One Grain at a Time: Assam’s Rice Seed Library for Climate Resilience

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Author: Sahana Ghosh | Published: February 8, 2018

In the foothills of the eastern Himalayas in Assam, Mahan Chandra Borah, is racing against time to stock up nearly-extinct and rare indigenous rice varieties, one grain at a time, in his unique seed library-to help secure genetic diversity for climate resilience.

Borah’s ‘Annapurna’ library is “northeast India’s first indigenous seed saving library” that seeks to collect and promote the cultivation of heirloom rice landraces of the region in the wake of climate change. A history graduate-turned-farmer, he started the seed bank about 12 years ago, from Meleng in Assam. Backed by traditional wisdom on diverse rice cultivars imparted by the elderly in his village, he fanned out to hamlets across the northeastern states in hunt of these treasures. He subsequently converted it into a library. His assemblage includes aromatic, sticky, black, flood-tolerant and hill rice among others.

“I started with three varieties. Now I have 250 varieties of rice, mostly from northeast India,” Borah said. “These traditional rice types can withstand extreme climatic variability such as floods, drought etc. But they are not cultivated extensively nowadays due to preference for hybrid or high yielding varieties (HYVs).”

A seed chain

Annapurna is also a sister library of the California-based Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library. Richmond Grows in its website says the idea is that you “plant the seeds, let some go to seed, then return some of these next generation seeds for others to borrow.” So, people from the region can borrow seeds from Borah’s library, conserve it and lend the seeds to others.

Borah has expanded his endeavour to open up libraries in other parts of the state in Sadiya, Balipara and Kaziranga.  “Farmers come to me to deposit seeds. I sow them in a plot of land and then later on, others come and borrow the resulting seeds. It is not a strict rule that they have to give me back some seeds in return. They can carry on the chain. I characterise their properties and educate the farmers as well so they can make an informed choice about the rice variety they want to procure,” he explained.

According to Ministry of Agriculture’s agricultural statistics for 2015-16, India produced 104.31 million tonnes of rice over 43.38 million hectares. Rice is the most significant crop cultivated in northeast India.

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