Bija Devi had a tough time recently explaining what gehu (wheat) was to a group of German students who had come all the way to her farm to learn about what they thought was a long-lost variety of wheat.
Bija Devi’s seed bank at her farm near Dehradun in the foothills of the Himalayas has over a thousand varieties of ‘lost’ cereals, pulses, fruits and vegetables, and over 500 varieties of rice alone, though she’s clueless about their scientific names.
Bija Devi (as she is known) has worked as a farmer since she was seven, has never been to school and isn’t sure about her own age (she says she is in her early 40s).
But she has become a focal point in the field of rescuing and conserving crops and plants that have been sacrificed to modern farming. She began under the guidance of green activist Vandana Shiva, who started a movement across the country to save seeds for future generations. Bija Devi’s work now attracts researchers, students and scientists from all over the world and agricultural universities in the US and Europe send her their students as summer trainees for six months.
“She has to learn some English terms fast,” laughs Vinod Bhatt, additional director of the farm run by ‘Navadanya’ (nine seeds), an initiative to promote organic farming and conservation of seeds. “There are little secrets about many of these seeds that only she knows since she collects them herself, educates farmers about their cultivation and germinates them regularly so the seeds do not die,” says Bhatt.
Farmers queue up for seeds too, at her 40-acre farm. “I had to plead with them to sow older, indigenous seeds rather than the newer, high-yielding hybrids or GM seeds. The latter produce larger crops but require considerable input of pesticides, fertilisers and water,” she explains.
“When they used our seeds,” she adds, “they gradually realised how the soil was retaining its fertility, and the crop was free from diseases and pests. Now they come to us on their own. We don’t charge for giving the seeds, just ask for a pledge to cultivate them.”
Her farm is a central seed bank for farmers in 16 states, with 34 similar community seed banks set up across India. “I am no scientist,” she says, “but I know that chemicals and hybrids have harmed the soil to a great extent. But we can still restore fertility and conserve water if we act now.”