Lenindhasan cultivates 30 varieties of rice. He sells another 15 raised by fellow farmers. And he conserves 80 types of paddy seeds. All this, in his family’s six-acre farm in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvanamalai district.

It’s not just the numbers that are extraordinary. These long neglected traditional kinds of rice are more suited to the small and marginal farmlands in his region. Lenin – as he is called – and his friends, are trying to replace modern rice varieties and resist mono-cropping. Their plan is to restore lost diversity. And to germinate a rice revolution.

It's a different kind of revolution, led by another kind of Lenin.

The godown where he stocks hundreds of sackfuls is an upcycled goat shed, next to his fields, in Sengunam village, Polur taluka .

From the outside, the small building is unremarkable. That impression quickly changes when we step in. “This is karuppu kavuni , that is seeraga samba," Lenin says, piercing rice sacks with a needle and drawing out grains. He holds these two heirloom varieties in his palm. The first one is blackish and shiny, the second is slender and aromatic. From one corner, he fetches old iron measures: padi , marakka , which hold different quantities of paddy.

It’s from this shed that Lenin – with little noise and no fuss – weighs and packs the rice and sends it all the way up to Bengaluru, all the way down to Nagercoil. It seems as if he’s been farming and selling paddy for decades. But it’s only been six years.

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Left: Lenin's paddy field. Right: He shows us just threshed paddy seeds

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Left: Lenin at work inside his godown. Right: Karuppu kavuni , a heirloom rice

“Paddy was never in our universe,” Lenin, 34, smiles. The rainfed lands in this district have long been home to legumes, oilseeds and millets. “We don’t have paddy cultivation in our paramparai [ancestry].” His mother Savithiri, 68, used to grow and sell karamani (black-eyed peas). For every four measures she sold, she would throw in two handfuls free. “If we add up the value of what amma gave away, that would be a lot of money now!” His family’s main crop was kalakka (as groundnuts are called here), raised and sold by his father Elumalai, 73. “The kalakka money would go to appa . And the side crop income from karamani would be for amma .”

Lenin’s ’before I became a farmer’ story opens in Chennai, where he was a corporate employee, with two degrees (and a Master’s that he discontinued), working for a good salary. But then he saw a poignant movie about a farmer: Onpathu rupai nottu (Nine rupee note). That kindled a longing in him to live with his parents. Lenin came back home in 2015.

“I was 25 then and didn’t have a plan or agenda. I simply raised vegetables and legumes.” Three years later, many factors came together and made him switch to paddy and sugarcane. Machinery, markets, and of all the things, monkeys, influenced his decision.

And rain, he adds. “Farmers may not use the words ‘climate change’, but they will tell you about it." Lenin says the unseasonal rain is like waiting for a guest who never shows up for a meal. "After you wither and die of hunger, they come and garland the corpse…”

Seated under a neem tree, on a granite bench, eating fleshy mangoes, Lenin speaks for three hours, quoting the ancient Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar, the father of organic farming in Tamil Nadu, Nammalvar and celebrated rice conservationist Debal Deb. The switch to traditional varieties and organic farming, Lenin says, is both essential and inevitable.

In three meetings over four years, he educates me about agriculture, climate change, biodiversity and markets.

This is Lenin’s story. And that of rice, which now grows in rainfed lands and once-parched fields, with water from deep, deep bores and seeds that have initials and numbers for names…

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Lenin’s mother Savithiri displays the padi and marakka (left), iron vessels that are used to measure rice. She fills the padi with Thooyamalli paddy (right), a traditional variety


Oh farmer who has many buffaloes
and many grain silos as tall as

You wake up at the crack of dawn
without much sleep, and eat with
your desiring hands large cooked
pieces of black-eyed
varāl fish
with big balls of fine rice.

Natrinai 60, Marutham Thinai.

The Tamil landscape has always been home to rice. This beautiful poem – describing a farmer, his granary, and his meal – dates back to the Sangam era, some 2,000 years ago. Rice has been cultivated in the subcontinent for close to eight millennia.

“Archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that the indica subspecies of Asian rice [almost all cultivated rice from the Indian subcontinent belongs to this group] was grown about 7,000 to 9,000 years ago in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas,” writes Debal Deb in the Scientific American . “Over the ensuing millennia of domestication and cultivation, traditional farmers created a treasure trove of landraces that were perfectly adapted to diverse soils, topographies and microclimates and suited to specific cultural, nutritional or medicinal needs.” Until the 1970’s, “around 110,000 distinct varieties” were grown in Indian fields.

