India’s ‘Seed Mother’ Single-Handedly Preserved 122+ Native Crop Varieties; Film On Her Life Wins Cannes Award

Image Credits: MITTRA

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A short film by Indian filmmaker Achyutanand Dwivedi was awarded at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, 2019. The three-minute film, titled ‘Seed Mother’ won the third prize at the Nespresso Talents 2019 for its brilliant portrayal of an unsung hero of India – ‘Seed Mother’,Rahibai Soma Popere.

Recognised as ‘Seed Mother’ by India, and now the world, Rahibai is a 55-year-old tribal woman farmer hailing from Kombhalne village in Maharashtra. Over the course of the past few decades, she has single-handedly managed to conserve hundreds of native varieties of crops which would otherwise have faced the cruel crux of extinction. Last year, Rahibai was featured in the coveted list of 100 Women 2018 by BBC, where only three Indian women had found place. 

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

‘Seed Mother’,Rahibai has preserved 122 native seed varieties

To involve more women in her noble mission, Rahibai has founded the Kalsubai Parisar Biyanee Samvardhan Samiti – a women’s self-help group in Kombhalne exclusively devoted to urge farmers to preserve native seeds and do away with hybrid varieties as much as possible.

At Rahibai’s backyard, a frail wooden door reads – “Biyane Bank Kombhalne” (Seed Bank Kombhalne). Inside the quaint mud cabin lies a treasure trove of the rarest of rare seeds native to Maharashtra – ranging from grains to vegetables, herbs to fruits. A staunch opposer of chemical farming, Rahibai has saved over 60 indigenous vegetables, 15 varieties of paddy, 9 varieties of peas and oilseeds among others. At her seed bank, one can find up to 122 varieties of 32 different crops, states a report by Homegrown. She conserves all these seeds in completely primitive methods, without resorting to any modern chemical preservatives. In fact, this is how director Achyutanand Dwivedi came in touch with this incredible woman while searching for some rare native seed varieties for his sustainable kitchen garden, reports Indian Express.

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Emergency funds sent to 250 families

A single-handed effort with no prior experience or knowledge

In her youth, Rahibai used to work as a labourer most months of the year. Like most families in drought-ridden rural Maharashtra, her family also practised agriculture only during the short span of monsoon and migrated to nearby suburbs and villages to work as labourers in sugar factories. In their meagre landholding of three acres, his family used to grow native crops using all natural and organic means.

Through her sole efforts, Rahibai turned two acres of wasteland in her present village into a productive farm, by creating traditional water harvesting system like a jalkund there. She organically cultivated vegetables throughout the year in her farm until the Maharashtra Institute of Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (MITTRA) stepped in to support her. With their help, she established a nursery for preserving native crops and also started rearing poultry at her home. The most astonishing part must be that Rahibai had no training or knowledge about seed preservation and she has achieved everything through her personal experience.

She is strictly against hybrid seeds and chemical cultivation

“Villagers were falling sick frequently after eating food prepared from hybrid crops,” she shared the details in an interview with VillageSquare. It caught Rahibai’s attention how the deficit of nutrients is increasing among the village children and how the general immunity of the villagers has degraded since the advent of hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers or pesticides. She also observed how hybrid crops require a lot more water than indigenous varieties, which added on to the water scarcity in these drought-prone regions.

Rahibai could remember the healthier, tastier and more nutritious rice or vegetables on her plate during her childhood. Her palate and her conscience could never get acquainted with the hybrid varieties, which in her opinion, were the root cause of all health disorders.

Inspiring farmers and enriching agro-science

So Rahibai travelled across the state of Maharashtra, collecting local seeds from here and there. She also spoke to the village inhabitants everywhere and explained to them the importance and benefits of growing native seeds.

In her own courtyard and farm, she has planted nearly 500 native plants, shows a documentary by BBC. Her prized collection of an unbelievable range of hyacinth beans has not only drawn admiration from all over but has also earned her a place in science, as some of these seeds are now being studied for their unknown genetic properties. Inspired by her, local farmers are also adopting the cultivation of native seeds from her seed bank, rather than procuring expensive hybrid seeds with loans. Her village has also acquired the traditional habit of consuming wild vegetables (Ranbhaji) which grow during the monsoon.

A Good Samaritan in more ways than one

Rahibai wishes to take the count of seeds preserved by her to 250 and bring more than 25,000 families within the ambit organic and native crop farming. When not toiling in her garden or seed bank, she will often be found organising health camps in adjoining villages and also distributing solar-powered lamps.

Efforts For Good salutes the amazing endeavour of Rahibai and wishes more farmers of India follow her footsteps.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Emergency funds sent to 250 families

Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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