Seed Library in ASSAM

Seed Library in ASSAM Source: Himalayan News Chronicle

By Gyaneshwar Dayal

Normally, a library is a collection of books or materials that are  accessible for use and not just for display purposes. But in upper Assam in Melang there is a unique library of indigenous seeds that contains only indigenous rice seeds and it is running successfully becoming popular day by day. Named Annapurna Seed Library, it is at the forefront of a community movement to preserve indigenous varieties of rice from the region. It is salvaging a priceless inheritance that is in danger of being lost to hybrid varieties.

Amid lush green fields a small one-story building in Melang houses the one and only seed library in the entire North Eastern region. Against one of the pillars that  supports the sloping tin roof, a banner proclaims: “ANNAPURNA SEED LIBRARY”. But  within  this small building lies a treasure trove whose worth cannot be estimated. This is where, for the past decade-and-a-half, Mahan Chandra Borah — a history graduate-turned-farmer —is working very hard, preserving the seeds of several different strains of indigenous rice. Borah has catalogued no fewer than 400 varieties so far.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare had conferred the “Plant Genome Saviour Farmers” award to Borah in 2019 for his one- man mission to preserve indigenous paddy species from becoming extinct.  He has collected seeds of many nearly indigenous paddy species which he plants in small plots in his fields on a rotational basis to preserve the germplasm. Many of these seeds are no longer cultivated extensively but they have properties that  allow  them to withstand floods, drought and other  climatic  vagaries  endemic to the region. His mission has inspired students in several schools to collect seeds and create seed banks.

The small library has  many stories too. In the collection, Medelaguri paddy was brought about 100 years ago by one Nethia Bharali after buying the seed for Re 1 from his in-laws, since rice seeds are never given free of cost. In the region rice is considered to be goddess Laxmi who bestows wealth and will leave the house if it is given free. These seeds have been preserved by his sons over the years. Another local farmer cultivated harphoni in preference to the high-yielding varieties, as its weight was one-and-a-half times more than the hybrid rice.

The North East of India is often referred to as the “motherland of paddy”. In Assam, the rice cultivars are broadly categorised as sali (winter), ahu (autumn), boro (summer) and bao (deepwater). Each of these rice cultivars has a combination of unique traits, depending on starch content, stickiness etc.
But to meet the growing demand for rice and for greater ease of cultivation and higher yields, farmers in the region like their counterparts elsewhere in the country have turned to hybrid varieties. This  has  led to the traditional, indigenous strains of rice fading in prominence, and indeed in some cases, going extinct altogether. 

Experts say Joha rice varieties even if G- Tagged and exported for its aroma and taste are under threat. Others, such as Dumai, Murali have been classified as “threatened”. Dol Kosu, Gezep Sali,  Sial  Sali,  Vokot  Sali, Joldubi Sali and Sohagmani are reportedly impossible to find any longer. It is in this scenario that Borah’s endeavor is unfolding. At Annapurna, Borah can showcase traditional varieties like Tulsi Sali, Joha, Burma Black, Shyamal and Kokua Bora, to name just a few. The importance of an initiative like this cannot be emphasised enough. In terms of food security and resilience, adaptability to a changing climate and nutritional content, heirloom rice varieties are positioned to perform well.

Diversity of crops is  essential to prevent famines in case one strain is under attack. The indigenous strains are also noted as being “low maintenance” in terms of cultivation, and beneficial to farmers in the long run. Annapurna Seed Library is very much a community programme in how Borah runs it. He makes indigenous seed varieties available to farmers in the area free of cost. The only condition is that a portion of the yield must be brought back to the library and swapped with other members. In order to collect and document the various strains, farmers bring Borah seeds, and he plants them to create a greater pool to distribute among others. It is from such rooted efforts that a quiet rice revolution has grown in the Eastern Himalayas. 

Like the Seed  Library,  there are many other odd libraries in different countries. Here are some such unique libraries from all over the world.

1.    Arma de Instruccion Masiva (Weapon of Mass Instruction) – South America-Artist Raul Lemesoff has taken a 1979 Falcon (a car that represents a dark time in Argentina) and transformed it from a symbol of fear to a mobile library in the shape of a tank. It has books off course.

2.    The Biblioburro: Delivering Books Via Donkey – Columbia Biblioburro (the name of the library) is being operated by Luis Soriano, a primary school teacher using donkeys, Alfa and Beto to carry loads of books, Soriano spends four hours on each trip just to reach those remote places.

3.    Biblioteca Sandro Penna- Perugia, Italy. Biblioteca Sandro Penna, is a public library featuring rose- coloured glass walls designed to let sunlight in during daytime and at night it creates a rare glow. The Architect who designed it, Italo Rota, made the three-story disc to exude an appearance of an alien flying saucer.

4.    The Kenyan Camel Library: Kenya In this library meant for a less educated nomadic population, camels carry books and some camping gear. Traveling librarians need a place to rest after a long journey across the desert.

5.    Epos Book Boat: Norway. In the Fyords, a book boat known as Epos travels to more than 250 small communities on islands every year. On board the vessel are some 6,000 volumes, a couple of librarians, a cook, a captain, and one or two vaguely titled “entertainers”. It all started in 1959, and is funded by the libraries of the three counties it serves.