But over the years – and especially after the Green Revolution – much of this diversity was lost. In the second volume of his memoirs “The Green Revolution” , C. Subramaniam, the union minister of Food and Agriculture in the mid-60’s, writes about the “severe and widespread drought conditions, leading to an acute shortage of foodgrains in the years 1965-67”, and a resolution moved in the Lok Sabha on “the continued dependence of import of food grains under PL-480 agreement with the United States” which was “derogatory to our honour and injurious to our economy”.

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Lenin cultivates and conserves thooyamalli (left) and mullankaima (right) varieties of paddy

The state and its leaders had two choices – redistribute the land, which was a political (and potentially fraught) solution, and a scientific and technological one (that might not benefit all farmers equally). They opted for the introduction of high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat.

Five decades later, India has a surplus of rice and wheat and is an exporter of many crops. Yet, the agrarian sector is besieged with problems. National Crime Records Bureau data show us that over four lakh farmers have taken their lives in the past three decades. The country has seen major protests by farmers demanding fair prices and just policies. And by the time you read this essay, a dozen farmers will quit agriculture.

That brings us back to Lenin and his revolution. Why is it important to diversify in agriculture and within a crop? Because, just like cattle, cotton and bananas, the world was raising fewer and fewer varieties, and getting more milk, yarn and fruit. But “vast expanses of monocultures,” warns Deb, “provide banquets for certain pests.”

The agricultural scientist and father of Green Revolution in India, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, had presciently warned back in 1968 that “if all the locally adapted crop varieties were replaced with one or two high yielding strains that could result in the spread of serious diseases capable of wiping out entire crops.”

New rice varieties, however, have swept through the world. The first modern rice to be introduced by the International Rice Research Institute, on November 28, 1966, went by the “nondescript name IR8”. Soon, this semi-dwarf variety was dubbed as “miracle rice” and brought in huge changes in Asia and beyond, notes an article in Rice Today .

In the book Hungry Nation , Benjamin Robert Siegel writes about a wealthy farmer outside Madras (as Chennai was then called) serving his guests “IR8 idli ” for breakfast. His guests – including other farmers and journalists – “were informed that IR-8 rice had come to India from the Philippines, and the fluffy grains were as tasty as they were abundant”.

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Lush green paddy field (left) and threshed paddy grains (right)

For the new seeds to work, they required “laboratory-perfect growing conditions, which demanded irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides,” says Raj Patel in Stuffed and Starved . He acknowledges that “in some places, due in part to Green Revolution technologies, widespread hunger was kept in check. But the social and ecological costs were high.”

Selectively subsidising just wheat, rice and sugarcane “led to farmers shifting to these crops massively, notes the State of Rural and Agrarian India Report 2020 . “This distorted the cropping pattern by promoting irrigated crops in dryland areas and also affected people’s health by reducing the diversity of foods on our plate and replacing them with highly polished rice, wheat and the empty calories of refined sugar.”

This played out in Tiruvanamalai district in living memory, says Lenin. “In appa ’s time, there were only maanavari [rainfed] crops and legumes were grown widely. There was one harvest of samba [paddy], near the lake. Now there is far more irrigated land. Appa got a bank loan and borewell connection about 20 years ago. Until then, you wouldn't see paddy fields everywhere with standing water, like this,” he says, pointing to the field behind him, the paddy a young green, the water a muddy brown, reflecting the trees and sky and sun.

“Ask the old farmers,” Lenin says, “they will tell you how IR8 filled their stomachs. They will also add that the fodder for their cattle came down.” At a farmer’s meet in Kalasapakkam, several cultivators joked about it. “Do you know, in some farming families, short people are still called IRettu [IR8 in Tamil],” they said and there was a big round of laughter.

But when the topic of biodiversity came up, there was none.

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Left: Lenin walks to his fields from the godown. Right: The field where he conserves and cultivates heritage paddy varieties


The first time I meet Lenin in 2021, he speaks about climate change and agriculture to a large group of farmers. It is the monthly meeting at the Parampariya Vidhaigal Maiyam (Traditional Seeds Forum) in Kalasapakkam town, Tiruvanamalai district. The group meets on the 5th of every month and that September morning is hot and sunny. It is slightly cooler in the dappled shade of the neem tree, behind the temple, where we sit. And listen, laugh and learn.

