Agriculture
It was Nel Jayaraman who initiated the paddy festival in 2007, after he collected 15 indigenous seeds along with his mentor and guru Dr Nammalvar.
Farmers after collecting their 2 kg of seeds at this year's Nel Thiruvizha

“Nel Jayaraman is no more… what will happen to the Nel Thiruvizha?” this was one question that so many of his friends and followers who swarmed to see his mortal remains asked each other with teary eyes, on December 6 last year, when the man whose name was synonymous with indigenous paddy seed conservation in Tamil Nadu succumbed to cancer after a two-year battle with the disease.

Nel Thiruvizha or Paddy Festival is one of the biggest seed exchange programmes in the whole country, organised every year by the Save our Rice Campaign and the local host organisation – CREATE – at Thiruthuraipoondi in Thiruvarur district. It was Nel Jayaraman who initiated this festival in 2007, when he, as the state coordinator of the campaign, had collected 15 indigenous seeds along with his mentor and guru Dr Nammalvar. In 12 years, he and his followers, enthusiastic organic farmers and seed savers, have collected about 174 varieties, most of them on the verge of extinction, from various regions in Tamil Nadu. This is today perhaps the largest collection of live seeds of paddy in the state, which in the pre-Green Revolution years is known to have had more than 4,000 varieties.

Every year, these seeds were multiplied and brought to the Nel Thiruvizha, where thousands of farmers came voluntarily to collect 2 kg of their choice variety, sometimes for trial, sometimes for cultivating and multiplying, but mostly out of a close link, a nostalgic one, with the memories of a lost heritage. Many an observer of this event has wondered how indigenous seeds attracted so many farmers, at a time when the government was finding it difficult to even get 100 farmers to come to their programmes. In 2018 alone, about 8,200 farmers came to the festival to collect seeds. These farmers are expected to return 4 kg of the seeds the next year for further distribution.

During this year's seed supply, policemen had to lend a helping hand
More than 60% of farmers who take seeds return it. As per records, till 2018, more than 40,000 farmers from across Tamil Nadu and from other states have directly collected seeds from the Nel Thiruvizha and at least 1 lakh farmers indirectly.

A grand event

On June 8 and 9 this year, Jayaraman’s colleagues, followers, the seed savers who were motivated by him, and the farmers whose lives he had changed, all got together to organise the Nel Thiruvizha this time for him, saying, “All these years you did it for us, now we will do this in your memory”.

G Varadharajan, better known as GV of Thiruvarur, Jayaraman’s closest friend and secretary of the Thaiman Agri Producer Company that he co-founded with Jayaraman, Prof Duraisingam, Chairman of CREATE, and S Rajeev, Jayaraman’s nephew who put his career as a management accountant on the back-burner to take care of his uncle in the last two years, led the organising of the Nel Thiruvizha this year. The Seed Saver farmers led by Thenampagudi Bhaskaran, a retired management professor, Sriram Ramamoorthy, an IT professional turned farmer whose farm is now a resource centre for indigenous paddy and organic farming, Asokan, a farmer practicing agro-ecological methods, and many others joined to collect seeds, check quality and organise the seed supply.

The air was filled with remembrance and gratitude to the saviour of seeds. A bullock cart carrying photos of Jayaraman and Nammalvar, and adorned with paddy and banana leaves led a rally of farmers from his village entrance to ARV Auditorium at Thiruthuraipoondi where the festival was organised. As the rally entered the festival venue, there was a traditional welcome. Many dignitaries present there along with the farmers offered floral tributes to Jayaraman. A book titled Pokkisham containing detailed characteristics of 40 varieties of indigenous paddy was released. Nel Jayaraman awards were also given to prominent seed savers, along with the annual Dr Nammalvar awards that has become a feature of the Nel Thiruvizha.

The rally reaches the venue
The event was inaugurated by Minister for Food and Civil Supplies R Kamaraj, which was a first in the 13 years of the festival. Jayaraman did not want to politicise the event and always avoided political leaders, even if they had official positions. But Kamaraj, a native of the region, developed a bond with Jayaraman, especially during the latter’s years of suffering and helped him through the hard times with some government support whenever needed. After Jayaraman’s passing away, a tribute was organised in the TN State Assembly, and the government gave his family Rs 5 lakh as a token of respect towards his contributions.

Recently, Jayaraman’s achievements were even included in a Class 12 textbook where his story is read along with those of Dr Norman Borlaug and Prof MS Swaminathan. Followers of the paddy man don’t miss the irony – the two scientists were pioneers in high-yielding varieties and hybrids, whereas Jayaraman was totally opposed to both and found immense possibilities in our indigenous varieties.

