A Himalayan crisis


The traditional farming practices of the hill people which have sustained them for generations, should be taken into account before new policies are implemented. There is much wisdom in these practices.

In the apple-belts of Himalayan villages, resentment has been building up against the recent decision of the government to facilitate the import of apples. While earlier, the import of this much cherished fruit was permitted from only one port, now import of apples can take place using many ports as well as land and air routes.

At the same time, however, some other farmers and farming activists in Himalayan villages say that for them apple orchards are not the main issue. They assert that from the point of view of ordinary Himalayan farmers, what is of much greater importance is to protect and nurture the traditional mixed farming systems which have evolved, keeping in view the needs of the people and the natural resource base of villages. The millets, legumes and oilseeds provided by these mixed farming systems are very basic to the food and nutrition needs of the hard working hill people. The special needs and suitability of traditional mixed farming systems for meeting these needs are often not appreciated by government officials, and they tend to ignore very important needs as well as assets of Himalayan villages. In such a situation, sometimes even well intentioned help ends up creating more problems than solving them. The way forward is to extend help which is based on understanding of local needs as well as assets and capabilities.

Himalayan villages are particularly suitable for ecologically protective and organic agriculture. It is nice to know that Sikkim is already fully committed to this and governments of some other Himalayan states have also expressed their inclination towards this.

At one stage, the beautiful barahanaja or twelve-grain system of Uttarakhand faced almost an assault from government officials, although now there is better understanding at the government level also of the great value of this system. This mixed farming is based on growing 12 or more millets, legumes and oilseeds together. This system gives very nutritious food on relatively less fertile land, using very little water. This is possible as crops have been selected for their complementarity with each other, and in numerous ways, these crops support each other’s growth.

This is a beautiful example of traditional wisdom, but initially, government officials just could not comprehend it and wanted to uproot this system and replace it with soyabean monoculture. This would have been an unmitigated disaster, but fortunately such a folly on the part of the government was avoided by the strong opposition of several activists and social organisations, particularly the Save the Seeds Movement (SSM) or Beej Bachao Aandolan.

The SSM activists, many of whom were earlier active in the famous Chipko Movement, held widespread consultations with farmers including women farmers, who play a very important role in Himalayan agriculture. They also organised several foot marches or padyatras to take this consultation to more villages, including very remote villages.

This consultation with many farmers not only confirmed the great value of traditional mixed farming systems, but in addition, the overall superiority of traditional wheat and paddy varieties compared to the new green revolution varieties grown with high doses of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The SSM activists looked at not just the production, but also the economic and ecological costs. They also sought information on neglected questions like how much fodder is obtained, which crop varieties are regarded as more tasty and nourishing, which paddy variety gives more rice, and which is considered more suitable for special preparations like khichdi or kheer relished by local people. The SSM was convinced that the rich diversity of traditional varieties was certainly more useful. Therefore, the movement devoted a lot of its efforts to collecting seeds of different varieties from various villages, growing these and sharing the growing stock of seeds with several other farmers.


Bharat Dogra

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