“The moment we say we are organic farmers, people either touch our feet. Or call us fools,” Lenin remarks. “But what do the young of today know about organic farming,” asks P. T. Rajendran, 68, the co-founder of the forum. “They might have heard about Panchakavvyam, [made from cow urine, dung plus other ingredients, which promotes growth and provides immunity]. But it is much more than that.”

For farmers, sometimes, the change happens organically. Elumalai, Lenin’s father, gave up chemical pesticides and fertilisers simply because they were too expensive. “Each round of spraying set us back by a few thousands,” says Lenin. “ Appa read Pasumai Vikatan [an agriculture magazine] and experimented with natural farm-based ingredients and gave it to me to spray. And I did.” It worked.

Each month, the farmers pick a theme to discuss. A few bring tubers, pulses and cold pressed oils to sell. Someone sponsors a meal for everybody who attends; another brings dal and vegetables. A traditional rice variety is cooked in the open, over a firewood stove, and served hot on a banana leaf, with a side of vegetables and flavourful sambhar . It costs around 3,000 rupees to serve lunch for over 100 participants.

Farmers meanwhile debate climate change. Organic farming, heirloom varieties and diversification, they point out, are some of the best ways to counter it.

“Dark clouds gather. Farmers expect it to rain. But then…nothing! And in January, when the paddy is ready, it pours and spoils the harvest. What can we do? I’d say, don’t sink too much into one crop,” advises Rajendran. “Grow agathi [hummingbird tree] along the field border; and palm trees in dryland. Don’t stop with ground nuts and paddy.”

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

P.T. Rajendran (left) and Lenin (right) speak to the farmers at the Kalasapakkam organic forum

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Left: Various legumes, pulses and rice sold at the meeting. Right: Food is cooked and served to the attendees

The organic farmers movement – at least in Tiruvanamalai district – has shifted from educating farmers to educating the consumer. “Don’t expect the same rice variety all the time". This is a chorus. “Customers want rice in five kilo bags. They claim there is no place to store big quantities." An elderly farmer quips: "when you buy a house with place to park a car and bike, why not a sack of rice?”

Small quantities are a headache, farmers argue. The time, labour and expense is much higher than sending one big bag of rice. “Hybrid rice is now sold as a sippam [26 kilo bag]. The packaging costs less than ten rupees. Whereas to sell the same quantity as five kilo bundles, we spend 30 rupees,” Lenin explains. “ Naaku thalludhu ,” he sighs, the Tamil expression roughly translating into the tongue pushed out from the exertion. "People in the city don’t always understand how it works in the village.”

Lenin has a simple definition for work. And his working hours. “When I’m not sleeping or driving my bike, I’m working.” Then again, he’s actually working when he’s on his bike; he zips around with sacks of rice strapped onto the vehicle, delivering it to customers. His phone too is always working; it starts ringing at five in the morning, and goes on till ten in the night. When he gets a little time, he replies to WhatsApp messages. He makes time to write.

“We made a booklet in Tiruvanamalai district with all the traditional paddy varieties.” The document become famous and spread widely. “My maama ponnu [uncle’s daughter] sent it to me on WhatsApp,” Lenin laughs. “She said ‘look someone has done this so well.’ I told her to turn to the last page. She found my name: Lenindhasan.”

A confident and softspoken farmer, Lenin is comfortable speaking Tamil and English. And switches languages easily. His father Elumalai was a Communist (which explains his name, Lenin grins). As a young man, Lenin put in many hours in the field. But he never planned to be a full-time organic farmer and rice conservationist.

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Lenin displays many traditional varieties of paddy

“After my double graduation, I took up a job in Egmore, Chennai and lived there. I earned 25,000 rupees a month doing market research, in 2015. It was good money…”

When he got back to Sengunam, he farmed using chemical inputs. “I used to grow gourds, brinjal, tomatoes and sell them here,” he points to the road next to us. Lenin also travelled to uzhavar s andhai (farmer shanties), every week. During that time, his three sisters got married.

