Odisha’s seed fest brings back 60 indigenous crops from the brink

Odisha’s seed fest brings back 60 indigenous crops from the brink

Odisha’s seed fest brings back 60 indigenous crops from the brink

Spearheaded by women, Burlang Festival of the Kutia Kondhs ensures everyone in the community has access to all indigenous crops, protects the region’s age-old dietary practices and promotes harmony in villages

Koraput, Odisha: The November chill belies the festive fervour in scenic Deogarh village in Odisha’s Kandhamal district. Draped in colourful sarees, a group of boisterous women from surrounding villages makes its way to the venue of the Burlang Festival. On their heads are the hand-painted burlangs (earthen/bamboo seed pots) that form the core of this festival of the Kutia Kondh community.

Once at the venue, the pots are placed on a mud platform embellished with traditional motifs. Apart from the main task of exchanging seeds, the event witnesses talks on agriculture, sharing of experiences, and felicitations of farmers. It also has its set of simple pleasures. The women dance together in a wave-like movement, placing hands on each other’s shoulders, besides indulging in celebratory feasts and tuning into tribal music.

A practice that fostered the community spirit and enabled sustainable integrated agriculture, Burlang Festival has helped the Kutia Kondhs of Tumudibandha tehsil save 60 indigenous seed varieties of mung, kandula, masang, kuling, kaladhan, kating, dangarrani, kangu, bazra and jower, edible roots, and locally grown herbs and spices, according to Odisha Millet Mission block coordinator Soumya Ranjan.

Sakara and dhulila mint species have also been identified as traditional crops of the tribal people of Kandhamal, though they supposedly belong to the Himalayan belt,” said Bikash Rath, a researcher and technical advisor to NIRMAN, an NGO that has been holding the Burlang Festival since 2013, after noticing that several traditional seeds in the region were disappearing.

The festival, locally known as burlang jatra, began when a jaani (a women priest) noticed the severe seed shortage in the community and decided to find a solution. “Community leaders jaani, maji and bejan announce the timing of the festival. They believe the jatra would make the community realise the importance of indigenous seeds, besides overcoming the deficit through seed sharing... We celebrate three festivals: maria and anka are to please dharanipenu (the gods of nature) during times of climate crisis, while burlang jatra is held in times of seed deficit,” explained Kumuli Majhi, a young Kutia Kondh woman. 

The Burlang Festival has been held annually since 2013 to help the community realise the importance of indigenous seeds, besides overcoming the deficit through seed sharing (Photo courtesy of Bikash Rath/101Reporters)

Traditionally, the jatra was organised every three or four years. But after NIRMAN’s intervention, it became an annual affair. The festival is organised in a different village each time, with a majority of the families in five participant gram panchayats getting involved in it. Seed exchange is voluntary in nature, and there is no barter system or seed bank facility. Though most of the attendees in the seed exchange event are women, men also accompany them for the celebrations. 

Sharing is caring

The Kutia Kondhs cultivate lands on dongars (hills), located far away from villages. They build earthen cottages near to these fields' crops during the harvest season. Millets, maize, pulses, sorghum, oil seeds, vegetables as well as herbs and spices are their prominent crops. 

Months before the festival, the mature seeds of beans, pumpkin, onion, garlic, ginger, yam and other vegetables are collected, dried and stored away for the next year. “Since high-quality seeds are essential for a good harvest, we preserve them in burlangs,” said Rukmani Nayak of Deogada in Kandhamal district.

Kuni Majhi of Dupi village claimed the Kutia Adivasi women possessed in-depth traditional knowledge on harvesting, seed collection and preservation, and took an effort to pass it onto the next generation. 

According to Sita Majhi (60) of Rangaparu, seeds are tied up using bamboo strips and stored in specially-built mud houses that do not allow direct sunlight. Dark soil is used to build these houses, and a special mixture made from cow dung, ash and mud is prepared to polish them. This keeps out rodents and insects.

The seeds are tied up using bamboo strips and stored in specially-built, pest-resistant mud houses that do not allow direct sunlight (Photo courtesy of Bikash Rath/101Reporters)

Tilottama Majhi (23) of Dupi started collecting and sharing seeds after learning about them from her elders. She said they prefer to consume what they grow rather than what they get at the PDS (public distribution system) shops. According to her, the villagers claim it only to sell in the market for cash.

Pointing out that seed sharing was an integral part of biodiverse farming, Ranjita Digar, a farmer from Birunga, said, “It enables us to grow our own food. The production of millets and other indigenous grains is part of the Kutia Kondh identity. Notwithstanding this, millet production has come down in recent years causing a shift in traditional dietary practices.” This very fact upholds the significance of the Burlang Festival.

Promoting indigenous crops

When NIRMAN conducted an agricultural survey in 2011, it found that several indigenous crops had disappeared due to hybrid agricultural practices. The younger generation also associated their traditional diets with poverty and backwardness, which led to the exclusion of staples like millets from their food baskets. On the other hand, farmers stopped cultivating small grains due to lack of a steady market and procurement system. 

“Realising these issues, we decided to first focus on Dupi village to preserve traditional crops and knowledge practices for the future generation,” said NIRMAN executive director Prasant Mohanty.

According to Dr Debashis Jena, a senior scientist at Cuttack Krishi Vigyan Kendra, hybrid seeds introduced during the Green Revolution were less drought and flood-resistant. They needed efficient management of water, fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides. With rainfall becoming erratic and weather patterns changing over the last few decades, production also dropped.

As crop loss began to haunt farmers despite investing in fertilisers, pesticides and labour, elderly and tribal farmers gradually began to avoid hybrid seeds and returned to traditional farming practices and seeds which had the potential to be climate-smart, genetically diverse and sustainable.

The festival is reviving not only several indigenous crops had disappeared over the years but is also encouraging farmers to switch back to traditional agriculture practices (Photo courtesy of Bikash Rath/101Reporters)

They are already seeing the benefits of switching back to traditional ways. As they use only cow dung for manure, their crops earn better prices under the organic produce category. There is a huge demand for their products in Pallishree and Adivasi Melas held in the State.

Sushree Mohanty, an anthropologist at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, said the men in Kutia Kondh community did all the heavy work, including irrigation of farms to the actual cultivation process. The women, on the other hand, were engaged in skilful work, including preservation of seeds. 

NIRMAN programme officer Sigma Dan said women in the community have become conservationists of their knowledge systems, food, nutrition and health. They play a central role in all aspects of community life, from farming, to processing, to decision-making.   

On why seed sharing was important, Soumya Ranjan said, “Kandhamal district is a hilly terrain and does not have much plain land. Hence, the tribal people convert hilltops into farmlands… However, not everyone can cultivate all kinds of crops and so they uphold the practice of seed exchange.”  

Cover photo courtesy of Bikash Rath, NIRMAN

Edited by Rashmi Guha Ray

This article is a part of 101Reporters' series The Promise Of Commons. In this series, we explore how judicious management of shared public resources can help the ecosystem as well as the communities inhabiting it.

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