Obituary
The 54-year-old, who had revived over 170 native varieties of paddy, had been battling cancer for the last two years.
Facebook/ Nel Jayaraman

Early on Thursday morning came the sad news of the passing away of Nel Jayaraman, an important farmer’s crusader from Tamil Nadu and state coordinator of the Save our Rice Campaign. The 54-year-old visionary, who had been battling cancer for the last two years, passed away at a private hospital in Chennai.

Nel Jayaraman, who hails from Adhirangam village in Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvarur district, began showing interest in cultivating, preserving and promoting native varieties of paddy from a very young age. According to a report in The Hindu, in 2004 he distributed 2 kg of traditional paddy to over 300 farmers and thus began a formidable movement in organic farming. In 2005 and 2006, Jayaraman organised small meetings where he distributed organically grown native paddy seeds, a product of many years of experimenting, to farmers.

But Jayaraman rose from very a humble background. Coming from a family of agriculturalists, he could not complete high school and instead started working in his farm.

Later he joined the Federation of Consumer Organisations Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry (FEDCOT) as director of agriculture. Having gained the friendship of Ponnambalam, Managing Trustee of Consumer Research, Education, Action, Training and Empowerment (CREATE), he joined CREATE. 

“We attended a seminar in Kumbalangi in 2004, organised by Thanal, an environmental awareness NGO, and that was the beginning of change,” recalls Ponnambalam, whose relationship with Jayaraman dates back to over 20 years.

Jayaraman’s role in Save Our Rice Campaign, which was launched in 2004, was unparalleled, says Usha Soolapani, National Coordinator of the Campaign. “He was the pillar of this campaign and inspired many farmers, youth and NGOs to go into organic farming. He was a great leader and a very good friend,” she says.

Usha recalls that in just two months after Jayaraman was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, instead of bowing down to the disease he sprung back into action to organise the Nel Tiruvizha that year. “This was within two months after he got diagnosed. 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,” she shares.

Nel Tiruvizha is an annual affair in Tamil Nadu that takes place during the last week of May. From accounts shared by people, we learn that Jayaraman did not give up even when his health took a turn for the worse. “The two years after he was diagnosed, 2017 and 2018, too he helped organising the tiruvizha. He refused to slow down,” shares Usha.

Sridhar Radhakrishnan from Thanal, agrees with Usha. “Even when we visited him during the last few months, he would talk only about farming and how it was important to share our knowledge. He made us shoot a video of him from the hospital, talking to his followers not about his pain but about farming. Such was his passion,” he shares.

The Nel Tiruvizhas that were organised by Jayaraman, the first of which was officially kicked off in 2007, was pivotal to what organic farming has become today. “He had a huge following and about 50,000 to 60,000 farmers have benefitted from his efforts,” says Sridhar.

“Thousands would visit the festival and would go back and follow, almost religiously, what they’d been told. He was able to revive native paddy varieties, giving them a new lease in life. What he has done will be remembered for years to come,” says Kavitha Kuruganti, Convenor of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA).

Jayaraman revived over 170 native varieties of paddy, some of which are Kattu Kuthalam, Kadaikazhuthan, Seeraga Samba, Sivappu kuruvikar, Velchi and Mattaikkar. 

Sharing a personal anecdote, Sridhar says, “Once when we did not have enough money to organise the festival, he had given us Rs 75,000. We came to know only a year later that he had pledged his wife’s jewellery, after which we raised some money to help clear his debts. He was very selfless and dedicated to his mission.”

This perhaps explains the overwhelming support he received from his followers during the past couple of years for his treatment, says Kavitha. “As soon as he was diagnosed, the doctors had given him two weeks’ time before starting immunotherapy. When we made an appeal, Tamilians from across the globe contributed. It was an extremely positive response. He had that kind of effect on people,” she says.

While campaigns have been organised to collect money for his treatment, the Tamil Nadu Government, in November this year finally announced an aid of Rs 15 lakh for him.

Kavitha, however, observes that people’s support and love had given him a new lease of life these past two years. “In September 2017, I remember, we had the All India Kisan Mukti Yatra. This was when his health was deteriorating but no one could dissuade him from active participation. He was energised and went ahead to organise it in Tamil Nadu. His enthusiasm was not dampened even when the disease was taking over,” she recalls.

Nel Jayaraman was a true follower of his guru Dr G Nammalvar. “Jayaraman was one of Dr Nammalvar’s ardent and best followers. It was in his footsteps that Jayaraman followed,” says Sridhar. It was not just his relationship with Dr Nammalvar that made him what he is today but Jayaraman had a distinct charm of being able to connect with people. “He had a wonderful knack of connecting with people. He not just helped them with seeds and techniques, but he meticulously followed up with them. He was a very grounded person,” says Sridhar.

“He would never say ‘no’ and had the tendency to help anyone who came to him for help. He came from a very modest background but his dedication was incomparable. Not everyone can be humble like him,” observes Usha.

In 2011, Jayaraman received the State Award for best organic farmer and in 2015, he received the National Award for best Genome Savior. But Jayaraman’s contribution has not been recognised enough, claims Kavitha. 

“His loss will be irreparable. The kind of interest he was able to instil among delta farmers for paddy was unparalleled. There has been nothing like this in the rest of the country,” she adds.

But ever since the news of his demise spread, the question on everyone’s mind is – “Why him?” 

“Just a few months back, we were invited to an event in Madurai organised by The Hindu and CREATE. Jayaraman was not sure if he’d make it but I was quite surprised to see him there. All through the meeting, he’d take breaks to lie down outside. When I asked why he was putting himself through so much pain, he said it was important that he attend and share his knowledge. That was the last public event he attended,” says Sridhar.

According to a report, Nel Jayaraman’s mortal remains will be kept at Rathna Nagar 23/2, Second Street, Teynampet, Chennai for offering homage till 3.00 pm today, after which it will be taken to his hometown.