Top Rice Scientist Dr. Richharia Who Sacrificed Much to Protect Interests of Farmers


           In many big debates on agriculture in India the name of Dr. R.H.Richharia inevitably comes up, even though top establishment persons and powerful interests want to avoid this. One reason why this name of Dr. Richharia comes up time and again is that he was an extremely learned and distinguished  scientist, certainly the top rice scientist from India. Many believe he should have occupied the topmost position in farm research at a critical time of India’s agricultural history, but he was very unjustly deprived of this because at this critical juncture he wanted to be very firm in defending and protecting the interests of farmers and the interests of his country, and if he had succeeded this would have been very helpful not only  for India but for the agriculture of other developing countries as well.

Briefly, when critical decision to arbitrarily bring in the green revolution seeds were being taken, Dr. Richharia had stood up bravely to oppose this and to insist on an alternative strategy based in improved indigenous varieties, a strategy that was capable of giving good yields without any dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides and without breaking the self-reliance and low cost sustainable methods of Indian farmers. Istead of being rewarded and respected for his views, Dr. Richharia was unceremoniously deprived of his official senior positions and victimized in a most relentless way, while those responsible for his victimization were glorified as the new saviors of Indian agriculture.

At a later stage when Dr. Richharia again got a very senior official position he opposed the efforts of multinational companies to gain control of indigenous varieties of rice and once again he was victimized badly and removed from his senior official position. It is for these reasons that the name of Dr. Richharia inevitably comes in the big debates on Indian farming and the establishment wants to avoid this.

Radheylal Herlal Richharia had a very promising start to his distinguished career as a farm scientist as he completed his doctorate at Cambridge in less than two years despite the fact that he had gone there on a shoestring budget and worked and stayed there in very difficult conditions. Before leaving Cambridge, he went to say goodbye to Prof.Engledow who patted him affectionately and said, “So many scholars who return from Cambridge to India go on to hold many prestigious posts and to publish many learned papers. But I do not know how many of them actually strive to help the farmers of India. The real test is whether your work will be of real help to the poor farmers of your country.”

These parting words from the seat of learning which he valued so much made an indelible impression on the young scientist’s mind. In the midst of all his future struggles and achievements (both of which he was to experience in plenty) he would never forget these words- your work is valuable only if it really helps the small and ordinary farmers.

Radhey Lal was born in 1909 in Nandanvara village of Seoni Malwa tehsil in Hoshangabad district of (what is now) Madhya Pradesh. His father Her Lal Richharia was the headmaster of a school and also the postmaster. Always keen to do some new work, he experimented with growing several vegetables in his garden.

But he did not grow vegetables just like that. He had careful and painstaking methods of growing the various vegetables. In some cases, he would not use any direct irrigation at all, preferring instead to use the percolation method, saying that this way the land would make more efficient use of water. Then in the case of some vegetables which grow in creepers he would insist that the creeper be given the support of a neem tree. The belief probably was that the vegetables would absorb some of the undoubted medicinal properties of the neem tree.

All this while his curious son looked on eagerly at his father’s work, fascinated by all the interesting information that was revealed when he asked questions. The child learnt to admire and respect the wealth of wisdom that was available within the villages.

He was equally fascinated by the visitors from forests, or adivasis, with whom his father had great rapport. Specially fascinating was the “Rani Sahiba”, who seemed to have been a tribal head woman of sorts, with whom his father appeared to have an arrangement for care of animals. It appears that villagers then had an arrangement with some forest people to take their domestic animals to forests during the dry season. The tribals also collected chiraunji seeds and not only brought this to his father but also prepared beautiful storage for keeping them unspoilt. What the adivasi visitors spoke revealed their rich wisdom of trees and plants. Radhey Lal learnt of this wisdom at an early age, and also the memory of the friendly relationship of mutual help between his father and the friends from forests lingered on in his memory.

His father watched the growing interest of his son in plants and visitors and encouraged him, allowing him to sit and listen to the conversation with the tribal people, or taking him to the market to meet them. Little did he realise that his little boy will grow up to become one of the biggest defenders of tribal heritage, and that some of his valuable work and publications would be dedicated to the tribal farmers of India.

Before he left his village for higher education, Radhey Lal had imbibed enough knowledge  about the wisdom of farmers in general and tribals in particular, a knowledge that would enable him to retain his humility and attitude  of respect for them even when he approached them  after earning his doctorate from Cambridge.

Radhey Lal was such a brilliant student that his officially recorded date of birth had to be lowered by two years (from 1911 to 1909) to enable him to sit for school exams for which he was obviously well prepared, but for which he was still well below the required age. In fact at one exam he had to be helped to climb the seat which had been designed for older students.

Radhey Lal soon left his village to pursue his further education at Balaghat, then college level education at Varanasi and Nagpur. From Nagpur he went straight to Cambridge and it so happened that on returning from Cambridge, the first job that he got was also at Nagpur- as oil seeds specialist for Central Province (1931-42). From here he went to the Agricultural Research Institute and Agriculture College at Sabour (District Bhagalpur, Bihar) where he held various positions and developed his keen interest for rice  which was to become a lifelong passion. He also showed his flair for field level work compared to desk work by motivating students to do the actual work in fields and dairies, thereby earning themselves a rich breakfast of halwa  (a sweet dish) and milk.

On a more serious note, he started pioneering work on preparing quality fibre from the waste straw of linseed plant, a work which drew the attention of several eminent persons. He remained in Bihar for 17 long years, from 1942 to 1959.

