Torch bearers for millet seed security

Jan 19, 2014:
The National Biodiversity Authority has recognised 30 villages in Zaheerabad of Medak district of Andhra Pradesh that grow traditional and fast-disappearing millets as Agricultural Biodiversity Heritage Site (ABHS).

The Andhra Pradesh State Biodiversity Board (APSBB), which finally gave green signal for the rare recognition, has sent its recommendation to the National Biodiversity Board, which has approved the proposal making these villages to become first villages in India to be recognized as ABHS.
“The file is now with the agricultural department. By the end of January we will announce these villages as ABHS with or without their opinion,” a determined APSBB Chairman Dr R Hampaiah says. Thus, the dryland villages in four mandals and the 5,000-strong women farmers of the Deccan Development Society (DDS) that grow only “forgotten millets” without fertilisers or pesticides will join the list of 27 such other sites around that world by February.
“Nowhere in the world 60 different varieties are cultivated in 30,000 acres and the seeds are distributed among women farmers, assuring food safety and saving the environment,” says Dr SN Jadhav, Member Secretary, APSBB.

The 500-year-old banyan tree in Pillamarri tree spread on three acres of land in Mahbubnagar district and the rare forest on Tirumala hills are the other two sites in Andhra Pradesh that have such special recognition.

In fact, a few months ago, three members from the Board—Anisetty Murthy, Ashok Kumar and Hampaiah– had visited the farms to see the amazing agricultural biodiversity that was being conserved and propagated by the women of DDS.

The announcement added vigour to the 15th edition of biodiversity festival in Algole, a small village in Zaheerabad mandal in Medak district, from where a month-long bullock cart caravan yatra begins and tours 70 villages in all the four mandals of the heritage site, encouraging people to adopt forgotten crops.

“We are now trying introduce the concept in 18 other states in the country. The DDS even had its impact in Africa, where women are trying to take back farming from the hands of commercial organisations,” added DDS Director PV Sateesh.

While agriculture in other parts of the country was in doldrums, the sangham farmers were completely self-reliant as far as food, seeds and farming are concerned. When farmers elsewhere were facing the indignity of having to stand in long queues to access government supplied seeds, women of the DDS were staking their claim to the elusive mantle of food sovereignty.

Women of the DDS also succeeded in drawing the attention of the government to the need for including millets in government food programmes like PDS, the mid-day meal scheme and so on; the spate of orders asking for the inclusion of millets in these schemes is a testimony to the extent of success of the women of the DDS.

Some women farmers of the DDS also can handle the latest version of digital camera, the daily narrow cast of the Sangham FM radio and help save bio-diversity by cultivating forgotten millet crops with equal élan. Women camera operators of the Community Media Trust (CMT), probably the only such media house in the country, can handle, shoot, edit and produce short films without any outside help.

The initial toil and success of women was then presented to the outside world through photos and then videos. Then came the launch of the CMT, which has been winning several laurels for its amazing media work over the last decade.

The CMT runs a women’s video collective (WVC) and the first-ever community radio of India called Sangham Radio. While the WVC has been functioning since 1996, the Sangham Radio took up Narrowcasting since 1998 and has been on the air since October 2008, broadcasting two hours every day. Both these outfits are managed entirely by women from farming communities.

Chinna Narsamma, a small farmer who made a film “Community Conquers Hunger”, said that the sanghams were the first group in India to have started 100 days of employment for the poor, which preceded MGNREGA by 20 years.

Summer employment

Through this employment programme which they called summer employment, they brought over 5,000 acres of near fallow lands under cultivation, produced more than a million days of employment in 30 villages in 10 years and started producing over 20 million kg food every year. This was the first step in abandoning hunger in their sanghams.

Zaheerabad Punyamma added that the sanghams started leasing lands and launched collective farming groups on these leased lands and produced additional food for their families.