“My middle sister’s marriage expense was met with the turmeric harvest. But you know what? It is a lot of work. The whole family has to be involved in boiling the turmeric,” he says.

After his sisters left for their marital homes, Lenin found the work in the fields and house daunting. He couldn’t single-handedly raise the diverse rain-fed crops, nor could he tackle the daily plucking and selling. Even seasonal crops were tricky – timing the harvests and protecting it from pests, parrots and predators took up resources. “Maize, groundnuts, cowpeas – they need many people to guard and gather. How could we do everything with my two hands and legs, and some minimal support from my ageing parents?”

Around the same time, there was a sharp increase in monkey raids. “Can you see that coconut tree? From there to here,” he points overhead, “monkeys could travel on tree tops. They would sleep on those banyans. Forty or sixty of them would raid our fields. They were a little scared of me; I could chase them briskly. But they were clever. And used psychological tactics with my parents. One would come down here, when they went to chase it, another would drop from that tree and grab the crop…What we read in story books is not wrong, monkeys are smart!”

This menace continued for nearly four years, and most farmers in a three kilometres radius switched to crops that monkeys would not devour. Lenin and his family took to growing paddy and sugarcane.

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • Sabari Girisan

Lenin (left) with his friend S. Vignesh (right), also a farmer and distributor, loading a bike with rice sacks


"Paddy is pride,” says Lenin. “It is a prestigious crop here. Livestock herders might be complacent if their cows and goats grazed on other fields. But if there’s paddy, they will come and apologise, even if it happens accidentally. And offer to compensate. That’s how much the crop is respected.”

The crop also comes with technological advancements, advantages of machines and access to markets. Lenin calls it sowriyam (comfort). “Look, paddy farmers are not looking for a societal solution, but a technological one. And one that heads towards mono cropping.”

Agricultural land is traditionally divided into punsei nilam (dry or rainfed land) and nansei nilam (wet or irrigated land). “ Punsei is where you could raise diverse crops,” explains Lenin. “Basically, everything you need for the house. Farmers used to plough the puzhudi – dry, dusty earth - whenever they had time. It was like a ‘saving’ of time and effort, like keeping it in a ‘bank’ in the field. But with mechanisation all that changed. Overnight you could plough 20 acres.”

Farmers would grow indigenous rice varieties in punsei for one harvest cycle. “They would go for poonkar or kullankar , two rice varieties that look very similar,” points out Lenin. “The difference is in the duration of the crop cycle. If you’re worried you’ll run out of water, it’s better to plant poonkar, which is ready in 75 days, whereas the other takes 90.”

Mechanisation, Lenin points out, has made paddy possible even in small parcels of land, without much water standing in the field. “Bullocks haven’t been used in these parts for 10 or 15 years. With newer machines available on rent [or even for sale], one or even half an acre can be ploughed and it is possible for more people to grow paddy.” He then rattles off other machines which can plant, transplant, de-weed, harvest and thresh the paddy. “Seed to seed – machines will do everything for you, as long as the crop is paddy.”

Sometimes it is more than just a trade-off between man and machines. The space required for storing and drying and threshing of rain-fed crops – like sesame – is far greater. “It doesn’t take much effort to raise it. Once you broadcast the seed,” Lenin explains, his hands performing the action of throwing seeds in a perfect semicircle, “you can sit back.” But paddy has replaced it because it also yields better. “Even if you raise sesame in 2.5 acres, you’d only get 10 sacks. You can take it to the market in a share auto. Paddy? You’d have enough to fill a tipper!”

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Paddy field with the poonkar variety

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Left: The threshing ground. Right: Lenin in the godown

The other factor is regulated agricultural markets for rice. And the whole supply chain favours improved varieties. Modern rice mills, which were set up after the Green Revolution, have standardised machinery, including sieves. These are unsuitable for native varieties, which have different sizes and shapes. Besides, coloured rice cannot be processed in the modern mills. “Rice mill owners may not be a big advocate of the Green Revolution or even have an opinion about it. But they understand people want slender, shiny, white rice – typically hybrids – and customise their mill to process them.”

Not surprisingly, the farmer who diversifies and raises traditional rice has to rely on his or her own knowledge, the small (and sadly dwindling) processing units, and unpredictable societal support, explains Lenin. “Whereas all of this is a given and readily available for high-yielding, modern rice varieties.”


