sandy soils, on all of which the following crops can be grown: sorghum (Sorghum vulgare), pearl millet (Penisettum typhoideum), little millet (Panicum miliare), sesame (Sesamum indicum), niger (Guizotia abyssinica), mesta (Hibiscus cannabinus), greengram (Vigna radiata), redgram (Cajanus cajan), and field bean (Dolichus lablab).
  • Black soils are used to grow a wide range of kharif and rabi crops, including rabi sorghum, wheat (Triticum vulgare), sesame, greengram, safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), linseed (Linum usitassimum), chickpea (Cicer arietinum), field pea (Pisum sativum), little millet, finger millet (Eleusine coracana), foxtail millet (Setaria italica), groundnut (Arachis hypogea), and dry sown paddy (Oryza sativa).

A RICH BIODIVERSE FIELD : MIRROR OF FARMING IN THE DECCAN
…. Most farmers grow at least 12 crops at the same time and space,
answering their multiple needs

  • Mixed soil: All traditional kharif crops are grown on these as well as certain rabi crops, such as sunflower, chillies, and castor.
  • Sodic soil: Certain varieties of little millet and foxtail millet can be
    grown, along with horsegram and coriander (Coriandrum sativum).
  • Submersible muddy soils: This soil type is best suited for dry sown paddy during kharif, and chickpea and lentils during rabi, if the water level has subsided.
  • Rocky soil: On this soil, only a few crops like sorghum, pearl millet and redgram can be grown.

It is important to note that the comparatively better lands with black soils tend to be owned or tilled by upper caste farmers, while dalit farmers are usually confined to the red soils in the uplands.

Table 1. CROP VARIETIES GROWN IN THE DECCAN

TABLE

In the world-view of Deccan farmers, crops are not gender-free. They are classified as moga pantalu [masculine crops] and aada pantalu [female crops]. All commercial crops like sugarcane, turmeric, ginger etc. are Moga Pantalu, while all food crops are Aada Pantalu.

While formal, gendered understanding of agriculture informs us that while most commercial crops get taken over by men and food crops stay under women's management, it is very interesting to note that this concept is embedded in the very linguistic pattern of the region and has become linguistically institutionalised.

The fact that all food crops bear the feminine gender needs to be seen as a tribute to the capacity of women to take control of food production for their families and communities, and to ensure their food security.

FOOD CROPS AS FEMALE CROPS ……institutionalising gender biases

The deeper symbolic meaning of this gendered understanding of crops and soils is complex. The classification of less fertile lands as women's lands may also be linked to the values attributed to women. In local culture, a good woman eats less, eats less nutritious food and still produces children. If this value of self-sacrifice and patience with less and less is coupled with the position of women at the bottom of the social ladder, we get a clue as to why less fertile lands are perceived as Aada bhoomilu. It is these same lands which produce a maximum range of crops and are home to diversity. Therefore, it is also possible for us to infer that the over-riding feminine principle associated with red soils has less to do with their fertility than with the rich biodiversity they support.

Diversity and farming practices

Farming practices in the Deccan are intimately related to the intensity and quality of agro-biodiversity on farmers' lands. Whether ploughing is done by a tractor or an animal, whether the soil is fertilised by chemicals or farmyard manure --- every option impacts the biodiversity on the farm.

WEEDING & DIVERSITY : a complex & intricate relationship

Weeding is one such important element in the farming practice. An interesting issue that was brought up by farming women was the very definition of weeds. The women offered a wonderful perspective on weeds, which had no negative connotations. In their world-view weeds were not villains. On the contrary they enhance the diversity on the farm. As the grow with their crops while the harmful weeds get weeded out through women practise only organic farming, the weeds that grow on their farms acquire the nature of beneficial plants over a period of time and continue to
natural and farming processes.

The plants that grow among cultivated crops are hardly weeds. They are useful vegetative inputs in their lives: green fodder for animals or uncultivated foods for human consumption. The seeds of these weeds usually get recycled through the farmyard manure into which kitchen waste and waste from the cattle shed is thrown.

If a farmer uses farmyard manure to fertilise her farm, she benefits continually from these uncultivated foods which keep generating on her farm year after year. But once the shift is made to chemical fertilisers, this recycling through FYM is broken and the regeneration of uncultivated plants stops.

These are also SANNAM seeds - very delicate. Since the FYM keeps soils loose and airy, the tiny seeds can germinate through this layer. But if chemical fertilisers are applied, they harden the upper crust of the soil and make it impossible for the delicate seeds to break open the upper crust and come out. They meet their death in the lower depths of the soil.

The traditional plough does not upturn the soil too much and allows most of the delicate seeds to stay on the upper layers. But land which is ploughed by tractors pushes these seeds to the bottom of a deep layer of soil preventing them from regenerating.

The farmers, especially the farming women who do most of the weeding, are very conscious of the relationship between weeding and diversity. They know that there are some varieties that need the land to be kept very "clean" [pakeeju]. Therefore, weeding is done almost three times over one crop season. There are other crops which do not allow any weeds to grow. This translates into saving on labour inputs. Crops like Little Millet are usually sown at the end of the monsoon period, as a 'fall-back crop'. Since rainfall becomes very scanty by then, few weeds grow and weeding is not a necessity anymore.

Farmer Malgonda of Humnapur says of Little millet: "kondaru kalusthaaru - yevaru kalavane kalavaru.. gaddi anthane, panta anthane.. deyyam panta… perigenante gaddini levanivvadu." [Some weed it (Little Millet), some don't. Its fodder and grains race with each other. Devil's crop! Once it grows, it doesn't even let weeds come up].

Diversity and Moisture requirements

Based on a meticulous study of the moisture requirement of each crop and the rainfall pattern in the region, farmers have developed a complicated system of sowing specific crops during specific periods of the monsoon:

Little Millet could wait till the end of the season because of its hardiness Greengram and Blackgram, which are comparatively delicate need the first few heavy showers of the monsoon to nurture them. Therefore, the pulse crops are sown during the first fortnight of the local calendar called Mirgam Little Millet and Niger which demand the least soil moisture are sown in the fifth or sixth fortnight, in Asaleru, almost two and a half months after the onset of the monsoon, especially in years when monsoon rains fail to arrive. Crops like lentils are sown on low-lying areas where there is extra moisture present in the soil.