In two decades, the sanghams have leased more than 1,000 acres of land and produced over half a million kg of food for their groups. Dandu Swaroopamma, a community filmmaker and a member of the DDS Food Sovereignty Trust said that the sanghams have brought over 4,500 acres of cultivable fallows under cultivation and produce nearly a million kg or more food every year.

They have done poverty mapping of their villages and identified over 10,000 families as recipients of their jowar-based millet rations. Each family has received a ration card through which they can draw between 10-25 kg of jowar every month depending on their poverty status. The jowar is sold at 25 per cent of the market price to the identified poor.

Begari Laxmamma, a community filmmaker and a community seed keeper, pointed out that all these villages have their own community seed banks from which any farmer can borrow nearly 50-80 seed varieties. Thousands of women in these villages have their own household seed banks and never depend upon outside seeds. Thus these villages have become seed sovereign.

Thammali Manjula, filmmaker and a coordinator of the Community Food Sovereignty programme, says “Our films have nothing dramatic but depict our lives and it’s about how we conquered hunger.”

J B S Umanadh in Hyderabad

Zaheerabad to be recognised as biodiversity heritage site soon

Elated:Women taking part in mobile biodiversity festival at Ippapally village in Zaheerabad mandal in Medak district.- PHOTO: MOHD ARIF

The crop fields of the women of Deccan Development Society (DDS), an NGO working for the last 25 years in Medak district, would be soon recognised as biodiversity heritage sites by the Government of India.

This was announced by Dr. P. Balakrishna, chairman, National Biodiversity Authority (NBD), after formally launching 14th mobile biodiversity festival at Ippapally village in Zaheerabad mandal of Medak district on Monday. This would be the first such heritage site in India. The site would cover about 50 villages spread across three mandals in Medak district. He also said that to recognise this area as a biodiversity heritage site would be a matter of pride.

He has also full of praise for the uniqueness of the localised Public Distribution System (PDS) based on jowar pioneered by DDS for the last 15 years. This model of the PDS, which was a by-product of the rich biodiversity being practiced by the farmers of the DDS, would be propagated by the NBA all over the world as one of the best practices based on biodiversity, he added. Dr. Balakrishna explained that the Government of India was about to announce a new policy wherein about 5 per cent of all productivity in agriculture would be based on the biodiversity.

Dr. Hampaiah, chairman, AP State Biodiversity Board, said that the efforts made by the Sangham women were being recognised by the Board. The festival would be held for one month.

Row over declaring Medak villages as biodiversity heritage site

Much courage to DDS as its holds its grounds on the BMC-BHS issue, no matter how difficult this has become!

It is important to re-iterate to the SBB, that even the Central BHS Guidelines issued by the NBA envisage a BHS sans a BMC being in place, see the language therein:
‘…BMCs and other relevant community institutions…’
‘…BMCs or other relevant local institutions linked to the local bodies…’
‘…in case BMC does not exist…’
‘…in the absence of BMCs…’

A Biodiversity Heritage Site Management Committee needs to be set up, YES! But NOT necessarily a BMC. And Paragraph 6b of the Guidelines expressly states that The committee responsible for the management of the BHS may include representatives of all sections of local communities, and in particular those most dependent on the natural resources as also those who have been traditionally conserving the area.

Also, the AP SBB raises the point that if no BMC is made, money can’t be transferred for BHS purposes. However, Paragraph 9 of the above-mentioned BHS Guidelines envisages a situation where there is no BMC: The BMC or other institution which is managing BHS would be recognized as an authorized body to avail the financial
assistance under all government schemes and other funding sources as legally permissible.

Having said that, based on this experience it is critical to send inputs on the two draft documents on BMCs that the NBA released for public comments:

On 05/18/2012 10:35 AM, Salome Yesudas wrote:

SAGE UPDATE NO.472, MAY 18, 2012

Row over declaring Medak villages as biodiversity heritage site

K. Venkateshwarlu

HYDERABAD, May 18, 2012

DDS and AP State Biodiversity Board at loggerheads

A woman farmer showing 'Korra', a millet crop, at her
              village in Medak, now bidding for Agro Biodiversity
              Heritage Site.– Photo: By Arrangement

A woman farmer showing ‘Korra’, a millet crop, at her village in Medak, now bidding for Agro Biodiversity Heritage Site.– Photo: By Arrangement

Differing perceptions between a NGO and the AP State Biodiversity Board has been holding up declaration of a cluster of 39 villages in Medak district as a unique agriculture Biodiversity Heritage Site (BHS) in the country typifying farming and crop diversity of the Deccan Plateau.