Tiruvanamalai is a landlocked district about 190 kilometres south-east of Chennai. At least every second person who lives here is dependent on “agricultural related works.” There are numerous rice mills in the area, besides sugar mills.

In 2020-21, Tiruvanamalai had the third largest area under paddy cultivation in Tamil Nadu. But it ranked first in production, with a little over 10 per cent of the state’s rice coming from this district. “Tiruvanamalai outperforms the state, with an average yield of 3,907 kilograms per hectare against the 3,500 kilos in other districts,” says Dr. R. Gopinath, Principal Scientist, Ecotechnology, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation.

Paddy cultivation has intensified in Tiruvannamalai district, says Dr. R. Rengalakshmi, Director – Ecotechnology, MSSRF. "There are several reasons for this. One, when there is rain, farmers want to mitigate risk and make the most of the available water and raise paddy. This gives them good yields and potentially, a profit. Two, in regions where it is grown for the [dinner] table – i.e. household food security – farmers will surely grow it. And lastly, with the increase in ground water irrigation, there is more paddy grown in more than one harvest cycle. So, even as surface water dependent paddy area has not increased, the production has."

Rice is a thirsty crop. “According to NABARD's 'Water Productivity Mapping of Major Indian Crops' (2018), around 3,000 litres is required to produce one kilo of rice. It goes upto 5,000 litres in the Punjab-Haryana region,” says Dr. Gopinath.

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Lenin's field with freshly transplanted paddy saplings

Lenin’s fields depend on a dug well that is 100 feet deep. “It’s sufficient for our crops. We can run the motor with a three-inch pipe for two hours at a time, and a maximum of five. But,” he says, “I can’t just leave it running and roam around…”

Irrigation capacity increased between 2000 and 2010, points out Dr. Rengalakshmi. "Borewell motors with higher horsepower also became available around then. Plus drilling machines became common. Thiruchengode, in Tamil Nadu, was a hub for the borewell rigs. Sometimes, farmers put in a new bore every three to four years. If they depended only on rain water, they would be engaged for just three to five months. With irrigation, they had continuous work and productivity wasn't affected. It was, therefore, a turning point for rice. Until the 1970s, it was mostly a festival food; now it is cooked every day. The increased use also coincided with its wide availability in the public distribution system."

Paddy is now grown in 35 per cent of the gross cropped area in Tamil Nadu. But how many farmers grow native varieties, with organic inputs?

That’s a good question, Lenin smiles. “If you put it down in an Excel sheet, you’ll find traditional varieties only in 1 or 2 per cent of the irrigated paddy land. Even that would be high. The big advantage is they are spread all across the state.”

But, Lenin asks, what kind of training do the cultivators who grow modern varieties get? "It is all about increasing production. And increasing income. All the instructions come to them 'top down', from Chennai or Coimbatore, to various blocks and then to individual farmers. Isn’t it a way to hold them back [from thinking]?" Lenin wonders.

The only time they have a ‘bottoms up’ approach is when they talk about value addition, he says. “We are instructed to process the rice, pack it and so on…” With the emphasis on production and profit, the farmer is blinkered. And made to chase the mirage of ever greater yields.

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Lenin and his friends hold up different varieties of paddy

Organic farmers, as a group, are interested in diversity, sustainability and other issues that affect people at large, says Lenin. "Shouldn’t any discussion on rice – or farming – happen around a table with all participants as equals? Why leave farmers with rich experience out of it?" he asks.

In Thiruvanamalai, organic farming is very popular, "especially among young male farmers. At least half of them in the age group of 25 to 30 practise chemical-free farming,” says Lenin. That’s why the ground activities are strong here. The district also has many mentors. “From landholders to those without a single cent of land, there have been many teachers!” He stresses the role of Venkatachalam Aiya, the founder of the Kalasapakkam forum, the iconic father of organic farming in Tamil Nadu Nammalvar, Pamayan (thinker and organic farmer), Meenakshi Sundaram, organic farmer, and agri-scientist Dr. V. Arivudai Nambi, a personal inspiration for the district’s youth. “So many celebrated people have taught us."

Some farmers also have an additional source of (non-farm) income. "They understand the money from farming might not be sufficient.” The side hustle partly pays the bills.

