How did an unassuming Varanasi farmer and school dropout come to be sought after by farmers, praised by experts and awarded by the government for his famous seeds?
I’m in Varanasi, looking for the house of JP Singh.
Spirituality soaks everyone and everything in Varanasi, also called Benares and Kashi – the holiest of seven holy cities in Hinduism. Key to the founding of both Buddhism and Sikhism, home to Tulsidas and Kabir and one of the oldest living cities in the world.
Stepping out of Varanasi railway station early in the morning though, there’s none of that mature tradition on display. It’s just another small town bursting at its seams. Roads with minds of their own that wander away from intersections. Autos, jeeps and buses jutting out haphazardly, all waiting for the day’s first passengers.
At Rajatalab, an inconspicuous market crossing about an hour away, the rush is gone. Everyone seems to know the house of JP Singh, the beejwala. But no one’s in a hurry to get there. Thirty minutes of waiting and five minutes of arguing later, we’re on our way. The roads are narrow and cobblestoned, winding around years of haphazard constructions.
A railway crossing happens. Then suddenly, there are green fields on both sides. Groups of girls flit past, grey salwar kameezes neatly pressed, white dupattas daintily clipped, all cycling in tandem to school. Their mothers are already at work, leading buffaloes out to pasture, drying out dung patties they’ll burn in stoves later. The city is suddenly a distant memory. Fifteen minutes later I’m outside his house.
This is a man who’s been awarded by two successive Presidents – in 2002 by President APJ Abdul Kalam and in 2009 by President Pratibha Patil. In May this year, Minister for Agriculture Sharad Pawar picked him for the Plant Genome Saviour award. In September, he hosted scientists and farmers from South India, the US, Brazil, Haiti and Indonesia.
His claim to fame? He develops indigenous, high-yielding and disease resistant varieties of plants. So far, he’s perfected more than 460 types of paddy, 120 of wheat, 40 kinds of arhar dal and three of mustard. He’s also grown a special type of wood apple or bel, one that yields 8-10 fruits in a single bunch, multiplying harvests for poor farmers.
One million farmers in about seven Indian states swear by the seeds he provides. He sells them for Rs 30-40 per kilo, compared to the Rs 200-300 that agents charge for genetically modified (GM) crops. Still, his crops outperform the GM ones on yield. And from their grain, farmers plant for the next harvest – something they can’t do with a GM crop.
Yet, when Jai Prakash Singh walks out to greet you, there’s no arrogance. Just the humility of years spent in struggle. The smile is warm and welcoming. But the eyes appraise you, check your worth – the instinct of a hard driving man, for whom getting results is important.
On the other side of the road, there’s a big seed storehouse. On this side is a sprawling bungalow and on the porch, a number of cars. But they all belong to his brother – Chandra Shekhar Singh Raghuvanshi, a big shot seed tradesman and lawyer – says JP as he leads me out back, to a simple, single-storeyed concrete house that’s been under construction for three long years. It is here, in an unpainted room that still has a floor lined with cowdung paste, that he tells me his story over a hot cup of delicious tea.
“We are five brothers and sisters. I’m number three. I was the one who was weak in school. I never passed my tenth standard exam in 1983,” says JP.
“Our father, Shitala Prasad Singh, was a primary school teacher. He was a strong, outspoken man, well known in the villages around here. He even stood for elections once. But he never became an MLA. He was too blunt for anything like that.”
In the 1970s, around the time of the Green Revolution, a busload of agricultural scientists came down to JP’s village from the university in Pant Nagar. They asked if anyone wanted high yielding seeds and training on how to grow them. JP’s father roped in his friends from the village and together, they reaped some of the biggest harvests ever reported in these parts. Later, Shitala Prasad became an agent for the National Seeds Corporation, with small shops in a few towns in UP.
“Since I was the school dropout, I used to hang out at his shop a lot, in the first few years after 1983. One day, a customer came in when Father wasn’t around. He’d had successive bad crops, was under financial pressure. He wanted seeds that would guarantee a good harvest. I gave him a government variety called UP 2003, which was pretty hot around that time.”
A few months later, the man came back to Shitala Prasad’s shop. He was beaming from ear to ear. He sought JP out and when he had his attention, he said he’d had the best harvest in his village. His money problems were gone and his relatives didn’t think he was a loser anymore.
“That one incident changed everything for me. I was stunned to find that a simple seed could so dramatically change a man’s fortunes. And after being treated as a no-good school dropout, I was elated to receive praise for a job well done. That’s when I decided I’d experiment with seeds.”
