Meet Cheruvayal Raman of Kerala, the country’s lone ‘living paddy gene bank’

Cheruvayal Raman, the tribal farmer who preserves 56 traditional varieties of rice, won the Kerala government's prestigious PK Kalan award.

ByK A Shaji

Published Aug 11, 2022 | 5:33 PM Updated Jan 26, 2023 | 4:34 PM

Wayanad tribal farmer Cheruvayal Raman who has evolved as a living paddy gene bank. (Special arrangement)

Cheruvayal K Raman will be awarded the Padma Shri for his contributions to agriculture later this year. South First had published a profile on him in August 2022 after he won the PK Kalan Prize. The article is now being republished.

He is not new to awards and recognition. But the Kerala government’s decision to confer the prestigious PK Kalan Prize for protecting indigenous cultures on him marked a special moment even for Cheruvayal Raman — a tribal famer known as India’s “living paddy gene bank”.

The award, announced on Thursday, 11 August, is recognition of the 72-year-old Raman’s tireless, lifelong work to preserve the state’s ancient rice varieties, and carries a cash prize of ₹1 lakh, a sculpture, and a plaque.

Though this is the first time he has received state recognition for his efforts to protect indigenous rice varieties from extinction, Raman is quite the celebrity among food experts and paddy promoters worldwide.

Winner of Genome Savior Award

It’s almost six years since Ramettan, as he is popularly called, won the coveted Genome Savior Award. It was then that rice researchers within and outside the country described him as India’s lone surviving paddy gene bank.

Cheruvayal raman, the tribal saviour of native rice seed varieties (Special arrangement)

Cheruvayal Raman, the tribal saviour of native rice seed varieties. (South First)

Within two years, the man who barely studied up to Class 5, was an invitee to an international symposium organised by the Federal University of Parà, Brazil, in association with the Museum Paraense Emilìo Goeldi and the International Society of Ethnobiology, on the challenges faced by indigenous people and the sustainable use of biodiversity.

On his way back from Brazil, the farmer from Kammana in Kerala’s northern Wayanad district, had a brief stopover in Dubai, and it was there that he suffered a massive heart attack.

For the Kurichiya tribal known for his frugal ways, life has since been a constant battle. Even as Raman received large-scale attention, he suffered repeated heart attacks, and has just recovered from a second round of Covid-19.

Raman’s unfulfilled dream

Now almost recovered and continuing his mission of protecting 56 indigenous rice varieties, Raman cherishes an unfulfilled dream: A permanent facility to preserve and promote his seeds.

“I want governmental intervention and assistance to preserve the gene bank for the use of future generations. Agricultural universities and rice research centres must take responsibility for keeping the seeds and promoting them instead of inviting me to seminars and food security conferences,” said the barefoot Raman while interacting with South First outside his 150-year-old straw-thatched home.

Peruvayal Raman in traditional tribal attire

Cheruvayal Raman in traditional tribal attire. (South First)

A living encyclopedia on different rice varieties in South India, Raman has had many visitors to see his farming practices. Among them: Congress leader and Wayanad’s Lok Sabha member Rahul Gandhi, and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

Gandhi’s interaction with him on food security and farmers’ rights went viral on various social media platforms, inviting more public focus on his unique preservation activities.

Raman and his wife Geetha are custodians of 40 rice varieties inherited from their forefathers. He has procured the rest from other parts of the country.

Their sons Ramesan and Rajesh, and daughters Ramani and Rajitha, have divided their rice field into several small patches to cultivate each preserved rice variety without losing their originality and character.

Raman’s apprehensions

But looking at the future, Raman is apprehensive.

“I may not live for long, and the same is true of my wife. The Kurichiyas still practise matriarchy, so my sons and daughters would lose their rights over these 40 acres once I die. My wife will not have any stake in this land after my death. Others, who live outside Wayanad and have no inclination for farming and preserving the seeds will occupy this land. My efforts of all these years will turn to waste,” he said.