A farmer never stops learning, Lenin tells me during my third visit, in March 2024. “Experience teaches me about crops: the variety that stands tall and yields well. That can withstand rain and so on. I also rely on the 4C framework: conservation, cultivation, consumption and commerce."

We walk to his fields from the shed. It is a short distance, across the black gram fields, by the sugarcane plants, past the ‘plots’ where flat-roofed houses have sprung up. “The land here is now sold by the square foot,” Lenin sighs. “Even those with a socialist mindset are now tempted by capitalism.”

He raises poonkar in 25 cents (one-fourth of an acre). “I had given poonkar seeds to another farmer. He returned them to me after the harvest.” This free exchange ensures that the seeds in circulation keep increasing.

In another parcel of land, he shows us a variety called vazhaipoo samba . “Karthi anna , another conservator, gave me the seeds.” Gathering the ripe paddy stalks in his hand, making it a bunch, Lenin says, “we will have to make the switch to these varieties.” The grains hang gracefully, in the shape of a vazhaipoo (banana flower), as if it were handmade by a jewellery designer.

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Lenin shows us vazhaipoo samba , a heritage paddy variety

The government is also trying to popularise organic farming and indigenous varieties by conducting diversity fairs and training programmes, acknowledges Lenin. “It's not possible to change things overnight. They can't just shut all the fertiliser factories and seed shops, can they? Change will be slow,” he points out.

Tamil Nadu’s minister for agriculture and farmers welfare, M.R.K. Panneerselvam, in his 2024 agri budget speech said that under the Nel Jayaraman Mission on Conservation of Traditional Paddy Varieties, “during 2023-2024, 20,979 farmers benefited by cultivating traditional varieties in an area of 12,400 acres.”

The mission is a fitting tribute to the (late) Nel Jayaraman who initiated Tamil Nadu’s traditional paddy seed exchange festival – called Nel Thiruvizha – in 2007, as part of the Save Our Rice Campaign. “In 12 years, he and his followers, enthusiastic organic farmers and seed savers, had collected about 174 varieties, most of them on the verge of extinction”

Lenin knows only too well what it takes to popularise heirloom rice amidst farmers and customers. “Conservation is the core sector, where paddy is planted in a small area. The thrust is on genetic purity and protecting the variety. For cultivation, it is about the spread, for which you need support from society. The last two C’s – consumption and commerce – go hand in hand. You create markets and take it to the customer. For instance, we tried making aval [flattened rice] from seeraga samba . It was a big hit,” he says happily. “We are now looking at rediscovering lost processes and popularising them!”

Seeraga samba has a ‘charismatic market’ in Tamil Nadu, says Lenin. “They prefer it to basmati in biriyani. That’s why there is no basmati processing unit around here.” Horns blare in the background, as if they too are cheering seeraga samba . Similarly, karuppu kavuni is likened to Dhoni’s sixer, amongst the farmers. There is just one catch. “Suppose someone enters the fray with a huge landholding, and farms karuppu kavuni rice – say, 2,000 bags – that will upend the game completely and crash prices.” The biggest advantage of small farmlands – their diversity and small volumes – can quickly become a serious disadvantage.

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Left: The k aruppu kavuni variety cultivated by Lenin. Right: Illapaipu samba , an unpolished raw rice, sold at the forum


The biggest incentive – and the easiest to understand – is often an economic one. Is it profitable to raise traditional paddy varieties with organic inputs? “It is,” Lenin says, softly and firmly.

Lenin calculates a profit of about 10,000 rupees an acre. “The input costs in raising an acre of heirloom rice organically comes to 20,000 rupees. With chemical inputs, it’s between 30,000 and 35,000 rupees. The yield is proportional too. Traditional rice outputs average between 15 and 22 sacks of 75 kilos each. With modern varieties that’s about 30 sacks.”

Lenin keeps costs down by doing much of the work himself, manually. After harvesting he makes bundles, threshes and removes the grain, and stores it in sacks. It saves him about 12,000 rupees per acre. But he’s careful not to valorise or romanticise the labour involved. “I think we need more local data. Say, farm a traditional variety like maapillai samba in 30 cents and calculate what it costs to harvest by hand and by machine and study it carefully.” He is pragmatic that mechanisation might reduce the drudgery but not the expenses. “If there is a cost advantage, it is definitely not passed on to the farmer. It evaporates.”