Diversity and Special Qualities

Some crops have special qualities and vulnerabilities, which are recognised, valued, and accounted for in farming practices:

QUALITIES CROPS
No weeding required
Niger and sunhemp
Most prone to pest attack Pigeonpea, fieldbeans and Dolichos lablab
Most labour involved [in processing]
Little Millet and Foxtail millet
High storability Foxtail millet, Kodo millet and Little millet
The tastiest foods Pigeonpea daal, Paddy [porka], Pearl
millet roti and Foxtail millet
Suitable for rainy soil types
Pigeonpea
Most fertile soils needed Chilli and Sunflower
High commercial value
Pigeonpea and Sesame
Highly productive[barkath]** Bishop's weed

In special biotic-stress related needs, crops like sesame are carefully sown on lands which have hardened due to cattle trampling. Since it is not grazable, sesame acts as a live crop fence and prevents cattle from coming into the farm. In addition it also yields a valuable oilseed.

In special biotic-stress related needs, crops like sesame are carefully sown on lands which have hardened due to cattle trampling. Since it is not grazable, sesame acts as a live crop fence and prevents cattle from coming into the farm. In addition it also yields a valuable oilseed.

Diversity and Household Needs

While many crop landraces have disappeared from the agricultural scene in the region, some landraces continue to be grown by farmers with particular needs and sets of resources. Recognizing these circumstances opens a unique window of understanding on the range of creative motives, which prompt farmers to make particular decisions to grow a certain crop in their field.

  • Soil types, as noted above, determines the crops that the farmer grows. For example, on black soils farmers invariably plant crops like Sai Jonna (winter sorghum), chickpea, mustard etc. On red soils, the preferred crops are Pachajonna, a variety of monsoon sorghum, pigeonpea and hibiscus. Every crop mix depends upon the extent of each soil type on the farm.
  • " Need to raise two or more crops during a year: In order to optimise the production from their farms, farmers go for the best crop mix
    within their multiple cropping system. For example, on black soils they grow green and black grams during the rainy Kharif period since both are short duration crops. The crops are harvested in about three months after their planting and a range of winter crops are planted in the same space. This allows optimal land use for cropping.
  • Crop durations play a determining role. For example, Gareeb Jonna, an early maturing variety of sorghum is grown because it is harvested within three months of sowing. At this point of time all the previously harvested grains will have been exhausted, and there is hunger at
    home. Similarly all the dry fodder would be over and the cattle would begin to starve. Crops like foxtail millet and Gareeb Jonna are grown to meet both these food and fodder needs. They mature in three months, and provide the urgently needed food and fodder.
  • Need for cash is the reason for growing crops like Bishop's Weed.
  • Ensuring food security makes it imperative that they grow crops like Kharif sorghum, the main staple of the region.
  • Need for fodder : Since the farmers use a variety of fodder mixes for their cattle, they also need diverse varieties of fodder.
    The cattle are fed on a mix of green and dry fodder, straw, pods and husk. To meet this need, the fodder-feed mix has become a part of the cropping system in the region. Growing a mixture of sorghum, pearl millet, pigeonpea, cowpea, dollichos lablab on their fields, farmers ensure that they get green fodder [dollichos creeper], dry fodder [sorghum and pearl millet stalk], pods [pigeonpea] and husks [cowpea].
  • Need for fuel wood: Pigeonpea which is a major crop in the Deccan is not only a pulse crop and soil nitrogen fixer but also an important supplier of fuelwood for the family.
  • Need for thatching/fencing material also influences the decision to grow a certain kind of crop. For example, Pigeonpea is grown not only for the pulses it provides but also because the plant itself is used as fencing/thatching material by farmers. This spares them the need to go around purchasing other material for this purpose since they are both expensive and increasingly scarce.
  • Need for fibre makes farmers grow crops like Amaranthus & Sunhemp. The fibre from these crops is used for making ropes that are employed in a number of agricultural operations as well as in making household furniture like cots.
  • Need for vegetables encourages farmers cultivate crops like cucumber and cowpea as a part of their cropping system.
  • Special foods for specific festivals is a very important consideration for including in their crop menu, varieties like Pyalala Jonna (Popping Sorghum) which is used in snake worship.
  • Rejuvenating soil fertility and 'strength' The unique cropping system of the Deccan makes space for a variety of crops not just for their produce value but also for their interaction with soils. For example, Niger is an oilseed grown on the hardiest and the least fertile patches of soil. Through its root activity Niger loosens the soil on which it is sown and fertilises it through leaf fall. Over a period of time, the farmer has not only enjoyed the produce of niger for her oil needs but will also have reclaimed the least fertile patches of his farm to grow 'better' crops
  • Storability: Apart from all their other uses, crops like Foxtail millet are grown because they store very long without the addition of any pest repellent or the use of special storage techniques. This makes farmer less tense since she can rely on the grain for several years.
  • Need for oil: The people in the Zaheerabad region prefer cooking oils like safflower oil which is not only very tasty but also healthy since it has the least cholesterol content. Therefore cultivation of Safflower is endemic in the region.
  • Need to prepare land for the next crop Crops like sunhemp are grown for this specific purpose. In black soils the major winter crop is sorghum and its cultivation demands that the soil is rested over the rainy season. During the period of resting the farmer grows a short duration green manure crop which can be ploughed back into the land so that land becomes further fertile. Sunhemp is a major crop raised for this purpose.
  • Medicinal properties A large number of crops are also appreciated for their medicinal qualities. For example, Mustard which is frequently used as a poultice to prevent serious infections.
  • To ward off/reduce pest incidence: The Deccan farmers grow crops like marigold specifically for their pest repellant property. Grown between rows of crops this keeps away nematodes and pests.