Several gunny bags containing rice seeds occupy rooms inside his traditional house. Pointing at them, Raman said he was ready to hand over the task of preserving them to any rice research centre, agricultural university, nongovernmental organisation, or interested individuals.

Cheruvayal Raman prepares rice seeds. (South First)

“Most of the rice varieties I preserve are flood resistant and have the strength to fight climate change adversities. I am preserving them for future generations,” said Raman.

“Every year, I suffer a loss of ₹70,000 in cultivating and preserving these seeds. It is time to stop conferring awards and writing articles eulogising my contributions. I want something realistic and future-oriented,” said Raman, just back home after inaugurating an agricultural start-up near Sulthan Bathery.

“For over four decades, I used this rice field as my laboratory. I learned lessons from the mud and muddy waters of this field. In focusing on seed protection, we even forgot the food security concerns of the family. Nobody would believe that we often depended on ration rice to survive,” said Raman, the lone school dropout in the recently reconstituted General Council of the Kerala Agricultural University.

Seeds to other states

“For me, paddy cultivation is not for any profit. Every year, people arrive here seeking different rice seeds. I never accepted money in return for the seeds. The only condition for those who take rice seeds from here is that they must return an equal measure after the first round of harvest,” he said.

Several farmers from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal, and Orissa regularly take his seeds.

“Across the country, the farmers are now a discriminated lot. The central and state governments must help farmers continue their occupation with dignity. They must not face any exploitation, and their products must get fair prices,” Raman said.

Raman’s agricultural practices are purely organic, and he stopped chemical-based farming in 1978.

“It was self-realisation that forced me to opt for organic farming. Chemical fertilisers had killed all the fish, insects, earthworms, frogs, and reptiles in my rice field. Now they are back on my land.

“I am not against scientific farming as that alone can alleviate poverty. We have to apply our minds judiciously over farming practices,” he said.

Raman has a printed list in Malayalam of the seeds he is preserving. Some rice varieties in his custody are more than 500 years old and have been inherited over generations.

Most of the indigenous varieties he preserved are from Wayanad, earlier Vayal Nadu, or the land of rice fields.

Chennelu, Thondi, Veliyan, Kalladiyaran, Mannu Veliyan, Chembakam, Channalthondi, Chettuveliyan, Palveliyan, and Kanali are the most prominent indigenous seeds from Wayanad, protected by him.

His experience has taught him that indigenous seeds are more resistant to diseases and unfavourable climatic conditions than hybrid seeds. They will not be damaged even if kept for many years without sowing. Their farming requires a bare minimum of hard work.

A proud Kurichiya

Though now focusing on cash crops because of external influences, Kurichiya tribes have a rich legacy of protecting and promoting indigenous rice varieties. Only very few, including Raman, are currently sticking to rice cultivation.

Raman is an aberration in state that has lost more than 70 percent of its paddy fields in the last 30 years.

Wayanad itself had 160 indigenous paddy varieties. But most have now disappeared, with many farmers switching to hybrid rice varieties, and yet others preferring cash crops like pepper, coffee, and cardamom.

An idealist, Raman said he has never been greedy. “I am a proud Kurichiya who never exploited anyone. I may not be a successful farmer. But I am not a bad farmer,” says Raman.

Raman in his younger days

Raman in his younger days. (South First)

“We Kurichiyas are traditional hunters, and we used to eat hunted meat and fish caught from our local streams and rivers. As hunting is banned now, I am eating vegetarian. In humble ways, I also resist all lobbies causing environmental destruction in Wayanad, especially the quarry mafia. I am only concerned about the future of the seeds I am preserving,” he added.

“Raman represents the last generation of Wayanad tribals who protected their indigenous rice varieties. Despite being a school dropout, what makes Raman stand out are his strong political and social convictions. Society must preserve his achievements for future generations,” OK Johnny, a Wayanad-based author and local historian, told South First.