For two years now, Deccan Development Society (DDS) has been pursuing the issue of recognition with the Board that could go a long way in preserving a distinctive farming practice of growing two to as many millet crops as 25 in an acre by diverse communities that includes Dalit women. The crops they raise avoiding chemical fertilizer include sorghum (jowar), pearl millet (bajra), foxtail millet (kangni, korra), little millet (kutki, sama), proso millet (cheena varagu), many pulses and oilseeds.

But some where down the line, DDS and the Board seem to be at loggerheads over AP Biodiversity Rules pertaining to BHS. Several contesting issues have cropped up. Quoting rules, the Board insists that Biodiversity Management Committee (BMC) should be formed by DDS.

Rajiv Mathew, member of the Board said: “It is a requirement under the AP Biodiversity Act and the rules that have originated from India ratifying the International Convention on Biological Diversity and then bringing about national legislation creating National Biodiversity Authority. Now we cannot go back and say these rules are no good and we will not follow them.”

On the other hand, DDS director, P. V. Satheesh argues that the constitution of BMC itself is flawed as it has been accorded more responsibilities than rights. “The essential difference is that our approach is geared towards conservation and enhancement of biodiversity and community control over this while the Board and government see this as an opportunity for commodification, access and benefit. Such approaches lead to gradual erosion of biodiversity and conflict between communities that result in no one taking care of biodiversity. We have seen this happen in Southern Africa and many countries in Latin America. This is what we want to avoid in India.” In the DDS plan, he says, the communities of the 39 villages of the Medak BHS will have the right and responsibility to conserve, protect and regulate utilisation of the biological/ genetic resources and related traditional knowledge of the area. This would be different from the BMCs which are “merely consulted” by the NBA and the State Board while taking a decision. After the declaration of the BHS, no access to biological/genetic material and related traditional knowledge from the region will be permitted, including the NBA or the Board without full free, prior and informed consent of the relevant gram sabha facilitated by the BHS committee. With DDS and Board not finding a common ground, the declaration may take quite a while.

Emulate DDS: Minister

Staff Reporter

Decorated bullock-carts being taken in a procession at DDS programme on bio-diversity at Pastapur in Medak on Monday. —PHOTO: MOHD ARIF
Finally, women working to protect nature and making efforts for self-sustenance under the guidance of Deccan Development Society (DDS) led by its director P.V. Satheesh, are set get due recognition.

Major Industries Minister J. Geeta Reddy, who participated as a chief guest in the concluding programme of the Bio-diversity Festival at this remote village in Medak district on Monday said that it had been decided to emulate the example of millet cultivation with organic forming across the district. The farmers from other areas would be called here and shown how to cultivate millets even in adverse weather conditions. If not, the women farmers from this area would be taken to other parts of the district to explain them on how to do it. The responsibility has been entrusted to Joint Collector A. Sharath.

It was also decided to present ‘J. Eswaribai Memorial Award’ to the women working in the DDS for sustaining the traditional crops, protecting the soil health and people’s health by supplying nutritious organic food and standing as an example to the farming community across the nation. The award would be presented on February 24 at Hyderabad by Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy.

Dr. Geeta Reddy was so impressed with what the women in her constituency were doing that she saluted them, literally.

“The nation has to learn a lot from you. You are teaching lessons to the farming community on how to face adverse weather conditions and cultivate multiple crops that will save peoples’ health as well as that of soil. This is a silent revolution that has been taking place in this remote area which needs due recognition,”’ she said. She has also felicitated some women farmers who narrated their experiences.