GAREEB JONNA - answering hunger

Diversity and Diet

Each grain has its place in the dietary needs and demands of the people. While some hardy grains answer the call of survival, some are used for ritual requirements. Some are fertility grains, while some meet famine needs. Early maturing varieties like foxtail millet and Kaki Muttani Jonna are Aakali Panta [Grains of Hunger]. They are harvested at that time of the year when the grain pots at home have gone empty and hunger is knocking at the door. These grains drive hunger away and provide succour to the farmers.

Horsegram and finger millet are crops which make the least demand on water or moisture. They also grow on lands which are least fertile. In the harsh environment of the semi arid Deccan, where famine often lurks at every corner, these crops offer much needed relief. The combination in which they are used in the local diet makes them not only belly- fillers, but also highly nutritious [for example, horsegram was used to make rotis and eaten with uncultivated greens, and finger millet was cooked as porridge with raw sugar]. Used in people's diet in this fashion, these grains not only answer survival needs, but also go beyond their brief and provide the major nutritional requirements of people.

MEAL AT A DECCAN HOME : food diversity inspired by crop diversity

While a gamut of hardy local grains answers peoples' most important needs, more delicate, less nutritious, and rarer crops like rice were reserved in the past for some festive occassions. Rice was called Jeje Buvva : Worship Food. "Jaram vastene Buvva, Jejeki Ekteni Buvva" is a popular saying meaning that "Rice, only when fevers come, rice only when worships are done."

It is interesting to note that most of the traditional recipes are not made out of a single variety of grain but a combination of cereals, pulses and oilseeds. The daily meal of a traditional Deccan farmer consists of sorghum roti [bread], pigeonpea dal, uncultivated greens seasoned with oil and laced with powdered spices. The most interesting aspect of this meal is that every single element in it is grown on her own farm, however small it is. One can infer that the diversity on the farm is directly transferred into their kitchens.

In extended participatory exercises and group discussions, women give the following picture of various crops and their use in the dietary system of the region:

  • Horsegram rotis and finger millet porridge were the staples during
    extreme famine conditions in the past.
  • Rotis [breads] are made by mixing flour of millets as well as pulses
    like blackgram.
  • Rice was considered to be Jeje buvvva - something offered to the
    gods and eaten only on special occasions, on festivals. At other times,
    people ate foxtail millet.
  • A variety of sorghum called Kaaki muttani jonna,[which literally translates into the phrase : the sorghum that the crow does not touch] is supposed to produce rotis that are dark in colour and unappetising. But it is GAREEB JONNA - Poor [person's] sorghum - since it comes in handy when rains fail causing overall crop failure. This variety of sorghum is extremely hardy, does not demand much soil moisture and can be sown late in the season, if the monsoon fails to set in properly. To top all other qualities, this is a short-duration crop. It appeases the hungry, and is therefore known as GAREEB JONNA.

Diversity and Nutrition

There are a number of important perceptions regarding nutritional qualities of traditional foods. The local classification of the nutritional status of each crop is based on the "heat" and "cold" elements present in the grains. Based on these, different kinds of foods are recommended for different human body types, and for different seasons as well. For instance, Finger Millet, with its high "heat" element is consumed in winter. On the other hand, Little millet is a "cold" crop and therefore eaten in high summer, in combination with buttermilk [diluted yoghurt] which is another cold food.

Even the oil derived from particular oilseeds is rated by the villagers for different parameters: some are considered healthy, some medicinal and some harmful. They are also judged according to taste. Oil from safflower and groundnut occupies the pride of place among all oils. Some oils even get tags of extra-nutritional connotation tagged onto them, for example, Sunflower, which is a new introduction in the region by the mainstream agriculture extension system, is blamed for all the negative behaviour of the young . Farmer Malgonda in Humnapur: Nalla kusuma noonaytho telivi yekkuvaindi ee kaalamlo vankaraithe yekkuvuntivi naalugendlu. "Sunflower oil has made people extra smart. In this age, only if you are [aggressively] extra smart can you survive a few years longer".

Horsegram is believed to be very good for the human body - as good as it is to the lands on which it is grown. Winter sorghum and chickpea are also perceived as very nutritive grains.

Blackgram and Manchi Pesari - a greengram variety - sorghum and lentils are very good for consumption, especially for convalescents . Manchi Pesari, in particular, is a special food for post- natal mothers.

Gollollu [the shepherd community] prefer eating cooked whole- foxtail millet, because it is a garmi tindi [warm food]. They need this because they spend the nights outside on other people's lands in the cold, along with their herd.

Diversity and Seed Selection

Seed is the most critical link in the food chain and is the basis for all agriculture. Therefore, the criteria for seed selection are central to the diversity of the farming system. In order to understand these criteria, the study used collective and individual oral histories so as to identify what it is that the farmers look for when they are selecting seeds. What emerged were four criteria:

Vaasana, the odour If the seed smells 'good', then it is kept for sowing
Vanne, the colour The seed must have the right shade of colour
The grain appearance The seed should not have any fungus nor the mark of any pest attack
The size The grain should be 'fat' and healthy

While entire earheads are selected as seeds for crops like sorghum, seed selection takes place through winnowing and handpicking for crops like greengram and blackgram.

The next stage after selecting seeds for their odour, colour, and size, is the task of finding out the germination quality of the seed. Germination tests for seeds are the decisive factors in deciding what seeds should be used and what should be discarded. In an extraordinarily interesting fashion, the Deccan communities have incorporated germination tests as a part of the ritual celebration of the festival of Dasara.

Dasara is the most important festival in the region. It is post-monsoon and the landscape, which is normally brown and arid, is covered with carpets of greenery. The streams are full, and flow with vibrant life. Most crops are ready for harvesting, and the farmers are relaxed. It is also the time of the year which marks the end of one season and the beginning of another: a continuity of life.

This is the time for preparations for sowing the PEDDA PANTA, the big crop for the winter season. Dasara heralds this season.