JP got married in 1984, a year after flunking his Class 10 exams. He eventually fathered two daughters and two sons. But without a degree, he could never land a job or earn enough to sustain his family comfortably. Shitala Prasad’s seed business soon ran into losses. A number of his shops closed down. And JP had to leave home for a while, making a living as best as he could, even if it meant working as a farm hand or labourer. But he never forgot his dream. When he came back to Tandiya village around 1990, he picked up where he’d left off.
He would cycle 25 km up and down everyday, to and from the Banaras Hindu University. There was a senior scientist there, a Dr Mahatir Singh, who was working on hybrid wheat varieties. JP went just to watch him at work.
“He’d open the grain pod of a desi variety with pincers, remove the stuff inside, clean the pod with a chemical and then fill it with germinating grain from another, higher yielding wheat plant. In a few weeks, the original plant would put forth much larger, heavier ears of wheat than it normally would. We’d get a hybrid plant with a higher yield.
“I didn’t have his expertise, or access to the chemicals he used. So I just messed around with the plants in my own field. I’d open their pods, and remove two of the three tiny flowers inside. I’d replace those with miniscule flowers from a higher yielding variety. Somewhere along my fumbling around, I managed to whip up a robust strain that performed better than its siblings. That was my first discovery – I called that strain Mahesh.”
All the wheat varieties JP has today – Dollar, Samrat, Viraat, the whole JP series – are offshoots of that first strain Mahesh, developed around 1991.
“From then on, I’d simply identify plants that grew larger, or faster, or gave higher yields than the rest and segregate their seeds. Those seeds I’d plant in a separate plot in the next season – and then again segregate the best performing plants. Over time, they’ve given me the hundreds of varieties I sell today – all champion performers. All products of careful selection.”
Unknown perhaps to JP, different scientists have different takes on his claims to fame. Dr KP Singh is a retired professor from the Chaudhary Charan Singh Haryana Agricultural University in Hisar, Haryana. He’s been associated with JP Singh for close to 15 years. He’s also well known in academic circles as a reputed plant geneticist. He reveals an angle to JP’s story that not many might know about.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, there was a bunch of geneticists in India, myself and Dr Sanjay Rajaram [wheat specialist and Padma Shri awardee] included, that was researching high yielding varieties of wheat. We collaborated with institutions in Ukraine and Mexico, collected plant material, did gene modifications and got some outstanding test results in India. Curiously, not many in the Indian bureaucracy paid much attention in those days. We had a load of high potential seeds on our hands and a government supremely dis-interested in supporting them. So we donated those seeds to farmers.”
Dr Singh believes that the spectacular yields that JP and other rustic plant breeders in UP are witnessing now might be a late byproduct of solid scientific work done decades ago in Indian labs.
Dr Bhim Singh Dahiya was Director of Research at the same university till a few years ago. Today, he is Chief Coordinator of Research at Kaveri Seed Company in Hyderabad, a private firm with a Rs 900 crore annual turnover. He agrees in part with Dr Singh.
“Way back then, India had poor technology, low access to resources and poor seeds. The Agriculture Ministry was focusing on all rounder seeds – that would give consistently high yields in all sorts of climates and conditions, if given generous doses of fertilizer and pesticide. That aim unconsciously biased the way we collected our data and the way we evaluated our seeds.”
“No two farms have exactly the same type of soil. Different parts of Uttar Pradesh can have dramatically different water tables, salinity and fertility. Crops developed by scientists like Dr KP Singh were tailor made for specific soil and climate conditions – they’d deliver average yields in certain places but outstanding yields where other crops might not survive. That’s why they were ignored by the government and why Dr Singh ultimately decided to give them away.”
“Today, the tables are turned. We’ve reached a tipping point in the amount of fertilizers and pesticides we can use. In the amount of land and irrigation we can provide with conventional methods. As a country, we do have access to money and latest technology. What we need now are seeds bred to survive and thrive in differing conditions. Particular seeds for particular soil types. The sort of work that was ignored years ago.”
But Dr Dahiya is clear that JP has every right to the credit he gets today. “The first plant breeders in the world were illiterate farmers. Not scientists. Before the green revolution, the seeds our farmers picked and grew for centuries were selected purely on their suitability and performance in differing conditions. That’s exactly the sort of work JP is doing now. It takes years of observation and selection to propagate a particular trait in a plant. JP does it so well, his seeds are better than some developed in our research institutions.”
Just how much better is pointed out by Dr Jagveer Rawat, a scientist formerly with the Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Panipat and now with the Lala Lajpat Rai University of Animal and Veterinary Sciences in Hisar. He met JP in 2002.
