Nel Jayaraman, the celebrated farmer from Tamil Nadu who revived over 170 traditional varieties of paddy in the state, passed away on Thursday morning in Chennai at the age of 54. The organic farming crusader, who spearheaded the ‘Save Our Rice’ campaign in the state, succumbed to cancer which he had been battling for the past two years.
He was a school dropout
Born as R Jayaraman in Adhirangam village in Tiruvarur, Tamil Nadu, he was fondly nicknamed as ‘Nel’ (meaning paddy in Tamil) Jayaraman by his ardent followers. He was a breathing encyclopedia of rice farming, with an astounding knowledge about an endless variety of paddy seeds and cultivation specifics for each.
A 2014 report by The Hindu reveals that Jayaraman was a high school dropout and dedicated his life to preserving the traditional rice species which were getting lost in the overwhelming surge of high-yielding varieties and chemical-induced cultivation.
As a teenager, Jayaraman joined the Federation of Consumer Organization (Fedcot) and his extraordinary zeal soon promoted him to the post of agriculture training director. Incidentally, he was the only person in the record to gain this position without any academic degree in agriculture. He was also integrally associated with Consumer Research, Education, Action, Training and Empowerment (CREATE). He used to attribute his passion and dedication to his guru Dr G Nammalvar.
He influenced over 50,000 farmers
The Cauvery delta, often proclaimed as the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, once housed a wide range of paddy species. However, recurring cyclones and climatic disturbances continued to affect farmers. Jayaraman was a pioneering figure who guided countless farmers to get a good harvest of rice withstanding all natural adversities.
Scouring through the tropical state tirelessly for around five years, Jayaraman identified 15 traditional paddy varieties which he used for seed cultivation. The following year, Tamil Nadu saw the first ever paddy seed festival organised by him where he distributed two kg of 15 varieties of paddy seeds to more than 300 attendee farmers. The seed festival, ‘Nel Tiruvizha’, has been an annual ritual ever since, growing in stature and outreach with each passing year. In fact, in one year, he pledged his wife’s jewellery and poured in his savings to collect Rs 75,000 for the festival.
“He had a huge following and about 50,000 to 60,000 farmers have benefitted from his efforts,” shared Sridhar Radhakrishnan from Thanal Agroecology Centre with The News Minute. Upholding the practice of traditional organic farming throughout his life, he revived over 170 endangered varieties of paddy native to Tamil Nadu, like Kattuyanam, Kattu Kuthalam, Seeraga Samba, Mappillai Samba, Arupatham Kuruvai, Sivappu Kuruvikar, Velchi and Mattaikkar.
His unmatched passion prompted a well-wisher NRI from his village to gift him nine acres of fertile land where Jayaraman practised paddy farming and conducted training workshops.
Battle with cancer
In 2016, Jayaraman was diagnosed with cancer but he knew no stop. Even with cancer slowly eroding his body, Jayaraman continued to fruit new seeds of paddy, sheerly with his indomitable spirit and enthusiasm to help other farmers. He organised the ‘Nel Tiruvizha’ in 2016, ‘17 and ‘18 in grand scale, despite the disease weighing him down. Usha Soolapani, National Coordinator of the Save Our Rice campaign shares, “I remember many of us had asked him not to go through the trouble of organising the Tiruvizha that year given his health. He wouldn’t listen. Such was his enthusiasm.”
Sridhar Radhakrishnan, who used to visit Jayaraman during his last months, recounts that he had never seen the stalwart spend a moment without talking about farming, and asserting the importance of passing on his knowledge. He adds, “He made us shoot a video of him from the hospital, talking to his followers not about his pain but about farming.” Sridhar added how at a recent meeting in Madurai, Jayaraman’s illness was overbearing his energy after every few minutes, but he refused to cower down.
It must be mentioned here that Nel Jayaraman played a pivotal role in organising the much-highlighted All India Kisan Mukti Yatra in September 2017, even with his deteriorating health.
Awards and recognitions for Nel Jayaraman
He received the National Award for best Genome Saviour in 2015. In 2011, Nel Jayaraman was honoured by the Tamil Nadu Government with the State Award for the best organic farmer. He was recognised as an organic farming activist all over the world.
In fact, he had delivered a speech on his work at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines upon a special invitation.
With his passing away, the nation which thrives upon farming has suffered an irreparable loss.