In preparation for Pedda Panta, the big cropping season, women perform a fascinating ritual called Gattilu Koorchodam. They go into isolation and sit Gattilu. This is a five to seven day ritual when, in their isolation, they worship Amba Bhavani, a form of Durga, the famous Hindu goddess. But beyond the worship of this Goddess lies another ritual, which is unparalleled for its creative brilliance. This is the element of seed worship and the observation built into this ritual.[See box: GATTILU : THE GERMINATION RITUAL]

Through this method, farmers used to understand the relative merits of the seeds lying with various farmers in the village, and those seeds which had the highest germination qualities, would get the maximum requests for seeds from other farmers in the village.

Diversity and Culture

Each festival is the cultural manifestation of a particular season and a particular social and psychological condition. Some festivals are celebratory. Some are austere. Some are ostentatious, while some are reflective. According to the character of each festival, specific grains assume importance for use in that particular festival. The following table gives us a brief glimpse of the character of various grains, as perceived by the community in relation to their culture.

  • Pyalala jonna - as popped sorghum for Nagula Panchami, a day on
    which snakes are worshipped as symbols of fertility and probably for
    their role in farming as controllers of rats and other pests.
  • Korralu (foxtail millet)is cooked as Paayasam, a sweet pudding, on the day of Peddala amaasya-- the Hindu All Souls Day, the day on which the dead are remembered and worshipped. Chickpea is used for making Bajji, a fried snack for many festivals
  • Finger millet, peanut, and chickpea are used for making a sweet pancake - Polelu - for a number of festivals

This already establishes a range of grains that achieve festival status and also represent a cultural expression. The popped sorghum on the day of Nagula Panchami is an austere food--respectful austerity-- to worship snake gods for fertility and for protection of crops from rats etc. Foxtail millet porridge, another austere food is offered with great respect to the departed ancestors on the day of Peddala Amavasya: the day of the Ancestors.

AUSTERE FOODS - Popping Sorghum & Foxtail millet

GATLU : THE GERMINATION RITUAL

Women mix five most important seeds for the winter crop are mixed with Untasted soil of single crop-growing land : Sayi Jonna Chenu. The soil must not have been cultivated that year : land that has been kept waiting for a new crop. Into this soil they mix seeds of winter jowar, lathyrus, chickpea and linseed: all crops which grow without longing for water. Water is the scarcest commodity in the dryland region. Therefore any crop that can grow without water needs to be worshipped.

This soil-seed spread is placed on a leaf plate and two fresh pots are kept on it. Each pot is decorated with a piece of sugarcane and a jowar earhead: a bouquet of crops ready for harvest from the monsoon crop season. Auspicious betel leaves are spread all across and flower garlands adorn the pots.

Another pot full of oil is placed in front and an earthen lamp is lit on top of the pot. The lamp glows all through the day and night until the ritual days are over. Five measures of rice in dried coconut cups are kept around the pots. The entire scene is
enchanting [Laka laka antadi].

The seeds for the ritual are brought either from the house of the Patel, the village headman, who traditionally is the seed keeper for the village. [The poor cannot afford to keep their own seeds. It is the job of the rich]. Alternatively seeds are brought from those who are known to preserve seeds. Or from their own seed baskets.

On the final day, when the seeds sprout, women in the community visit each others houses and look at the seeds and compare how well the sasi (seedling) has grown. It is an indication for them to understand whose seeds have greater potency.

The seeds with the pots are taken to the farm and planted there with ritual observations.

However, peanut and chickpea, two grains that are considered rich, are also celebratory; you make sweet bread -pole- with them, on celebratory festivals like Ugadi, Dasara, Diwali, and on a special farmers' festival called Erokka Punnami, the day on which all the bullocks in the village are decorated and taken out in a procession at the beginning of the farming season.

Two festivals in the Deccan are pure celebrations of diversity. The Soonyam Pandugu in December is heralded with a visit to the farm by the entire family of the farmer. They go singing around their farm. Several versions of the songs are available : Olega Sagam Olega and Beliyo Jolave, a song which urges the sorghum to grow well. Such songs are sung to propitiate Bhootalli (the Mother Earth), "who is pregnant at that time", and bears a host of crops: sorghum, pigeonpea, a variety of pulses, and a host of vegetables (sabbanda Kooragayalu). It is that time of pregnancy, when the Mother Earth craves to taste different things. To satisfy her craving people cook Bajjikoora, a fascinating dish in which all the available vegetables (leafy and otherwise) and tender grains [including the green pods of pigeonpea, dolichos lablab, chickpea, chillies, green peas, lathyrus, amaranthas and other leafy greens] are cooked together and offered to the Mother. The singing also is to please the Mother.

The expected result of all this is to persuade the Mother to think: "These people are making such an effort to keep me happy. Therefore I also should keep them happy by making the harvest bountiful". Though this is the expected result, it is not negotiated as a crude business act. It is an act of love. An act of gratitude. An act of worship, and finally, an act of celebration.

The second festival which joyously celebrates diversity, is Endlagatte Punnam, a festival which precedes the harvesting of winter crops. On this day, men and women collect various earheads of crops from their farm. These earheads and special sweets and cooked rice are offered to the village goddess. It is an act of gratitude towards the Goddess who has showered her blessings on the farms and made it possible for a diverse produce.

Simultaneously, each housefront is adorned with Thoranam, a string of earheads tied across the front door. The main grains constituting the Thoranam are Satyam Pantalu the five Crops of Truth. Along with them, other crops in the farm also make it to the Thoranam. The greater the diversity of the earheads, the prouder the household feels, and its status goes up in the community. It is the most fascinating and creative way of declaring your commitment to diversity.

