In India 14,000 years ago and with a single variety rice started to grow. There emerged 1,10,000 varieties of rice as farmers experimented in the course of the last 10,000 years. The diversity was lost after the introduction of the green revolution in 1970 with its emphasis on mono culture and hybrid crops.
Sheela Balaji, chairperson and Managing Trustee of NGO AIM For Seva, not only grew these lost gems but also made sure that people could taste them and encourage farmers to grow them once again.
While working in Manjakkudi, a village in the Cauvery Delta region in Tiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu, Sheela found herself surrounded by paddy fields. Around that time, she happened to see a farmer spraying pesticide on the crops ruthlessly. She found the farmer getting exposed to the dangerous pesticide too and tried to explain to him the health hazards. However, the farmer explained her that the rice he grew was a hybrid variety and could not be harvested without the use of chemicals.
This was an eye-opener for Sheela, and she was hell-bent on looking for a solution to the farmers’ concerns. During her many farm visits, Sheela started to learn about the diversity of rice that India once had. She also researched the different nutrients and medicinal values that these rice varieties contained. Being indigenous, these varieties grew well in Indian soil and climatic conditions without any chemical input. She then decided to grow only indigenous varieties in the 40 acres of land that belonged to the NGO.
A festival of grains called Nel Thiruvizha was being organised in one of the villages called Adirangam and started conducting this festival in Manjakkudi in 2013.Through this festival, Sheela met more than 500 farmers each year who helped her get the seeds for the indigenous varieties of rice.
She started with just four varieties of rice and within four years, she has preserved nearly 30 varieties.