An irreparable loss


India’s biggest loss could be the loss of her traditional farming knowledge. If not arrested now, this could be lost forever. Bharat Dogra explains why and how this traditional wisdom evolved, and why we must do our utmost to preserve it.

Various rural societies accumulate very valuable knowledge of agriculture, irrigation, water conservation, forests, health and other related issues, which are most appropriate for local environmental conditions. Such knowledge cannot be readily obtained from elsewhere. Even in the absence of any detailed documentation, this could be preserved over the centuries, because the knowledge was based on very careful observation of local conditions as well as resources and experimentation based on these. All this work was carried out by people very familiar with local conditions and the problems and needs of people, and were deeply committed to the improvement of local capabilities and prosperity. All this knowledge was deeply rooted in the welfare of communities and could be passed on from one generation to another in more and more enriched ways. Thus one can say, even more so in areas of ancient civilisations, that this traditional knowledge base represented the accumulation of the traditional wisdom of many generations of farmers and villagers, often going back to several centuries.

Thus clearly, this is an invaluable heritage which should never be discarded, as it will always remain a most important source of learning for any region. This is not to say that all was well with our past or with our traditions. It is well known that injustice and inequalities have long been a part of most ancient societies, leading to many unjust practices. Vested interests who dominated these unjust systems used their excessive power to codify several unjust practices, and these took the form of rituals and superstitions which were harmful and often directly or indirectly helped to perpetuate injustice at various levels. Clearly, such unjust practices and superstitions should be resisted strongly and discarded. But this should not lead to the rejection of all that is traditional – as stated earlier, the knowledge related to livelihoods, natural resources and environment inherited from many generations of observation and experimentation, is invaluable.

Traditional wisdom and agriculture
In the case of agriculture, for example, traditional farming systems evolved over several centuries, keeping in view the necessity of balancing food, nutrition and raw material needs, with those of conservation of water and soil. Now scientists tell us on the basis of their latest knowledge that the simple diet of rice with pulses (dal-bhaat or just khichdi) is very healthy from a nutrition point of view, as their proteins complement each other, while at the same time, for its growth, rice needs nitrogen and pulse or the legume crop, as it has the potential to fix it from the atmosphere. Thus, traditional systems evolved on the basis of careful observation and experimentation to match needs of people with the basic resource base such as soil and water. It is only because of this that such farming systems could continue for several centuries without destroying the basic resource base, while modern systems which displaced time-honoured mixed cropping systems and rotations, began to create serious problems for soil and water within three decades or so.

A very important part of the ever-evolving, ever-enriching traditional farming system was that a rich diversity of seed varieties were available for various topographical and weather conditions, and also to meet the needs of various kinds of cooking and flavour. Hence, it was common to have different varieties of rice like for biryani type of preparation, for khichdi, for kheer, for making puffed rice, and for making poha. What was much more important was that, different varieties were available for meeting the conditions of excessive rain or deficit rain as well as other diverse weather conditions. Hence, rural communities were much more capable of responding to adverse weather situations on the basis of their own resources and knowledge. Similarly, traditional knowledge of water conservation as well as irrigation has been found of great value in making the best possible use of local conditions, so that civilisations could survive with continuity for centuries or thousands of years, even in conditions of low rainfall. On the other hand, careless use of water in modern times has created severe shortages within just a few decades.

Why famines?
A question is sometimes raised that if the traditional farming and related systems were so well evolved, then why did famines cause millions of deaths in colonial times? In fact, some European experts who were invited by the British rulers of India, also wrote in great detail about the wisdom of the traditional farming and water systems. The reason why famines occurred despite this was that rural India had been plundered on a vast scale by colonial rulers and their local agents. Thus, at a time when existing inequalities should have been corrected, instead, the colonial plunder worsened the exploitation of farmers and other villagers.

Paddy cultivation –  how many indigenous seed varieties have we lost?

Paddy cultivation – how many indigenous seed varieties have we lost?

In post-Independence India, there should have better appreciation and understanding of the strengths of traditional farming and water systems, including the systems of various tribal communities. Indeed, some efforts were made in this direction. For example, the work of a very senior farm scientist Dr.R.H.Richaria and his colleagues brought out the tremendous richness of tribal farming systems of Chattisgarh, even though these were widely dismissed as backward by others. However, such efforts were rudely pushed aside as there were powerful pressures to implement a new farm strategy based on new plant varieties and new cropping patterns that were heavily dependent on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, as well as other expensive inputs.

Due to these powerful pressures, all the resources of the government were pushed into promoting the new strategy, and any voices which were raised against this were effectively silenced. A high power propaganda was launched, which equated traditional farming systems with backwardness, and the new farming strategy called the Green Revolution, with progress. All the media were pressed into service to convince the village youth and the new generation of farmers that what is old and traditional should be discarded as backward.

It was in this situation that the time-honoured system of passing invaluable knowledge of farming, water and other related issues from one generation to another began to break down, and this tendency grew stronger from year to year as the government, instead of checking this breakdown, was all too happy to promote it and to celebrate this breakdown as progress. As a result, there has been very harmful erosion of invaluable traditional knowledge in recent decades along with the loss of thousands of diverse varieties of seeds in our rural areas and farming communities. If this continues unabated, then the loss will be complete and unrecoverable in the near future. Therefore, urgent efforts are badly needed to correct the past mistakes, and instead initiate efforts to preserve traditional knowledge of farming and irrigation, and save the vast diversity of traditional seeds in field conditions.


Bharat Dogra

Bharat Dogra is a Delhi-based freelance journalist, who writes on social concerns.