ENDLAGATTE PUNNAM …… pure celebration of diversity

 

THE LOSS OF BIODIVERSITY

If all these qualities have been known and valued by people, why is it that diversity has declined and some landraces have been lost? Minor millets such as foxtail millet and finger millet have been fast disappearing from farmers' fields. Manchu korra, a foxtail millet variety that lives off dew, is no longer to be found in most villages. Similarly, the white variety of redgram, which has a particular medicinal value, has been displaced by newly introduced varieties of seeds in certain areas of Medak District. The area under rabi jowar, out of which a particularly tasty bread is prepared, has drastically decreased.

There is no single answer to this question. People come up with some pithy one liners in reply.

  • Paisalu kattukuntunnaaru ippudu - [people] are bundling up money [thoughtlessly] these days." This is a very perceptive comment on the monetarisation of agriculture to the exclusion of everything else.
  • Kaalam kaaka - because the rains don't come (as they used to)." This is a very popular perception. There is a strong memory of the past, which had Naalgu nelala kaalam [four months of rain cycle]. Many of the traditional crops need rains at the right time.
  • Devunikeruka - God knows why. This is an expression of perplexity; in spite of the well known qualities, uses and needs of the traditional crops, the question of why people are not cultivating them is truly perplexing for a number of farmers, especially for women.
  • Neighbour's pressure: Another interesting reason is that even the ones who want to continue to grow traditional seed varieties cannot do so, if the neighbours have all gone for mono-cropping or hybrid varieties. In such cases, Naluguri kannu dani meede - "everybody has their eyes set on the crops" - they would start stealing from the farm. This entails adequate watch and ward over the crop. Who has that kind of time?

Lengthy discussions with farmers over the course of several years have revealed patterns of farmer perceptions regarding the threats to diversity, which have been grouped below into seven categories:

a. Governmental policies and programmes
b. Media influence
c. Agricultural extension, which promotes monocrops and commodity crops
d. Market preferences
e. Diminishing cattle population and farm mechanisation
f. Chemicalisation of agriculture
g. Erratic and insufficient rainfall

Government policies and programmes

Social Safety Net Policies

The farmers single out the public distribution system as a major threat to their agro-biodiversity. The Government of India pursues a policy of providing cheap ration to the needy families across the country. This huge affirmative action provides each identified poor family with about 20 kgs of foodgrains per month at an inexpensive price.

While the programme has a laudable intention, the effect it has on drylands and their biodiversity has been lethal. Under the PDS system, the government has been selling only rice and wheat across the country for over three decades. This has affected the traditional food habits of people. Even those communities, which used to eat sorghum and millets, have gradually switched over to rice or wheat. This situation has adversely affected the production and consumption of sorghum and millets. In Medak district itself, over 100,000 hectares of croplands have stopped producing these traditional crops. Much of these lands have been left fallow.

FALLOUT OF P D S : alarming increase in fallowisastion of farmlands

A major segment of the population, which is affected negatively by the way in which the PDS is implemented, is the young children. They get used to eating rice purchased from the ration shops and forget their sorghum breads and millet porridges. This change is further reinforced when they go to government hostels to study. Many of the poor households send their children to hostels during their years of schooling because it reduces the financial burden of raising them at home. In these free hostels run by the government, they are served only rice. There is no sorghum or millets in their menu. With their formative years characterised by a diet of rice, they refuse to accept sorghum and millets as they grow up.

Finance Policies

Agriculture in Zaheerabad is also moulded by the government's agriculture financing policies. It is easy to get credit and crop loans from state institutions for commodity crops such as sugarcane, horticulture and cotton grown as monocultures, while farmers who plan to grow millets and sorghum on their fields do not get similar support. Under this continuous pressure to shift to particular crops, farmers get disheartened and change their cropping pattern in accordance with the credit diktats of the banking and other lending institutions.

Seed Policies

Many focus group discussions, especially with women farmers, aimed at understanding whether the government seed policies had led to any particular shift from traditional seeds towards HYV/Hybrids. In fact the HYVs and hybrids are commonly known as Sarkari Vittanalu-- government seeds.

A common argument emanating from the mainstream science and policy makers in support of hybrids is that they give better yields, and therefore would be welcomed by farmers. However, the women farmers react very differently to the issue of hybrid seeds. Strangely there seems to be a kind of disaster association in their minds with the hybrid seeds.

In a focus group discussion the women said that hybrids were introduced during the HYDERABAD ACTION. This was a time when the national government of India had sent its army to annex the state of Hyderabad, ruled by a Muslim ruler. This was also a time when riots between Hindus and Muslims broke out in the region and claimed hundreds of lives.

The Hyderabad Action took place in the early 1950s. Objectively, their view that hybrids were introduced at this time is incorrect as HYVs were introduced in the region in late 1960s with the Green Revolution. Metaphorically, however, the association is with disaster, a perception that has little to do with actual historical dates but one that reflects a particular reading for a period in their history.

This association of disastrousness gets clarified when they start explaining their perceptions of the quality of hybrids. The main complaint is that "hybrids" make soil lifeless : praanam gunjukoni tintadi wrenches life out of the soil and gobbles it up. Some of the farmers, however, feel that "hybrids" by themselves do not really cause any lasting damage to the soil. It is the package of practices prescribed in growing "hybrids" [use of chemical fertilisers on dry soils especially] which "forces life out of the soil". In the farmers' minds there is no clear distinction between hybrids and HYVs. What is clear for them is the distinction between their own seeds and the seeds that have come from government sources.

However, there is a consensus that "hybrids" are not good for consumption - either for humans or for their livestock. They cause allergies and lanju. "Peyyiki chetu" [not good for health]. Similarly, animals do not find the fodder from the hybrid crops palatable or digestible. It does not give the animal any strength 'peyyiki talagadi '.

The high yields of hybrids, which is a positive quality for science and policy makers is not so positive for local people. For farmers, hybrids yield uncontrollably like "wild crops" - aagam panta lekka pandutadi --not like decent crops. They are also not seen as a crop, which is suitable for the small and marginal farmers. "Hybrids were brought in by the upper caste farmers and the big landlords. Everyone was attracted to them because they were new on the scene - because one could make money. But anyway, hybrids are not grown for us - they are for sale--who knows where they go to and who eats them?"