“In 2002-2003 and 2003-2004, JP’s plants were put under observation on the Krishi Vigyan Kendra farm. Both Dr KP Singh and Dr Bhim Singh Dahiya were part of the study. One particular strain of wheat, called the X-JP 52, was found to be exceptionally rich in iron content. It was also almost immune to damage from water-logging. After almost two years of work, about 16 cultivars – or plant strains which showed promise under test conditions, were taken away by the Chaudhary Charan Singh Haryana Agricultural University for further studies.”
Dr Rawat himself was so impressed with JP’s seeds, he got his own NGO, the Manav Kalyan Sewa Samiti, to work with him. He’s now lobbying with the Planning Commission to get low cost farmer innovation centers established in every district in India. The idea is to get such centers to work with enterprising local farmers like JP Singh – to cross pollinate ideas that could drive India’s next green revolution.
By 1997, JP Singh’s seeds were the rage in many parts of Uttar Pradesh (UP). But he’d give them all sorts of names, whatever caught his fancy at the time. In 1997 Dr Ram Kirpal Singh, the Krishi Zilla Adhikari, happened to visit his farm. Tagging along was an AIR radio crew.
“Live on air, Dr Singh told me he’d never seen ears of wheat so big, even on farms abroad. Still on air, he suggested I give my own name to the varieties I develop – JP, for Jai Prakash.”
The idea caught on. Before long, farmers were clamoring for JP seeds.
When business began to look like it would take root, JP did what people expected him to do. He would suddenly takeoff. Between 2000 and 2002, he’d take furtive breaks from work – sometimes 2 days, sometimes a whole week. He’d tell his wife he was away visiting friends.
What he was actually doing was state hopping. Bihar, Bengal, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Maharashtra – he visited them all. He’d travel without reservation in general compartments, sleep on the pavements, eat at the homes of acquaintances. They’d also introduce him to farmers in remote villages in those states.
With signs and gestures, he’d tell those farmers he was looking for unusual seeds – wheat or rice with high iron content, plants that were drought resistant, that took very little time to grow, or ones that delivered bumper harvests. He’d wrap those seeds in small bundles and like squirrels that carry back nuts to their nests, JP Singh would carry his precious seeds back home to UP.
There, on a paltry one bigha plot his uncle had left him in his will, JP would plant the seeds he’d gathered – and begin the process of observation and segregation all over again. When his father died, JP got another five bigha, which were immediately devoted to more experimentation. Another few bighas were borrowed from his mother and other uncles. There was never enough money to buy land outright – but just to work with his seeds, JP was prepared to scrounge around.
Sometime after 2002, JP started the Nav Gram, Nav Ratna Yojana. The idea was to adopt nine villages within a 50 km radius. In each of those villages, people would try to focus on at least one important initiative. One village could focus on animal husbandry – breeding high milk-yielding Murrah buffaloes, for example. Another would concentrate on developing a seed warehouse.
A third could work on cottage industries based around farm produce – for example – making biscuits from iron-fortified wheat. A fourth would set up an Agromart, a one-stop mall for everything you need in agriculture.
JP’s movement began to take root. Starting on June 8 every year, he’d take out a walkathon to all the nine villages he’d adopted around Tandiya. Hundreds of folks joined in, most simply for the fun of it.
For nine days and nine nights, they’d be on the road – sleeping in the open, sharing food cooked on village hearths. They’d talk about the problems of each village, till the fields together, lobby the panchayats, the District Collector and the Block Development Officer for funds. Not content to do the exercise only in Uttar Pradesh, he branched out.
In 2003, he did a padayatra in Gurgaon, just outside Delhi. In 2004, he was in Haryana’s Kathal district. In 2006, Madhya Pradesh. The more places he went to, the more his fame spread. The more famous he became, the more his seeds came to be in demand.
Soon JP began to experiment with chemical-free organic farming. Crops don’t grow well without a fortified diet to help them along. So JP Singh concocted his own mix.
“I’d take 10 kilos of cow dung, 2-4 liters of cow urine, 2 kg of jaggery, 2 kg of wheat flour, 2 kg of old mud from beneath a peepal tree. Add half a kilo of a chemical called Trichoderma. Top up the tank with water and stir, till the entire thing became a viscous slag. Then, I’d leave it out to dry.”
“The dry powder is what I’d spread on my fields. I call it Jai Amrit Fertilizer. It promotes the growth of healthy bacteria and other living organisms, which help fix nutrients and enrich the soil. I’ve had bumper yields with that stuff on my fields. I dare any scientist to show me a chemical fertilizer that can do better.”
It isn’t an empty boast. The Gurukul, a residential school in Kurukshetra, Haryana, spread the stuff on 32 acres of their private farms and planted his own JP 1091 strain of wheat. They harvested 20 quintals of wheat per acre. JP claims the average yield in the area, with chemical fertilizers, is about 12 quintals per acre.
