In a village, everything is connected and interdependent in some way to everything else. Manjakkudi, a village in Tiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu is no different.
Over the last twenty years that I have been working in this village, I have understood that to bring about change in a village, you first need to be in tune with village life and respect existing ground realities. When Swami Dayananda Educational Trust, an NGO founded by my Guru Pujya Swami Dayananda Saraswati, set out to educate girl children in this region, in the year 2001, we did not have a blue print in hand. We had just one thought – to actualize Pujya Swamiji’s vision of a college for the young persons of Manjakkudi and surrounding villages. We had one classroom, a handful of girls and two teachers. With time, as the college progressed to include post graduate courses, an English medium school was established and even without our realisation, we found ourselves a part of the village – we supported everyday matters, brought in the internet connection, set up community centres, built over one hundred toilets, organized health camps, and in 2013 forayed into organic cultivation of heritage rice – located on the banks of the Chozha Choodamani, a tributary of the Cauvery, farming is the primary occupation in this village and defines their lives.
India was home to over 100,000 varieties of heritage rice – a large majority has been lost; possibly only 2% of the varieties remain in small farms, but these are also becoming rare and difficult to obtain. We understood that we may not be able to recoup what has been lost, but with support we can save what we have for the future generations. Equipped with this knowledge and motivated by noteworthy resource people like Sri G Namavalar and Nel Jayaraman of the Save our Rice Campaign, we organized the ‘Nel Thiruvizha’ (Seed Festival) to showcase heritage seeds, teach organic farming practices and share heritage rice seeds with farmers encouraging them to cultivate them over high yielding varieties. In the first year, we had farmers from over 300 villages participate. We conducted this festival for four years, before farmers finally came forward to cultivate heritage rice organically.
In parallel, we set up the heritage rice seed bank of Swami Dayananda Farms at Manjakkudi, which has an invaluable collection of heritage rice varieties. As of date 260 varieties of heritage rice seeds, endangered and endemic, are being conserved, researched and re-introduced to the market. The collection has been carefully studied and sourced from farmers and seed banks across India. We have travelled across the country and reached out to numerous paddy farmers and researchers to collect the seeds. Often we would receive a handful of precious grains which we carefully conserved and propagated. It takes us over three or even four years before we have enough seeds to cultivate for retail. The time and cost of conservation and propagation demands passion and effort and we need help to continue our work.
Conservation and propagation can help the world to protect the environment, maintain biodiversity that is essential for food security. It will also help preserve our traditional knowledge systems and rich heritage. With your generous support, we can save what we have for the future generations.
The continuous efforts of the Trust has transformed this silent village into a vibrant centre of learning, nourishing young minds to explore, experiment and expand their horizon; with every child who being educated, new connections were established. An integrated development plan for Manjakkudi and its neighbouring villages took form. Organic heritage rice cultivation is one of them. It has taken us two decades to build a resilient village that embraces change, yet keeps the rhythm of rural life intact.
Sheela Balaji made an effortless transition to social service, after meeting her guru Swami Dayananda Saraswati. As the Chairperson and Managing Trustee of AIM for Seva and Swami Dayananda Educational Trust (SDET), the two organisations which work towards grassroots level societal transformation, she has been empowering and creating opportunities for rural communities to realise their full potential and become contributing members of society since 2001. Also the Founder Trustee of Arsha Vidya Research and Publications, she is a lucid writer, and has authored books on Vedanta, and has chronicled the life of her Guru. She devotes her time to the three organisations that have transformed and continue to transform the lives of thousands of people in rural India. She is a recipient of the Nari Shakti Puraskar 2017 Award conferred by the Union Ministry of Women & Child Development for her contribution to the field of education and community development.