Media influence

The second major influence identified by farmers is the media, which is completely dominated and populated by the urban middle classes. This media constantly promotes the elite foods like rice and wheat. The rural poor find their own foods marginalised by the media and start wondering whether they are inferior in status. Over a long period of time, this sense of inferiority has deepened and slowly they have started abandoning their own foods.

The special capacity of the millets and other crops which used to withstand harsh environments, instead of getting the credit they deserve, have earned them an identification of being 'famine foods'.

This has contributed to negative connotations. Eating millets and sorghum is identified with the poverty of the consumer because these foods do not find a place on the fashionable media. With the spread and dominance of an elite media, the traditional crops are losing their sheen.

Agricultural Extension

The third major factor to impact on agro-biodiversity is the state agricultural extension network, which has refused to recognise the inherent strengths of biodiversity in agriculture. They relentlessly promote monocultures and commodity crops and provide no extension services for other farming practices

Market preferences

Markets have been a major player in the marginalisation of millets. During earlier times when markets were local and followed people's food tastes and eating preferences, there was not much conflict between what people produced and what the market accepted. But as markets are currently dictated by distant demands, millets have been consigned a very low priority. . In order to produce for these markets, people have been forced to follow a cropping regime that does not include diverse varieties, and certainly not millets.

Diminishing cattle population

A particularly worrying problem that confronts the farmers in the region is the diminishing cattle population in their villages and on their farms. Much of the traditional agricultural practices demand farmyard manure (FYM) in which cow dung is the most crucial element. With no cattle around, there is no farmyard manure either. Shortage of farmyard manure was the single most commonly repeated concern raised by the villagers.

The decrease in the cattle population, and the resulting decline in the availability of FYM, according to the farmers, has been caused by a host of pressures:

  • The decreasing pastures and village commons has been a major obstacle in owning and raising cattle. Richer landlords who, in the past, used to own pastures have sold them off to earn money. Much of the village commons have been allotted by the government to the landless people for farming.
  • With the increasing emphasis by the government on children's education, many children who worked as cattle-herders earlier have gone to schools. Consequently, there are no herdsmen in the villages. As the better-off farmers have taken to mechanisation of their agriculture with increasing use of tractors, the animals have been sidelined.

Chemicalisation of agriculture

In a puzzling cause-effect-cause cycle, the diminishing cattle population and the reduced availability of the FYM has made farmers depend more and more on chemical fertilisers. Chemical fertilisers are subsidised by the government, are available on credit and are easy to use. They also reduce the need for cumbersome transportation and application processes required of FYM. For one acre of farm, one needs to transport about 10-15 cartloads of FYM, whereas the equivalent in chemical fertilisers represents just a few bags. While you need four to six persons to load and unload the FYM and spread it on the farm, a single person can handle all these operations for the chemical fertilisers. Chemicals save farmers' time.

PICTURE OF CHEMICAL FERTILIZER

The costs of chemicalisation of agriculture is less visible but significant. In an unreliable rainfall regime such as Zaheerabad, millets and sorghum do not respond well to the application of chemical fertilisers, compared to FYM. This leaves farmers in a bind. They cannot grow these crops without access to abundant FYM, forcing many to abandon millets and the diversity regime of their farming practice. If they move to crops like cotton and sunflower that do respond to chemical fertilisers, they run the risk of incurring heavy debt in case of crop failure. Sometimes they pay with their own lives, as illustrated earlier.

Farmers also note that the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides has created several new negative environmental impacts. They believe that the use of chemical fertilisers results in the loss of natural fertility and soil life (microbes), which in turn makes the revival of soils a difficult process. The use of pesticides impacts on the bird population and on the population of beneficial insects, leading to an increase in pests and diseases.

Insufficient and erratic rainfall

Another reason very often cited by farmers for declines in crop diversity is an increasingly erratic rainfall. Farmers fondly recall what used to be a four month rain regime earlier, and say that if the same pattern comes back the diversity on their farms will also be back.

GENDER, CASTE, AGE & DIVERSITY

While all these perceptions regarding the benefits of diversity and the reasons for decreasing diversity emerge across various sections of the community, some fascinating variations manifest when one poses these questions to special groups like men and women, upper and lower castes, younger and older people. These trans-caste, trans-gender and trans-generation perceptions bring out different visions of diversity and some fine nuances which may not be apparent on the surface.

In order to get a full appreciation of these issues, different participatory exercises were conducted among the following sections of the communities :

  • Women from dalit communities
  • Women from upper castes and dalits
  • Men from a mixed group
  • Young adults in the age group of 13-18

In each of these exercises, we got to see a new framework and group-
specific insights into the nature and perception of different crop varieties.

PRA with Dalit Women

A special PRA was done with dalit women, the women belonging to socially disadvantaged classes, lying at the bottom of the Indian caste hierarchy. All of them were small and marginal farmers earning less than one US dollar per day. Therefore, all their perceptions came out of their long struggle with their lands, crops and lives, and the survival strategies they have evolved out of this struggle.

Twelve women who participated in this PRA scored twenty crop varieties, which they grow in Kharif, the rainy season. These included a range of pulses, millets, oilseeds and sorghum. Their parameters included a large variety of needs encompassing foods, fodder, fibre, ritual foods, dietary foods, employment generation, pest disease resistance, and adaptability to marginal lands etc.

In their scoring, the women made an emphatic statement that they would prefer to grow their own food crop varieties rather than cash crops. This argument is in complete variance with what is normally advocated by the policy makers, who argue that poor people must earn more money by growing commodity crops on their lands. For women of the poorest families, food security is the first priority.

Within the parameters of food security, their preferred food crop is pachajonna, the yellow sorghum, which anchors the diverse cropping system on their farms and meets most of their food and fodder needs. Though it yields less than the so- called improved varieties, women gave it the highest score.