As we talk, JP’s phone keeps ringing. Someone calls from Satara in Maharashtra requesting a few quintals of seeds. Another chap calls from Itarsi in UP. Has the seed truck crossed the check posts, he asks. How much longer before it gets here?
To each caller, JP talks in that same polite, mellifluous dialect peculiar to this part of Uttar Pradesh. “Everything’s on schedule”, he assures. “Just hang on, the seeds will be there before you know it.”
As he hangs up JP says, “This phone is my shop now. People keep calling from all over India. And I keep sending out my seeds. Isn’t technology great?”
Even as he talks, young farmers from the neighborhood sort through sacks of seeds in his living room. “Babuji, I’m sowing my crop rather late this year. Give me something that’ll thrive despite that change,” shouts one.
Out in his fields in Tandiya village, JP proudly points out the plant varieties he peddles today. In the distance, an especially potent strain of wheat. Up towards the left, a strain of black rice. It’s the sort that’s popular in the North East and in countries like South Korea. But JP says he found this one in his own fields, just selecting and hoarding unusual seeds. “Just look at the colour. I even got the grain tested. The scientists say it’s rich in iron,” he says delightedly.
And yet, in all this success, there is a tinge of sadness.
“The crops this year didn’t do as well as they should have. First, we didn’t have a tractor. I sold mine when the family property was being redistributed among us brothers. A new one costs Rs 4-5 lakh and I don’t have that sort of cash. So this year, we tilled our fields using bullocks. Old style.’
“Then, we didn’t have enough water at the right time. My submersible pump gave up the ghost this year. And we didn’t have the money to get it repaired. Without water, the crops this year are slightly stunted. Their yield will probably go down too.”
I ask him why he won’t sell his seeds at higher prices. After all, they’re champion varieties, ones that practically guarantee bumper harvests. Their GM competitors cost upto 10 times as much – and yet, people buy them.
JP Singh smiles when he hears my question. “I’m not in this game for the money”, he says. “If it was just money I wanted, I’d have made it a long time ago.’
“I’m happy when farmers benefit from my seeds. I’ve never calculated if they’ll cheat me, if they’ll pass off seeds from my crops as their own. Some do, you know – but word gets around. Word of mouth is everything in this business. Nobody forces people to call my seeds by the names I’ve given them. But they do. Maybe it’s because they trust me.’
“Money is important. But there’s enough to go around. It’s we humans who have to help other humans. That’s humanity. That’s what will save us all. That’s probably why I keep my seeds cheap.”
He tells me about his encounter almost 20 years ago with a sage, believed by everyone to be around 130 years old. “His name was Ram Dass, and he was so old, he moved on all four limbs – but he did move fast. He clambered up the rock he used as a seat. And before I could speak a word, this man who I had never met before, who could have known nothing about me or my visit, said calmly – I know why you’ve come. You’ll help bring back Ram Rajya.”
Ram Dass told JP he’d preserved documents 120 years old – texts written on parchment, minutes of meetings long since forgotten. They were meetings of ancient sages in Kashi, laying a road-map for the return of Ram Rajya. Three or four days after JP met the sage, Ram Dass died. It was almost like he’d been waiting for JP to arrive. Before he died, he entrusted to JP the documents he’d been guarding.
“From ancient times, he said, there has been an unbroken line of storytellers. To them was given the task of telling the world a true story. Of how the sages cursed the royal traditions of kings and caused them to crumble. They were disgusted by the vile lives those emperors led. But their curse disrupted a system of law that had held the world together since the beginning of time. It was the beginning of massive upheavals around the globe. This age will pass away one day. And with it, will go the problems of our present world. But that will happen only if men know of the bliss that once existed on Earth. When they work for it and yearn for it with all their hearts. This is the time when leaders of all nations and faiths must unite. To hasten the return of Ram Rajya.’
“Sant Ram Das told me he was a storyteller. A custodian of ancient truths. A herald of the time to come. I didn’t realize it then. But when he handed those withered parchments to me, he was passing on the tradition. I’m the storyteller now. I’m the one who has to bear witness to the world.”
A few minutes before I was to leave his house, JP Singh suddenly asked, “Bhaisaheb, what does one do to get a Nobel Prize?” I tried explaining to him the importance and perhaps the impossibility of snagging a Nobel. The educational intricacies, the need for peer reviewed work.
Midway through my soliloquy, I realized how hollow I must have sounded. I was preaching theory to a man who enjoys the trust of thousands.
He heard me out patiently. Didn’t interrupt, didn’t demur. But there was that calm look in his eyes. City boys can talk all they want. But this farmer has his heart set on a Nobel. No one can tell him he can’t have it.