Profit needs to be understood differently, Lenin says, quoting Debal Deb. “It is profitable if you add everything – straw, husk, flattened rice, seed grains and of course the rice itself. The hidden saving is how much the soil benefits. It’s vital to look beyond selling the paddy at the mandi .”

For traditional varieties, minimal processing will do. “Customers don’t expect perfection from organic products.” It is something farmers everywhere explain – that apples can be oddly shaped, carrots can have bumps and beaks, and the rice may not be uniformly sized or coloured. But they’re wholesome, and aesthetics isn’t a reason to reject them.

But for the economics to work, it is important – and necessary – for farmer groups to take care of the sales and supply chain. And Lenin plays a major role in that. For two years now, he’s distributed native rice grown by several farmers in the region from his godown. In the last six months, he’s helped sell 60 tonnes of rice from the 10x11 foot shed. His clients trust him, and know him well. “They hear me speak at meetings, they know my house and they know my work. So they just bring their harvest here and tell me to pay them whenever I sell it.”

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Harvested paddy waiting to be threshed

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • Aparna Karthikeyan

Left: Lenin measures paddy using the marakka and weighs it. Right: Lenin loading rice sacks on Vignesh’s bike for delivery

His customers call and message all day. It’s a tough job, and he’s on his feet weighing, packing and sometimes delivering the bags to nearby towns: Tiruvanamalai, Arani, Kannamangalam…

Lenin has some unexpected customers too. “Those who sell fertilisers, those who popularise hybrid seeds, they all buy rice from me,” Lenin laughs at the irony. “Agri input company owners tell me to leave the rice in an unnamed sack in their shop. And they G-pay the money to me. They want this done silently.”

The turnover per month from rice distribution is four to eight lakhs. The profit is around 4,000 to 8,000 rupees. Lenin, however, is happy. “When I had rented a room in town to stock rice, the expenses were punishing. Rent was high, staying away from the field was tough, and it was a drain on finances to pay for a helper. Back then, I used to be in awe of a big rice mill nearby. They had many branches and spanking new machinery. I would hesitate to even enter the mill. I learnt later that they have crores in debt.”

The previous generation made no money promoting heritage rice, says Lenin. “I make a small profit, live with nature, minimise environmental damage, and revive lost varieties.” What’s not to love, his big smile seems to ask.

Lenin’s smile always reach his eyes. They shine when he talks about his plans. He wants to bring change in five areas: seeds, commerce, books, handicrafts and conversation.

Two dogs hang around in the farm and listen to our conversation. “Cats are more helpful to farmers,” Lenin smiles as I take photos. “Especially if they are good mousers.” The small dog sticks out its tongue at us.


In the monthly meeting in March 2024, the Kalasapakkam organic farmers forum celebrates International Women’s Day on the 5th, three days early. The men take a backseat, literally. Women speak. Farmer Sumathi asks the men: “If all the women in your family had land in their own names – your sister, your wife – there would be more women here, isn’t it?” Her question is greeted by a round of applause.

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

The Kalasapakkam organic forum’s meeting on March 5th 2024, when International Women’s day was celebrated

PHOTO • Sabari Girisan
PHOTO • Aparna Karthikeyan

The Friday market at Kalasapakkam where farmers sit with their produce and sell it directly to customers in July 2023

“We’re going to celebrate Women’s Day every year,” Rajendran announces. Everybody claps. He has other plans too. The weekly market on Fridays, that began two years ago, is a success. About 10 farmers from the nearby villages bring their produce and sit opposite a school in Kalasapakkam and sell it in the shade of a tamarind tree. Dates are fixed for the annual seed festival, before the sowing season in the Tamil month of Aadi (mid-July to mid-August). And a food festival in January. “Let’s have a Maha Panchayat in May,” Rajendran says. “We need to talk more, do more.”

There are a few issues however that are not discussed in the open. Paddy may be prestigious among farmers; but farmers are not in society, Lenin adds. “Look at movies, the heroes are always doctors, engineers and lawyers. Where are farmers?” asks Rajendran. “All this affects how farmers are seen in the marriage market,” points out Lenin.

“Even if we own land, have a degree [and sometimes two] and a decent income, we are rejected because we are farmers,” says Lenin. “Agriculture itself has become so precarious, that you don’t always find people asking for farmers in matrimonial columns, no?”