CROP CHART BY DALIT WOMEN: sorghum leads all the way

On the other hand, Voma, Bishop's Weed, which is grown primarily for cash and does not promote diversity, received the least score. At one stroke, the women demolished the market logic by voting heavily for food crops and diversity, and produced a sharp and eloquent argument in favour of agro- diversity.

PRA with a mixed group of women

Another PRA with women from both dalit and higher castes produced another vision of diversity. This PRA was designed to start a dialogue between dalit women, who suffer not only from their inferior social status but also from their position of being economically disadvantaged and the higher caste women. The higher caste women are large farmers in the village. Their land holdings are at least eight to ten times larger than that of dalit farmers. In terms of soil quality, the fertile lands owned by upper caste farmers are at least four times superior to the quality of marginal and low quality lands owned by the dalits. Another important difference is in terms of irrigation. While 90% of upper caste farmers have irrigation on their lands, less than 10% dalit farmers can afford it.

P R A WITH MIXED GROUP OF WOMEN : unique gender bonding

In view of this wide socio-economic and agronomic differentiation between dalits and upper castes, an interface between the women from these two sections of the community to understand their own positions vis a vis agro-biodiversity seemed exciting.

When this interface was organised, the expectations did come true. Twenty women, 30% of whom belonged to upper castes participated in this PRA. The critical differences came as expected in the crop varieties put in for analysis. The very first differences emerged when the upper caste women introduced cash crops like cotton, turmeric and ginger into the crop matrix.


For dalit women, cotton was an anathema. Cotton is a high- input crop unlike their tradition of low- input farming. In fact, in the Zaheerabad region, dalit women had initiated a vigorous campaign in 1994 against growing cotton because they perceived cotton as a crop which denied them continuous wages, food and fodder, besides inviting new pests into their farming system. As a result of their campaign, cotton cultivation had come down by at least 80% in their villages. Turmeric and ginger both need irrigation. And for dalits, they are farther than their most distant dreams. Therefore, all the new crops that were put on the matrix had very little relation to dalit farming.

RANKING CHART BY MIXED GROUP WOMEN : cotton finds no place

In spite of these apparent divergences born out of their belonging to different castes, there was an unique gender bonding when the results of the PRA came out. Transcending their caste and class barriers, the women heavily voted in favour of pacha jonna, the food crop anchoring diversity. And cotton came last. In their ecological vision, the women had blurred their caste and class distinctions.

But the cultural dissimilarity, however, was not so easily forgotten. The most interesting part of the PRA came when a high caste woman declared that a minor millet like Proso millet was of no use in rituals. She was squarely challenged by the dalit women who said that Proso millet was constantly used by them in their rituals. But the upper caste women maintained that Proso millet was used in the worship of devils and not gods. For dalit women, there was very little distinction between gods and demons. For them, both represented supernatural powers, and it was this anifestation of a power beyond them that they worshipped. Therefore, whether a grain was used to worship a demon or a god, it hardly made a difference to them. The argument took on all nuances of the social backgrounds that women came from. For dalits there are no superior or lesser gods. But the upper caste women have a hierarchical understanding of gods. The minor millets do not serve their superior gods, so it was not in their matrix. But the dalits insisted that it should find a place in the matrix. This fascinating perception of crops brought a new dimension to the role of crop diversity in people's culture.

Where men differ

While caste could not substantially separate women, gender does seem to have some impact on the perception of crops. A number of very interesting results produced by an exclusive men's PRA defined these differences. The major variations between men's and women's ranking of crop varieties were as follows:

  • Pachajonna, the Yellow Sorghum which was ranked highest by women in an earlier PRA, was relegated to the third place by men.
  • While women had recognised pachajonna as a fertility-enhancing crop men do not agree with that perception. They did not identify Pachajonna as a soil fertiliser.
  • Pigeonpea, according to them,is the best crop in terms of improving soil fertility.
  • For women, Gareeb Jonna, is a crop that responds to hunger. For men this quality is not important. For them it is an inferior grain because it cooks into a black-looking bread and hence occupies a lower position on their matrix.
  • Whole Jowar cooked as rice or porridge did not find any favour with men. This is a question of status. If you have to eat a cooked whole grain, it has to be rice which looks white and shining. Jowar does not have these qualities. It is yellowish and looks soggy when cooked whole. Therefore men do not like it. But for women, this does not make a difference. Jowar, when cooked whole is a nutritious grain and therefore they gave it a good score.
  • Men do not find any value in pickling Amaranthus. But to women this food has a very important value and hence it gets a good score.
  • Women place a very high value on the ritual uses of the grains. In men's matrix, ritual use does not find any place in the parameter axis.
  • Crops that do not demand high moisture have a great worth for women. In their coping strategy women very highly value crops that can be grown easily in their semi arid rainfed farming environments. To men who normally are known for chasing mirages, this particular quality has no appeal and hence they did not employ this parameter in their PRA.
  • Disease proneness of a crop was an important parameter for women who highly rank the crops which are less disease/pest prone. For some reason, men did not.

Diversity and the Young

A PRA with young boys and girls aged 12-18 years old, regarding their knowledge about local crops and uses, was very interesting.

Fourteen of them were girls while six were boys. It was amazing to see the wealth of information and experience that these children had about the local cropping systems.

When they listed out the number of crops that they knew, what emerged was a long list. This included several varieties of :

Greengram [pirki, ganga, balinta, chemki, bandari, pilli, theega]
Pigeonpea [white, red and black],
Chickpea [black, white, neella and red],
Sorghum [red, white, pyalala, thoka, suvarna, neella and yellow],
Peanuts [chinna, pedda and neela],
Wheat [katte, boda, mullu, neella]
Horsegram [white and black]
Sugarcane [basat, 8014, bodhan, nalla, 419, yerra, manchi -pottelu punnamma]
Chilli [doddu and sanna]

The list also included sesame, niger, greenpeas, lathyrus, lentils, safflower, linseed, coriander, field beans, cowpea, foxtail millet, cucumber, little millet, two varieties of hibiscus, sunhemp, maize, bishop's weed, s, barley, mustard, ginger, turmeric, onion, paddy [nalla, yerra, budda], mustard, potato, sweet potato, carrot, garlic, and finger millet.

