This is a brief and inspiring story of the work of Padma-Shri honourees from Odisha who run Sambhav, an organic farming resource centre. Radha Mohan and Sabarmatee have worked tirelessly to help farmers convert to profitable organic agriculture practices, revive indigenous varieties of crops and facilitate seed exchanges. Their journey of decades began at a time when organic agriculture was a new and untested concept in India. This article provides insight into how they have overcome odds and transformed their land into a food forest in the process.
A small piece of land withered toward its imminent death with each passing day. Once home to a dense forest in the interiors of Odisha, this land had witnessed a gradual degradation.
From being stripped-off its cherished trees to being subjected to extensive farming, pesticides and fertilisers, with each year, a layer of this land wrinkled away. Violated over the years, it stood barren and ‘wasted’.
It was one patch among the large expanse of wasteland that lay all around the Nayagarh district. They all were used, violated and left to die as barren wastelands until a man and his daughter decided to do the almost impossible – bring them back to life.
“My father and I never believed them to be wastelands. But, they were being ignored and wasted. So we stepped in to change that,” says Sabarmatee, who along with her father, Radha Mohan dedicated their lives towards the ecological restoration of the area.
And this was almost 32 years ago when her father, Radha Mohan, bought that patch of land to revive it using organic techniques.
“When we bought the patch of land, it was almost dead. Degraded and eroded, it did not even have any grass or vegetation growing. The topsoil was completely lost. And this used to be a dense forest before people indulged in extensive farming to meet growing urban food demands. But we were ready for the challenge,” says Radha Mohan.
At the time, it was almost unheard of and so throughout the journey, they had to face continuous speculations and discouragement. But nothing was truly strong enough to get the duo down.
“Initially, almost everyone was against our decision. Every expert we met discouraged us to take up this mission. No one believed that we could revive such a land through organic methods. But, I was confident and continued to experiment with various organic techniques. After 3 years of hard work, the results slowly became visible. Soon it was covered in lush green grass which encouraged insects to come in, and eventually, the ecological balance was restored,” he adds.
But this success was just the beginning for the duo. From that one patch of land, they have now expanded to more than 90 acres of organic cultivation, where they grow over 100 varieties of vegetables and more than 500 varieties of rice. They have built 3 rainwater harvesting ponds in the area, while also conserving 5000 acres of forest area that is home to more than 1000 species of plants.
One Name, Many Ways of Social Change
An Economics Professor to a now-retired State Information Commissioner, an advocate of organic farming and environmentalist, the 77-year-old Radha Mohan has amassed a humongous impact with respect to environmental conservation in the last many decades.
“Throughout my life, I have travelled through several roles, including that of a father. And, in all those roles the common factor was always that of nurturing and guiding social change. Hence after retirement, my turn towards organic farming and the environmental conversation came naturally. Although I was continuously criticised for what I was doing, I knew that their definition of impossible was only my gateway to more possibilities. The first patch of barren land was the best canvas to work on and prove them wrong,” he says.
So just a year after taking up the seemingly impossible task, Radha Mohan, with the help of his daughter Sabarmatee, started a non-profit organisation called Sambhav (meaning possible). It is a resource centre for farmers from across the nation, to educate themselves about organic farming techniques and exchange seeds.
Through its relentless efforts, Sambhav has also been able to revive indigenous varieties of staples, grains and vegetables like black rice, winged beans, hack beans, t-clove beans, sword beans, etc. not only in the 60 villages in and around of the Nayagarh district but also across the state as well as the country.
“Sambhav has been able to transform thousands of farmers into organic farmers, slowly and steadily changing the common perspective that organic farming is not profitable enough,” says 51-year-old Sabarmatee who quit her job in 1993 as a Project Officer at OXFAM, to dedicate all her time to Sambhav.
A National Win for Organic Farming
On 25th January 2020, the eve of Republic Day, the duo was declared among the few Indians who are being conferred with India’s fourth-highest civilian honour- the Padma Shri- for their work in the field of agriculture. Their feat in transforming a patch of degraded land into a vast food forest, along with Sambhav’s work in other areas like sustainable development and gender justice was recognised nationally.
“It is an honour but not just an individual one. This award is for all those organic farmers and environmentalists who have dedicated their lives to helping the earth revive. What makes me happy that after decades of struggle, organic agriculture techniques are finally receiving its deserved recognition,” says Radha Mohan
After having dedicated more than 3 decades to build the blueprint of India’s future in organic farming, the septuagenarian continues to do his bit as the founder and honorary member of Sambhav.
Talking about Sambhav and the body of her father’s incredible work, Sabarmatee concludes, “Sambhav is, in fact, a small dot in my father’s entire journey of making the environment a bit more healthy. His fight has not just moved me towards this cause, but has inspired many more to join the battle against time and man-made degradation.”