Then in 1959 he was selected as Director of the Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI) at Cuttack, Orissa. No sooner had he reached there to assume charge, however, that a rival who wanted the post for himself manipulated a strike by employees so that he would not be able to settle down in the new work. This hurdle could soon be overcome, however, and Dr. Richharia was able to establish the CRRI as one of the foremost centres of rich research in the world, the value of work done there was widely talked about.

However, vested interests conspired against him to disrupt his work and he left the CRRI in 1967 and despite his seniority, was unjustly deprived of the opportunity to become the Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). The main reason for his unceremonious ouster was that he had opposed the arbitrary introduction of green revolution seeds and insisted on rice development based on improved indigenous varieties for which he had made great preparations and was on the verge of achieving a big breakthrough based on this. However all these preparations which had been made with great care and wisdom were dismantled arbitrarily to welcome the green revolution varieties which, Dr. R.H. Richharia had pointed out even at this early stage, were very prone to diseases and pests.

In 1971 he was recalled from retirement to head the Madhya Pradesh Rice Research Institute at Raipur and also to function as Agriculture adviser to the Government of Madhya Pradesh ( at that time Madhya Pradesh included the present day state of Chattisgarh also). His work here during 1971-1976 was again pioneering work of great value with special reference to preserving and protecting the agricultural heritage of tribal farmers. Again, however, vested interests manipulated things to deprive him of opportunities to continue work of great value which had reached a critical stage. The efforts of powerful interests were aimed at multinational companies gaining control of the collection of indigenous varieties made with great care by Dr. Richharia and his colleagues with the help of farmers.

From 1978 to 1996, Dr. Richharia, now deprived of all facilities for scientific work, continued his work against all odds at his residence and at a farm located a few miles away from his residence in Bhopal.

In 1971 Dr. Richharia lost his wife, the late Mrs. Jaiamba Richharia, who had been his greatest source of strength in the middle of several difficult struggles. Around 1982 he lost a son. And in 1983 he was requested by the Prime Minister Mrs. India Gandhi to prepare an action plan for improving rice production. This he did with great dedication but following Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, this plan was ignored. In 1984 he became one of the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the man who had spoken all his life against the hazards of chemical pesticides and distorted development trends himself became the victim of the same trends. In December 1984 he had a heart attack, the after-effects of which left him very weak.

But he withstood all these tragedies and shocks to continue his work. His daughter Utpala combined a busy professional life with affectionate care of her ailing father. Other members of his closely knit family, particularly elder daughter Anuradha, also helped to keep up his spirits after all the harm he had suffered from the hands of manipulators. Several of his old students scattered all over the research and teaching establishments also extended moral support from time to time. They kept him in touch with the recent developments in research and confided how the value of what he had said and done much earlier was being realised now.

Slowly information of his work and realisation of its importance became clear to several members of the press, voluntary agencies and other people’s organisations. Reports of his work started appearing in several newspapers, magazines and journals. Voluntary agencies requested him to visit  their areas and tell people about his work. He was invited to important gatherings of pro- people Science in Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal and elsewhere.

Despite numerous adversities, he was able to write and publish a very important book on clonal propagation technology. A new edition of his old book, “Rices of India”, co-authored with S. Govindswamy was published.

Dr. Richharia died in 1996 at the age of 87.

In his last days Dr Richharia was working on an encyclopaedia of rice germplasm of Madhya Pradesh in which 19,000 cultivars of rice were being listed. This is the result of several years of the collection and identification of rice cultivars, a work which he continued even after his retirement from official work. He was also completing the botanical survey work with special reference to rice and rice research conducted by him during the seventies in MPRRI. He was also continuing his tireless work in preparing a Botanical Dictionary of useful plants in India. This work was started in 1946-47 and over 8,000 entries had been made  (with available chromosome family name, botanical name, popular English and Hindi names, uses and other information). In addition he continued to carry out botanical research on his farm and had been working or evolving interesting concepts such as those of rice garden and rural gene banks.

All this work he had been doing with the minimum of help and support from outside. Some help, however, was extended by agricultural universities in Madhya Pradesh and by some voluntary agencies/institutions by agreeing to publish a part of his voluminous work.

In the course of his careful, painstaking and brilliant research work extending over six decades, Dr. Richharia’s work was distinguished by some important features which are-

  1. A respect for wisdom and knowledge of ordinary farmers, specially tribal farmers;
  2. A deep concern for the small and poor farmers, an understanding of their resource constraints and efforts based on this understanding to make available low cost, local resource based technology. His technology involves no chemical pesticides.
  3. A respect for the indigenous genetic base of rice, and a great concern to preserve the indigenous varieties of rice. Efforts to increase rice productivity should be based mainly on indigenous varieties of rice. Towards this end he made a great discovery of the hidden potential of indigenous rice varieties, their high productivity and superb food qualities. In Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh he collected (or guided the collection) of over 17,000 cultivars of rice.
  4. A firm determination to protect the interests of ordinary farmers and the interests of his country from forces of imperialism ( which in practical terms amounts to protecting the interests of all developing countries) and readiness to accept any sacrifice for this higher cause.

His great professional work, his honesty and sacrifice are very inspiring and all of this is much needed today also as the onslaught of big multinational companies and imperialism has now become even bigger than before. India as well as other developing countries need more and more scientists like Dr. Richharia, but at the same try we need to improve the overall systems so that such scientists do not have to suffer time and again and are able to make their great contributions to their own country and to the farming community. The importance of this work which protects the organic content of soil while minimizing  the use of external inputs which destroy soil and involve fossil fuel consumption has increased further in times of climate change. Similarly the importance of his message of learning from the heritage of traditional wisdom, particularly tribal wisdom, is more in times of climate change.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Man Over Machine.



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