Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Seed-Keepers

Farida Pacha is a sociologist-cum-film-maker. I just saw her award-winning documentary at IIT, and met up with her. A group of rural women somewhere in Andhra, have taken it upon themselves to farm land lying fallow, using a variety of seeds of 'sorghum' - jowar. What I loved about the film was the format Farida uses, of a narrative within a narrative - Farida follows a group of local women who have been handed a large unwieldy movie-camera by an NGO, as they go about capturing what they see as traditional systems, that preserve and maintain a rich variety of sorghum seeds, as versus the government's regimented mono-culture of subsidizing 'one variety'.

The local women have a simply stated logic - if the men could have their way, they would plant the 'single variety' - to be able to sell the surplus for a profit to generate income... that would be mis-utilized anyway - in drink / material goods - whereas currently, the motley farming ensures a far more nutritious mix for their children through the year, rather than a monotonous 'rice' or 'wheat', which was never part of their original diet in any case.

This strikes a chord. I am just back from another trip to Solapur, and the same story is replicated there. Sorghum or Jowar prices have shot up to nearly Rs. 20/- per kg (from Rs. 7/- less than two years ago), and this is bringing about a change in diet.
Even the 'upvaas' or 'fasting' days actually seemed to be a way that the powers that be in ancient times, set a pattern for the consumption of a wider variety of protein - no rice or wheat, but 'Bhaghar', Shengdana or 'Sabudana' to be consumed through the day. Upvaas ensured a healthier diet. With prices going up across board, the poorer members of society take the 'upvaas' literally - to be a day of no food - having 'tea' whenever hungry, instead of the allowed sabudana khichdi, shengdana (peanuts) etc.

As Gordon Hopper has indicated in his fascinating PhD thesis, on Changing Food Consumption and the Quality of Diet in India, in spite of all the Planning Commissions, and so-called Food Corporation godowns that are said to overflow, the fact is that our billion plus population is eating less nutritious food than did their grand-parents across board. More a case of Planning Omission than Commission.

Wheat production has grown tenfold and rice quadrupled since 1947 - for a population that has grown from 350 million to 1100 million. And coarse grains? These have merely doubled. Pulses - grown just by 75%. Anyone with a modicum of maths can see that there is something curiously and desperately flawed about government intervention that encourages high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice, at the cost of the far more nutritious pulses and coarse grains. Little wonder that prices of these items are shooting through the roof, in a spiraling crisis.

Hopper presents irrefutable data - that i see as spine-chilling, in the light of the usual media-frenzy of a rising India, that the per capita food production - with the actual quantities of nutrients available, from 1937 to 1998 indicate that pre-independence levels were only recovered, as late as 1995. What's more, the indications are that India's diet is going to get more unbalanced, than the other way around. The supply of protein, he shows, is 21 per cent below per capita needs!

So much for rising / arriving / shining India !!

And my salaam to folks like Hopper who came here to do his fieldwork, and Pacha - and the women in distant Andhra with their 'Sanghams' for continuing to do a fab job. India is blessed as long as we will have involved folks like them.

1 comment:

Jade Graham said...

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