Recently, a short film by Indian filmmaker Achyutanand Dwivedi was awarded at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. 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 – 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.
She 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.
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.