As a conscientious farmer and distributor, Lenin sees in diversity an answer to many societal problems. “In livelihood, like in life, you improve the chances of success when you increase the pool of resources. “

When you cultivate and sell more varieties, you reduce the risks. “And it is the only way you can tackle climate change,” he says. He illustrates this with specific examples and growth periods. “There’s a wrong notion that modern varieties are ready for harvest soon, and native paddy takes longer. That’s incorrect,” he says. “Traditional seeds have both short and long harvest cycles. Whereas hybrids are mostly medium. They have only one or two windows for harvest.”

There are far more options in heirloom paddy. “Some are grown for celebrations, some are medicinal. They are also hardy, resistant to pests, drought and tolerant to salinity.”

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar
PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Kuthirai vaal samba (left) and rathasaali (right) paddy varieties grown by Lenin

Where stress is high, diversity is also high, says Dr. Rengalakshmi. “Take coastal Tamil Nadu, and especially the region from Cuddalore to Ramanathapuram districts, where salinity and the soil profile led to several unique traditional types of paddy, that matured in different durations. For instance, the area between Nagapattinam and Vedaranyam has a rice called Kuzhivedichan and more than 20 such varieties were in practice.

“Between Nagapattinam and Poompuhar, there's another called Kalurundai and likewise several locally suitable varieties were cultivated to manage the micro agro-ecosystems in the past. These seeds were considered heirlooms, and preserved for the next season. But now with seeds coming in from outside, saving them as a habit is lost." So while there is high stress due to climate change, "knowledge of the varieties is lost," points out Dr. Rengalakshmi.

Diversity is sustained by small farmlands that raise multiple crops, says Lenin. “It is undermined by machinery processes and big markets. Even now, there are crops that can be grown in rain fed areas, which face challenges because of climate change. Ragi, sesame, green gram, lima beans, pearl millet, sorghum…these are excellent. But when farmers are chasing industrial agricultural practices, and when the agrarian social fabric has been replaced by a series of mechanical activities, there is intense knowledge erosion,” says Lenin.

The greatest loss is deskilling. Not because the knowhow is unnecessary, but because the knowledge – and skill – is considered backward. “And that someone with intelligence will not go for it. This devastating belief has led to many dropping out of society's gaze,” Lenin argues.

Lenin believes there is a solution. “We need to identify varieties that are originally from this region; and then conserve, cultivate and put it back on the plate. But you also need one hundred entrepreneurs just in Tiruvanamalai, to tackle the beast that is the market,” Lenin says.

“In five years, I hope to be part of a cooperative and start collective farming. You know, last year there were many rainy days, and not enough sunshine for 40 days. How do you dry paddy? We need to install a dryer facility. Collectively, we will have strength.”

He is certain change will come. It has in his personal life: he’s getting married in June. “In the political stage or at the policy level, change can only be gradual. Too much too soon, can backfire.”

Which is why Lenin’s slow, quiet revolution, with his friends, might well succeed…

This research study is funded by Azim Premji University as part of its Research Funding Programme 2020.

A tipper* is a truck having a rear platform that can be raised at its front end, thus enabling a load to be discharged.

Cover image: Rice varieties Kullankar, Karudan samba and Karunseeraka samba. Photo by M. Palani Kumar

Aparna Karthikeyan

Aparna Karthikeyan is an independent journalist, author and Senior Fellow, PARI. Her non-fiction book 'Nine Rupees an Hour' documents the disappearing livelihoods of Tamil Nadu. She has written five books for children. Aparna lives in Chennai with her family and dogs.

Other stories by Aparna Karthikeyan
Photographs : M. Palani Kumar

M. Palani Kumar is Staff Photographer at People's Archive of Rural India. He is interested in documenting the lives of working-class women and marginalised people. Palani has received the Amplify grant in 2021, and Samyak Drishti and Photo South Asia Grant in 2020. He received the first Dayanita Singh-PARI Documentary Photography Award in 2022. Palani was also the cinematographer of ‘Kakoos' (Toilet), a Tamil-language documentary exposing the practice of manual scavenging in Tamil Nadu.

Other stories by M. Palani Kumar

P. Sainath is Founder Editor, People's Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of 'Everybody Loves a Good Drought' and 'The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom'.

Other stories by P. Sainath