Community Gene Fund with Deccan Development Society
09 / 1997
Dalit women belong to the most marginalised sections of society in India, because they are Dalits -a new term to designate the Untouchables- and very often landless, and because of gender inequalities. In Medak district (Andhra Pradesh), these women have organized themselves into sangams, or women’s associations, with the support of Deccan Development Society.
A few years ago, a long series of exchanges took place between the workers of DDS and village women on the value of their traditional crop and ways of ensuring food security.
For the women, it was high time to find a way of getting food that would be better suited to their needs than rice (made available through Public Distribution System). Other issues of concern included chronic poverty and the erosion of lands left fallow (for want of resources). In many villages, small plots were underutilised by poor farmers who either can not afford the cost of ploughing (which require hiring bullocks or a tractor), and tend to sow and weed their fields late (after having weeded other people’s fields for a wage). Exchanges also revealed that when they have land, Dalit women cultivate native landraces of sorghum because of taste preference, inferior cooking time, and a higher stalk production (2). To them, the stakes in preserving the local diversity are therefore high.
Helping poor farmers turn unproductive land into cropped areas seemed a worthwhile strategy to adopt for DDS. Even better, it appeared feasible to kill two birds with one stone by developing seed farms on underexploited plots of land.
Hence, DDS decided to facilitate a take over of seed production by sangam women through a community gene bank project. Out of the sixty villages in which DDS is present, ten were chosen for this project, which runs as follows.
First, ten to twenty acres of land must be identified in each village for seed multiplication purpose. Plots are chosen according to soil quality: only black cotton soils are preferred since they can sustain two crops a year (contrary to the two red laterite soils). Each of the women manage between half an acre and one acre.
Second, the plots are ploughed, organic manure is applied, and timely weeding and harvesting is organized by the women with the support of DDS which provides money to buy inputs and pay labourers’ wages. Thus, the traditional practices associated with specific cultivars are kept up. The special skills required to grow indigenous landraces as seed crops are also developed.
The task of identifying traditional seeds and supplying them to farmers in the village according to the needs rests entirely on the women. A farmer who borrows one kilo of seed is expected to return one and a half to two kilos after harvest. Seed exchanges take place within the village as well as between sangams.
The women must also ensure that a certain quantity of seeds is stored in the village for further multiplication in the following season. An in-situ genebank is thus created, directly run by small farmers, and more precisely by Dalit women in this area. Their role is instrumental in developing seed distribution network and in overseeing proper use of local landraces. The women in charge of the seed farms are not only empowered by this new responsability, but they also find themselves in a position to earn an extra income from their land that was previously underutilised.
Furthermore, with the control of the entire seed operation emerging within the community, dependence on the market for seed supply decreases. The gene fund project also offers an alternative to marginal farmers obliged to grow modern varieties simply because local varieties are no longer found in the area. Securing crop diversity is particularly important for subsistence farmers relying on a range of crops.
It is important to note that the financial support provided by DDS was instrumental in sparking off the project. One may ponder, then, on the sustainability of the project. Were DDS to withdraw its support tomorrow, would genebanks continue to exist? One woman felt sure that people would continue saving seeds at the individual level if the project stopped, because that has always more or less been part of their practices. She was more doubtful about whether an organized seed distribution network based on a village seed bank would persist, however.
Some Dalit women gained a level of autonomy through their involvment in seed production. The question is: to what extent have they asserted themselves as individuals in the eye of other villagers?
1. Seed for Life ~ Community gene fund, in Deccan Development Society, Report 1994-1995, p. 29-35.
Address of Deccan Development Society, A-6, Meera Apartments, Basheerbagh, Hyderabad 500 029, Ph.: 91/ 40 231 260 or 40 232 867
Project address: Village Pastapur, Zaheerabad 502 220, Medak District, Andhra Pradesh, Ph.: 91/ 08451-82271
Personal study on biodiversity in India. A book is on the point to be published in India. For further information, please contact the author (see address)or Fph.
Interview with Fieldtrips and discussions with Narsanna and Padma