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Tale of an ingenious farmer
Sreekumar Raghavan, Commodity Online
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May 30, 2007 09:43 IST

Popularity always need not lead to prosperity and they might share an inverse relationship.

James Hargreaves, who developed the spinning jenny in 1765, died in poverty although he had a patent to his name. History is replete with such examples of innovators not profiting out of their output and copycats making a fortune.

A few kilometers away from Kattapana town in Kerala's hilly Idukki district, a 76-year-old farmer who revolutionised cardamom cultivation in the state is indeed crestfallen.

"I could not capitalise on the 'Njallani' variety of cardamom that I developed. I never knew how to make money out of it. Lot of farmers who took saplings from us minted fortunes," says the humble farmer, Sebastian Joseph.

Joseph did not have any idea of the value of the cardamom variety and how to market it. Recently, somebody from Thiruvananthapuram is reported to have tried for a patent for 'Njallani', Joseph said.

Joseph's son Johny says now the family regrets that they could not market the unique cardamom variety they have developed. "We were marginal farmers and had only 2-3 acres of land. Most of the time we were not able to provide saplings to those who came to buy it," he added. Joseph has received several awards and citations from Spices Board, Union Commerce Ministry and Kerala government. Several dignitaries have visited his small hamlet ever since news spread about his wonder cardamom variety 'Njallani', named after his ancestral home.

Joseph recalls that in 1952 when he had migrated from Pala to settle down near Kattapana, the majority of cardamom growers were Tamil settlers. "To begin with I started cultivating rice, tapioca and banana. However, when it did not succeed, I turned to cardamom."

Slowly the Tamil settlers began to leave Idukki. It was his experiments along with his son Regimon that led to the development of the new variety 'Njallani'.

The unique variety was developed by planting four cardamom plants side by side and putting beehives in their midst. The bees would cross-pollinate the plants. Joseph would then cover the plants with mosquito nets. He would also mark the flowers that produced the berries. These berries are pure clones. Again, the clones that gave more berries were selected. The selected four clones bore 148 berries.

Joseph called this selection 'Njallani'. The farmer observed that his variety has 120-160 capsules compared to 30-35 in the ordinary variety. Instead of planting seedlings that take two to three years to bear fruit, he began to plant shoots and was able to shorten the yield span to two years neither compromising on quality or quantity of the yield.

Soon 'Njallani' literally transformed Idukki and it became a boon for the planters. As against a conventional yield of 200 kg per hectare, 'Njallani' yields 1,500 kg/ha or even more.

In 2000, a farmer in Idukki won an award for harvesting 2,750 kg of cardamom per hectare using the 'Njallani' variety. This species is now grown in 87 per cent of Idukki's cardamom plantations.

"Compared to rubber, cardamom is a better economical crop," says Joseph. But Idukki will be denuded of its cardamom cover in 15 years, he warns.

"Farmers in their greed to make quick money use large quantities of pesticides and chemical fertilisers damaging the soil and ecology," he said. A few years ago, Joseph purchased three acres of land and applied intensive organic manure (cow dung) and bone powder to plant cardamom. However, the yield is very low as it was intensively farmed earlier using chemical fertilisers, he laments.

In a few years' time, organic food will be in demand and those who can meet this demand will be successful, the cardamom veteran said.

He has been fortunate enough to groom a large number of cardamom cultivators who used to seek advice from him from planting to harvesting. Joseph has traveled the length and breadth of the country supported by various agencies such as the spices board.

"I have no savings except these awards and recognition," says Joseph pointing to the photos and press reports that adorn the walls of his house. "I am happy. At least 100,000 people say my name along with my ancestral name 'Njallani' every day in one way or the other."

Experts say the lesson that 'Njallani' teaches is that farmers developing new varieties should not disclose it to others. "Instead, they should propagate enough saplings and get a patent, if possible," says S Backiyarani, assistant professor at Cardamom Research Station, Pampadumpara. Legal experts are of the view that Joseph can still apply for a patent.

"However, what is important from the IPR angle is that Joseph should put together in detail the processes that led to the creation of the new variety and its important distinguishing characteristics," according to N Hariharan, independent arbitrator and consultant.

"It is better he obtains the patent for this unique cardamom variety before someone else steals his brainchild," Hariharan added.

Regimon told Commodity Online that there were several farmers who were innovative enough but they shouldn't suffer the same fate.

He said the country gained around Rs 850 crore (Rs 8.5 billion) from 1977 till date due to the widespread use of 'Njallani' variety. "However, not even one per cent of this was allotted to us despite several representations made to the Union government.

"Moreover, the spices board has a cardamom development fund whose corpus also runs into crores of rupees. This is collected at the rate of Re 1 per kg from the sale made at the auction houses of cardamom," he said. Regimon said not even a small per cent of this fund was allotted to the 'Njallani' developers.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for spices board, Kochi, said the Cardamom Development Fund is used for overall development activities of cardamom sector in general and not for any particular individual. The deployment of fund is decided by a committee constituted by the spices board.

Among other achievements of the father-son duo include the cloning of new saplings from stems instead of seeds thereby increasing the yield and early yields from the second year of planting.

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