The Ma­hab­harata hap­pened due to envy, says em­i­nent Odia en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Rad­hamo­han to this writer at his home in Odisha. “Awards and recog­ni­tion are a bur­den. It turns friends into en­e­mies,” he says. It is with such up­bring­ing that Sabar­ma­tee got from her fa­ther that she has been work­ing for the last 28 years to de­velop a for­est us­ing or­ganic farm­ing, with­out any pro­mo­tion.

It started as an ex­per­i­ment in 1988, when Sabar­ma­tee, her fa­ther and other like­minded peo­ple wanted to re­ju­ve­nate bar­ren land us­ing or­ganic farm­ing. They ze­roed in on waste­land in the in­te­ri­ors of Naya­garh dis­trict (ear­lier Puri). Peo­ple from sur­round­ing vil­lages came, and one el­derly per­son said: “You from cities don’t un­der­stand farm­ing. It’s im­pos­si­ble to grow any­thing here.” The land was eroded, and the soil grav­elly.

“We ac­cepted the chal­lenge and stayed com­mit­ted to the cause. We call our jour­ney Samb­hav, from the im­pos­si­ble to the pos­si­ble,” says Sabar­ma­tee. What started on one acre of waste­land is now a sprawl­ing 90-acre for­est with three rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing ponds, over 1,000 species of plants and 493 va­ri­eties of rice. Fondly called Tiki apa (Tiki means small and apa means el­der sis­ter), the irony of her name is ev­i­dent when one jux­ta­poses her work and the hu­mil­ity with which she refers to her­self as a vol­un­teer at Samb­hav.

There were two aims – to prac­tise or­ganic farm­ing to re­ju­ve­nate the land and work on gen­der is­sues in agri­cul­ture. She ex­plains the ethos of or­ganic farm­ing is soil and wa­ter care and bio­di­ver­sity, which means grow­ing sev­eral species of one plant. The aim was to bring back in­dige­nous foods that were van­ish­ing from plates. It has larger en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits – plant di­ver­sity re­plen­ishes soil nu­tri­ents that other crops with­draw re­duc­ing the need for fer­tiliser. Also, in case of a nat­u­ral calamity such as a pest at­tack or a drought, if cer­tain species get de­stroyed, oth­ers might sur­vive. So, it is ex­tremely im­por­tant from food preser­va­tion and food safety per­spec­tive. Samb­hav has been suc­cess­fully grow­ing many van­ish­ing food crops such as clove bean, jack bean, black rice, sword bean am ongst oth­ers.

Sev­eral stud­ies have shown women put in more man­ual labour than men in agri­cul­ture, but are con­sid­ered un­skilled and paid less. Us­ing tra­di­tional means, women spend 1,000-1,500 hours to grow one hectare of rice. “They are per­pet­u­ally in pain and of­ten get bent backs,” says Sabar­ma­tee. From her re­search in Odisha vil­lages, she found that by us­ing Sys­tem of Rice In­ten­si­fi­ca­tion (SRI) tech­nol­ogy they are able to work in health­ier con­di­tions. An agri­cul­ture sci­en­tist by train­ing, Sabar­ma­tee found that this method al­lowed women to be in up­right po­si­tion, and re­duced the hours re­quired, re­duc­ing drudgery and pain giv­ing them more time to rest.

The big­gest hur­dle was that in 1990s not much re­search was hap­pen­ing in or­ganic farm­ing. “So, we were learn­ing our­selves and it took us years to come up and pro­mote best prac­tices,” Sabar­ma­tee says.

Samb­hav is now a re­source cen­tre where farm­ers visit to ex­change seeds and learn about or­ganic farm­ing. “When­ever peo­ple come, we re­quest them to bring in­dige­nous seeds so they can take some­thing in ex­change,” she says. They also have an “adopt a seed” ini­tia­tive. If peo­ple adopt 1,000 dif­fer­ent seeds, 1,000 dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties get con­served. The big­gest achieve­ment is that through Samb­hav “we have dis­proved the pop­u­lar be­lief that in­dige­nous va­ri­eties and or­ganic farm­ing re­duce pro­duc­tion.”

WHY SHE MAT­TERS Sabar­ma­tee has dis­proved the pop­u­lar be­lief that in­dige­nous va­ri­eties and or­ganic farm­ing re­duce pro­duc­tion

SABAR­MA­TEE F o u n d e r, S a m b h a v

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