Jayaraman’s wife Chithra and their son Sreenivas Ram were also among the dignitaries during the inauguration. R Ponnambalam, Managing Trustee of CREATE, and one of the founders of the Save our Rice Campaign, expressed gratitude to the minister and the government for all the help they extended to Jayaraman and his family.

As always, perhaps even better than last year, the festival was dotted with various programmes useful for the farmers. Additionally, this time the seminar had some serious discussions on cancer and prevention led by Dr Mallika, a Preventive Oncologist from the Adyar Cancer Institute. Well-known Siddha doctor, writer and speaker Dr Sivaraman was also there, leading a team of Siddha doctors in conducting a medical camp at the venue. This was also a new in the Thiruvizha. The organisers surely wanted to give out a message – “We lost our leader, we cannot lose one more among us, the few who are leading the change!”

The exhibition ground was full of stalls with indigenous seeds, paddy, vegetable and tuber products, and seedlings of various medicinal and fruit plants and trees. Other stalls related to agriculture implements, organic inputs and knowledge were also put up by various experts, producer groups as well as farmers.

Visitors swarming one of the stalls this year
The Vice Chancellor of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Dr Kumar, in his lecture promised to help by starting research on the nutritious quality of select indigenous varieties.

Origins of the Thiruvizha

The paddy seed conservation efforts in Tamil Nadu was an outcome of the Save our Rice Campaign launched in India in 2004. This campaign aimed to empower communities to build a sustainable food security movement in the rice regions of India.

The campaign was launched by Thanal, a voluntary group based in Kerala, through an Indian Workshop on Rice (IWR2004) at a small village called Kumbalangi in Kerala. This village itself has the heritage of an indigenous agroecological paddy cultivation system of paddy-fish rotation – called Pokkali, which today has a Geographical Indication tag. More than 140 practitioners and experts from 10 states attended the three-day workshop. At the end, it came up with the Kumbalangi Declaration, and a five point agenda:

  • Conserving rice ecosystems
  • Sustaining rice culture and diversity
  • Protecting traditional wisdom
  • Preventing GMOs and toxics
  • Ensuring safe and nutritious food

Impact of the Thiruvizha

“When we started the Save our Rice Campaign, we never realised that it will have such a big impact in Tamil Nadu, mainly because this is a prominent Green Revolution state, but Nammalvar and Nel Jayaraman changed that image. Tamil Nadu was our biggest success, with such a high adoption of local paddy varieties,” said Usha S, national coordinator of the campaign who has been coming here every year to attend the Nel Thiruvizha. She added, “This 13th Nel Thiruvizha is the most hearty tribute to the paddy man of Tamil Nadu. As long as the seeds are there, his name will be remembered.”

The biggest tribute came from the minister himself, when he promised to seriously consider the request of the organisers to help set up a Centre for Indigenous Paddy in the region in the name of Nel Jayaraman. If it materialises, it could be the most befitting tribute to the man who dedicated his life for the farmers, and the seeds of his land.

Today many of the varieties that have been revived, conserved, multiplied and adopted by farmers across Tamil Nadu are picking up in the consumer market as well. Mappilai Samba, Kattuyanam, Kichadi Samba, Thooyamalli and Mysore Mallige have become preferred in various regions in Tamil Nadu. Ever since the Green Revolution, we have not had rice being demanded by names of varieties. It is happening now.

Jayaraman with Ponnambalam at a Mappilai Chamba field
Save our Rice Campaign at the national scale and Nel Jayaraman’s efforts in Tamil Nadu have many stories of success, but as Jayaraman himself once said, “Our biggest success perhaps is that farmer families have started eating the rice that they grow. Earlier in the Thanjavur delta region, farmers produced paddy only for the Public Distribution System or the markets, while they bought cheap rice from the market to consume. With indigenous rice, we are now consuming what we produce and only selling the surplus.”

If the passion that runs in his village and the farmers of Thanjavur delta, and the massive audience running into at least 10,000 this time are to be believed, one thing is for sure, Nel Jayaraman will be missed, but his memory shall stay, and so shall stay the Nel Thiruvizha in the coming years.

Sridhar Radhakrishnan is Programme Director at Thanal and Coordinator (Campaign & Policy) of the Save Our Rice Campaign. His work is focussed on agriculture, food sovereignty, environmental policy and advocacy.

Views expressed are the author’s own.