How do we eat safe, pesticide-free food? Sangita Sharma, fondly called the Jewel of Karnataka in farming circles, arrived at the source of the issue: seed. She founded Annadana, a movement to promote the use of non-hybrid, non-GMO seeds, bringing relief to farmers who had become reliant on MNCs for chemically-enhanced, expensive seed. Over the last 20 years, she has distributed millions of packets of organic seeds to thousands of farmers, writes Mini Tejaswi
She’s fondly called the Seed Guardian and the Jewel of Karnataka in organic farming circles. Meet Sangita Sharma, who criss-crossed India in search of an answer to the question: How do we get to eat safe, pesticide-free food?
Her quest ended at the source of all food, the seeds. Travelling the length and breadth of the country, she began to realise why things were the way they were : Seeds were no longer in the hands of the farmers. Sadly, every village and farmer she visited had the same story to share.
“Farmers all over India relied on the MNCs for seeds and bought them for exorbitant prices, along with chemicals. They became susceptible to drought and famine because they gave up traditional methods of farming. And burdened by the losses resulting from chemical farming, they abandoned their fields and migrated to the cities. This rude shock gave me the ultimate wake- up call,’’ recalls Ms Sharma.
Giving the problem at hand some thought, she came up with Annadana, a movement to promote the use, cultivation and preservation of indigenous non-hybrid, non-GMO and organic seeds, which today has found great acceptance among organic farmers across the country and even in many European countries.
As her objective has always been to safeguard the interest of marginal farmers and empower them with traditional and time-tested agricultural methods, Annadana has over the last couple of decades, distributed millions of packets of organic (native) seeds from its seed bank situated off Singapura in Bengaluru to thousands of farmers across the country. More recently, it distributed over five lakh packets of organic vegetable seeds to farmers in Coorg and Kerala after last year’s torrential floods washed away a sizeable chunk of farm cultivation in these parts.
Besides, her Gopathi Farms and Annadana Seed Bank organise workshops to help urban dwellers to grow their own vegetables at home, be it on a small balcony/terrace or kitchen garden. Over 20,000 farmers and farmer groups have attended their training programmes in sustainable agriculture as have thousands of interns from across 20 countries.
Having begun her new journey, Ms Sharma also became a passionate campaigner for a GM- free India, launching the ‘My Right to Safe Food’ campaign in 2009, which contributed to the moratorium on GM trials in the country. Today, she supports drafting of organic agriculture policies, is an advocate for farmers’ rights and works to raise social awareness both nationally and globally on how to take charge of one’s food and live sustainably.
But the “Seed Guardian” in her took time to germinate as she was more accustomed to a corporate life, having begun her career with Gulf Air and Singapore Airlines, before working for the Khaleej Times and Dubai Aluminium (DUBAL) as head of their corporate affairs. But with farming being in her genes, she could not resist its call for long.
“Life couldn’t have been better as I got to work with the finest professionals. But on reaching the pinnacle of my career, I decided to quit everything and come back to my roots. I followed my inner voice and realised that Gopathi farms and my parents, who lived on it, were beckoning me,’’ she says.
Her father, Major Paramanand Sharma, who served in the second World War, took to farming big time after his retirement, buying the 30-acre Gopathi Farms, on the outskirts of Bengaluru in the sixties. He also owned a cow farm, Shree Milk, which boasted of 80 cows.
“I was born and raised on this farm. As a child I loved playing with the soil. I was happiest when I was amidst trees, flowers and wild creatures,’’ she smiles.
Ms Sharma’s dedicated and relentless crusade for safe food has earned her a slew of awards over the year, the latest being the Pan India Inspire Award for environment conservation/organic biodiversity protection in 2019 and the Karnataka Women Achiever’s Award in 2018. But it is unlikely that she will rest on her laurels as her mission to safeguard generations to come from the ill effects of chemical farming, stretches way into the future.