Ramaji Khobragade

Seeds man

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Dadaji Khobragade with varieties of rice framed his son. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade, the legendary plant breeder who created at least nine varieties of rice, freely shared his seeds and never profited financially from his genius.

DADAJI Ramaji Khobragade, aged around 80 years, passed away on May 4 in his village of Nanded Fakir in Nagbhid tehsil in Chandrapur zilla in eastern Maharashtra. For most people, the man is as obscure as his village. And yet, in that miraculous way that the universe has of demonstrating the interconnectedness of things, Dadaji Khobragade has actually touched the lives of countless people in India. He is the creator of at least nine varieties of rice, the most famous of which, the HMT rice, is grown on more than a million acres (1 acre is 0.4 hectares) across India.

Within the small world of agricultural scientists, seed preservers and the seed sovereign community, Khobragade was a legendary plant breeder. His journey as a creator of rice varieties began rather accidentally around 1982. In 2011, when Frontline met Khobragade, he talked about the time when he noticed a rice plant in his field that looked different from the others. It had yellowish seeds in three spikes of the plant. Intrigued by the difference, he preserved the yellow grains and planted them in a six-square-foot test patch. As the paddy grew, he noticed it had a firm kom, or ear, with straight grains. He harvested 250 grams and found out that “the grains were straight and they were plentiful in each kom”. Excited, he sowed them again and got 10 kilograms of husked paddy. His family cooked it and found that it tasted amazing. In 1988 Khobragade sowed 40 kg on a 10-foot square plot and got about 400 kg of grain. The following year, he sowed about 100 kg and got 90 bags of paddy. These he exchanged with neighbouring farmers, who then sowed the seed. After five years of research he had developed a variety of short, fine-grained paddy that had an average yield of 40-45 quintals per hectare, with a high rice-recovery rate of 80 per cent, high aroma and a high-cooking quality in comparison with the parent grains.

Khobragade said the rice was well received in the market. Asked what it was called, he said that on an impulse he named it HMT, which was the brand of wristwatch he was wearing when he went to sell the first sacks to the trader.

Part of his family

Over the years, Khobragade developed eight more types of paddy. He viewed rice as a part of his family and named successive varieties he created after his village and his grandsons. Thus, in 1987, Nanded Chinur was born, followed by Nanded 92 in 1992, Nanded Heera in 1994, Vijay Nanded in 1996, Deepak Ratna in 1997, DRK (Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade) in 1998, Katey HMT in 2002 and DRK Sugandhi in 2003.

For his HMT rice, Khobragade was given the first Richharia Award in memory of Dr R.H. Richharia, whose contribution to the conservation of rice diversity is widely acknowledged. But the success of HMT was, in some ways, its undoing too. After its market success, officials from the Panjabrao Krishi Vidyapeeth (or PKV, an agricultural university) visited Khobragade’s farm. In 1996, HMT was certified by the university and a year later a variety called PKV-HMT was in the market. The university claimed to have “purified” HMT and created a new variety. His DRK variety also faced heavy weather, but when it was rebranded as Jai Sriram it sold well. Khobragade was convinced that his caste went against him and that traders and farmers did not want a rice variety with a Dalit name. It was never really established who renamed DRK, but Khobragade derived little profit from it.

In 2005, the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) honoured him for his HMT rice. The NIF also collected seeds of HMT and the seven other varieties he had created so as to register them with the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority (PPVFRA), under the PPVFR Act, 2001. HMT was registered in 2012, but, oddly enough, under the name Dadaji HMT. The only explanation possible is that this gave some standing to the PKV-HMT rice variety and allowed it to be registered as a separate species. In the same year, for a sum of Rs. 1lakh, Khobragade transferred all his rights over the HMT and DRK varieties to the NIF. Khobragade’s other rice varieties that were also submitted by the NIF to the PPVFRA have not been registered yet.

Given the way his own rice varieties were taken over by others, it is ironical that Khobragade was one of the founder-members of the Bharat Beej Swaraj Manch (BBSM). Bharat Mansata of the BBSM said Khobragade was a “firm believer in its manifesto of seed sovereignty, was opposed to the privatisation of India’s rich heritage of crop diversity through exclusive rights bestowed and certified by India’s PPVFR Authority on plant varieties registered with them”.

The Seed Declaration, 2014, adopted by the BBSM, is clearly what Khobragade’s natural ethos was. It says: “Like the earth and the sky, the immense biodiversity of seeds, plants and life forms is our collective heritage… and it is our duty to preserve them for future generations. They cannot be seen as mere commodities for corporate profiteering. We refuse to let our genetic commons and biocultural heritage be privatised; and we assert our sovereign rights to freely plant, use, reproduce, select, improve, adapt, save, share, exchange or sell our seeds, without restriction or hindrance, as we have done for past millennia.… We reject the entire patent and IPR [intellectual property rights] regime on life forms, plant varieties, seeds, and related traditional knowledge; and we urge and resolve the creation of a National Biodiversity Heritage Registry, protected from IPRs, to aid collaborative documentation and sharing of our biodiversity and knowledge.”

Nanded Fakir is a predominantly Dalit village. Bright colours are used artistically on the walls of all the houses. In the verdant surroundings, the homes manage to stand out and fit in at the same time. Inside Khobragade’s house, rough-hewn beams hold up a low-planked ceiling that is tiled on the outside. The walls are chalk pink. The walls have awards, certificates and framed photos of felicitation ceremonies and family. Khobragade was proud and shy of his awards, which numbered more than a hundred. The wooden beams are painted with the names and birth dates of family members. Apart from ownership and serving as a record, the painted names deepen the sense of belonging that Khobragade and his family have with the place.

Farming was clearly in his blood. He lived his life intuitively, breeding new varieties of rice. He knew his rice was superior. So did everyone else. Despite freely sharing seeds, Khobragade never profited financially from his genius. Recognition and awards came his way, but he died impoverished. It is the millennial old tragedy of the artist failing to gain anything form his own creation.

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