Most of these children seem to be able to recognise the distinctive qualities/features of each of the sub-varieties. Their experience also ranges over the entire gamut of agricultural operations in the region - ploughing, transportation and application of farm yard manure, sowing, intercropping, weeding, harvesting, threshing, and winnowing.….

When asked about the reasons for growing various crops [what does one get out of raising these crops?], the answers varied from the simplest functions to complex ones.

Greengram for making daal, for allowing the pod- mix to become the fertiliser for the farm, as feed for the livestock, for roasting the grains, for keeping aside a part of the harvest as seeds for the next season, and as special nutritive food for new mothers
Pigeonpea In addition to producing a tasty daal, it isused to prepare a special dish for festivals, polelu. It is also used as a special diet for convalescing people, to make rotis, to burn dried stalk as fuel wood, as thatching and fencing material, and for making brooms…
Lathyrus Creepers are fed to bullocks to give them extra strength.
Chickpea Used in many special dishes --jilebis, laddus--in addition to the daals, for using the dried pod refuse in seed storage, for feeding buffaloes, for extra milk production, and as a vegetable ( its green leaves).…
Sorghum Used in rotis, the stalk as dry fodder, the grain popped on special occasions like Nagula Panchami, as fuelwood and as fencing/thatching material…..

The children have not yet suffered a loss of knowledge. The fact that they all come from poorer farming families, where they are a part of the family work culture did help. At the end of the PRA, there was a sense of hope that the young people would certainly be able to carry forward the mantle of agro-biodiversity in their agriculture if only they are allowed to do so and are not derailed by formal education, where these issues do not figure at all.

BIODIVERSITY FESTIVAL

Through the PRAs, focus group discussions and individual interviews, an enormous amount of data on the understanding and perceptions of farmers on agrobiodiversity was collected. Once we had reflected on the experience we realised it was time to share the findings with other farmers and develop a larger, regional perspective on agro biodiversity. We chose to do so in a celebratory manner through a festival or jatra.

The jatra was built on a large open space measuring about five acres. At the centre of this space a typical winter agricultural farm was created with all its diversity. On both sides of the field were crected enclosures created out of natural materials. Materials like grasses and reeds which are byproducts of crop diversity.

The seed room was a proud exhibition of the diversity of seeds in this region. Over 85 seeds representing various crop species and sub species of millets, pulses and oilseeds grown in the area decorated the room. On display, alongside the seeds were various methods of traditional ecological storage in woven baskets and large earthern pots.

The exhibitions were designed to share the findings of the study with a about 4000 women and men who came in their traditional style on carts, tractors and with local village bands playing in attendance.

This process became evident in the interaction between the visiting farmers and their ecological sisters when they visited the seed rooms, looked at the variety of seeds exhibited and spoke to the women farmers who accompanied the exhibits. In this interface information flowed freely on lost seed varieties, cropping patterns and the rationale behind them.

In another enclosure the interaction was much more direct and intense. Here six women from the DDS family who have maintained a vibrant diversity on their farms displayed the crop varieties they have planted this season and explained the reasons for their planting and the designs they have followed. A specially made music video which talked about the on - farm diversity practised by women had the viewers engrossed.

BIODIVERSITY FESTIVAL - providing a cultural context

The Ritual Room provided the cultural context for this diversity through recreation of some outstanding agricultural festivals and rituals observed by farmers in the Deccan. These rituals manifest the deep reverence of the farmer for her soil and her livestock. They included Penta Pooja, the worship of compost heap, Chaviti Pooja, the worship of farming tools on the most auspicious festival called the Ganesh Chaviti and Erokka Punnam, the day when farmers reverentially worship their plough bullocks.

The last of the reconstructed rituals was the Endlugatte punnam, the most delightful celebration of biodiversity in Deccan. For the women the reconstructed rituals clearly established the link between their farms and crops and their cultural milieu.

Exhibition of traditional recipes and wild greens in another part of the jatra also established a lively dialogue and fond responses.

Organised like a typical cattleshed including the shepherd's high bed, the livestock enclosure displayed the wide variety of local breeds of cattle. There were small ruminants like goats and sheep and an amazing variety of local poultry, which are progressively becoming an endangered species raising alarm in the biodiversity circles. The variety of local breeds, the local fodder and their diversity came back to the women as a shadow from the past.

And finally the room where all the women who attended the jatra came together to discuss their impressions. This was the time to recall the issues raised in the jatra discuss the economics of their kind of ecological agriculture and contemplate the way ahead.

Their discussion was facilitated by a team of traditional farmers who helped the visiting groups of women farmers from the 75 DDS sanghams to get over their collective amnesia about the enormous wealth of traditional seeds and cropping systems they have in their region. They also exchanged their own perceptions about the diversity in their farms.

During the three days of the jatra about five thousand women farmers participated in this discussion. At the end they were doubly convinced of the strength of their traditional cropping system and in chorus pledged:

"ALL OF US WILL GROW TRADITIONAL CROPS ON OUR LANDS"

Every evening in the jatra was a cultural evening with many troupes and performers presenting their songs and dances. Videos on ecological agriculture and bio diversity were also screened and discussed.

On the third day of the jatra, about 2000 women farmers and hundreds of guests from South Asia formed a human chain around the designed farm at the centre of the Jatra site and took a pledge:

  • We Pledge that we will continue to preserve and promote diversity on our farms
  • We Pledge that we will ban chemicals from our farms

As the pledge continued to reverberate in the air, the Using Diversity research in the Deccan had reached an active conclusion.

It established that farmers have an unique perspective on their agro biodiversity. The women are eager to retrieve the lost diversity on their farmlands because they instinctively understand that such a retrieval of diversity is to regain their traditional control over their crop germplasms and their intellectual leadership in their communities.

What they need is a recognition and respect for their knowledge systems and increased research work on rediscovering the strengths of their biodiversity based farming system.