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Bengt G. Karlsson & Annika Rabo (eds)
Seedways. e circulation, control and care of plants in a warming world. Kungl. Vitterhets Historie
och Antikvitets Akademien (KVHAA). Konferenser . Stockholm . s.
is is a book about seeds. It revolves around questions of why and how seeds matter today, as in
the past. e focus is on human-seed relationships, and how seeds and plants co-evolve with hu-
mans and other living beings. Human history is fundamentally a multispecies story, and seeds thus
function as a lens to trace relations and interdependencies between humans and plants. rough
seeds we explore the cultural and sensorial or aective connections between people, plants, and
places. Seeds are oen used as metaphors or tropes of possibilities, of hope and aspirations that are
inherent, yet not fully realized, in the present. Engaging with seeds also brings us to critical politi-
cal questions about control over the material basis of our existence, that is, the main food crops.
Accelerating climate change, the expansion of monocultural plantations, loss of biodiversity, and
ruthless extraction of natural resources all point to increasingly dicult times ahead. Collecting
and saving seeds has become a global concern to help face the uncertain and troubled future.
Seeds, plants, crops, agriculture, domestication, climate change, corporate power, conict/war,
symbols, ritual, and people-plant relations.
© e authors and KVHAA, Stockholm, Sverige
Publisher: Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien
(KVHAA, e Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities)
Box , SE- Stockholm, Sweden
Distribution: eddy.se ab, Box , SE- Visby, Sweden
Cover image: Tea seeds. Photograph by James Muriuki
Graphic design: Bitte Granlund/Happy Book
Printed in Sweden by DanagårdLiTHO, Ödeshög,
Seeds are scary. Once a small boy swallowed a seed and it sprouted in his stomach.
Soon his body became unwieldy as the roots and branches grew from his stomach.
e end. e fate of the boy and how he manages to go on with his life is le to one’s
imagination, but the moral of the story is about the perils of swallowing seeds. Of
course, seeds are part of our diet as consumers, and a popular one at that. More than
food items, there are many parallel connections with seeds that connect us with a rich
textured meaning of life and practices. Seeds as container of life (ospring as seeds in
the womb), as metaphors of moral lives (good seeds and bad seeds), and as key to new
ideas (germination of thoughts). ere are many ways to connect with seed stories.
In this chapter I follow a particular set of seed stories by rst analysing conversa-
tions with ocials from the Department of Agriculture in Nagaland, secondly high-
lighting cultivators’ accounts about seeds and their mistrust of state agencies involved
in seed distribution, and thirdly discussing the anxieties of a new generation of teach-
ers and students training as Agricultural Field Assistants (AFA) at the Integrated Ex-
tension Training Centre (IETC) in Medziphema. Drawing from the eldwork I car-
ried out between – along the foothills of Nagaland, the three sections of
this chapter highlight the visions and challenges of promoting a commercially viable
agriculture in the uplands of Nagaland. By juxtaposing interviews with agricultural
ocials, reections of subsistence cultivators, and of students training to become Ag-
ricultural Field Assistants, this chapter explores how the vision of the government is
oen in contrast with the community way of life on the ground. e seed stories I of-
fer in this chapter capture – perhaps – the success and failure of a grand commercially
viable agriculture in Nagaland today.
Focused on the promotion of commercial agriculture in Nagaland, a state where
of the population is involved in agriculture, cultivators on the ground are encour-
Seed stories in Nagaland.
e entanglement of farmers, state agents,
and agricultural students
kvhaa konferenser 104
aged to diversify and adopt new crops that will generate higher revenue.1 Founded on
a deep tradition of jhum – slash-and-burn cultivation – Naga cultivators today across
the rural landscape of the state are encouraged to transform themselves into progres-
sive farmers and associate themselves with the market: to remain authentic and attrac-
tive Nagas, culturally relevant as talented artisans and artists, but to become ambitious
Today, conversations about commercial cropping practices rest on the mechanisa-
tion of agriculture and on high-yielding crops in the state. Large sections of upland
communities savour plants and herbs as food and consider a rich plant-based diet as
a symbol of diversity and delicacy, yet these items are categorised as “Underutilised
Edible Crops” (UEC). Scientists argue that upland governments in Nagaland and its
neighbouring states need to promote the market accessibility and the economic po-
tential of these crops (Deb et al. ). For instance, the state of Mizoram aims to mo-
tivate farmers to diversify from traditional to commercial crops,3 while in Meghalaya
agriculture and horticulture are promoted as priority or “thrust areas”.4 In Nagaland,
the Department of Agriculture’s mission seeks to implement an economically viable
agriculture and to increase crop production and productivity in the state.5 ese vi-
sions of transforming agriculture remain incomplete without a discussion about seeds.
What are seeds? ey are living and thriving embryonic plant organisms that ger-
minate into plants. Part of an ecology of the material world, they are the harbingers
of our past, present, and future. Across the uplands of north-east India, the presence
of seeds reveals rich histories of marriages, conicts, alliances, and migration. is
is also true of other indigenous cultures around the world: for instance, Aboriginal
communities in Australia consider seeds as an integral part of their diet (Isaacs ;
us, seed stories allow us to trace farming projects and challenges in human soci-
etal transformations in the uplands of north-east India.
For details about the aims and objectives of the Department of Agriculture, follow https://
agriculture.nagaland.gov.in/introduction/ [accessed November ].
ere is a growing focus on entrepreneurship and business models. e target audience is
youth and unemployed citizens. Farming including horticulture and oriculture are pro-
moted by upland states across the region as protable livelihood avenues. Refer to https://
agriculture-extension/ [accessed November ].
http://agriculturemizoram.nic.in/ [accessed November ].
http://www.megagriculture.gov.in/ [accessed November ].
Refer to https://agriculture.nagaland.gov.in/introduction/ [accessed November ].
e question I am drawn to in this essay is similar to Hugh Raes’ enquiry about
stones and their presence in our lives. He poses the question: “What can stone do?”
to highlight the fascinating story of stones across human history (Raes n.d.). I pose
a similar question in relation with seeds: What do seeds do? ey contain life and
have transformed histories and politics (Guppy ; Bennett ). Seeds and plants
travel across continents and transform relations and landscapes. Humans have played
a signicant role in diversifying and dispersing plants and seeds across continents over
the centuries (Kull & Rangan ). is trend continues, Kull and Rangan note,
through research organisations and corporations in the name of development, prot,
and as commodities (Kull & Rangan ).
Seeds are a contentious matter for cultivators and students being trained to become
the next generation of Agriculture Field Assistants in Nagaland. For Naga cultivators,
seeds are special. ey carry sentimental memories and collective histories of tradi-
tions, migration, and community. While the AFA students are annoyed that they have
to undergo the tedious process of memorising the names of new seeds, a process that
erases existing knowledge of and stories about local seeds. How do we locate these
experiences – the sentiments and anxieties – that are oen omitted in the dominant
narrative of state policies and visions? Policy documents from the state government in
Nagaland to transform agriculture includes zoning the hill state and its eleven districts
into monocropping sites alongside jhum cultivation and other seasonal crops. ese
images are meaningful because they indicate a vision of the state and invite us to see
the future of these hill states.6
More importantly, these initiatives atten out a rich ecological environment and
produce a knowledge that opposes existing diversity of crops including seeds and
shoots. e connection between ecological knowledge and lived reality is integral for
societies that emerge from violence. For instance, in post-apartheid South Africa, part
of envisioning a new future for the country also meant dening new environmental
politics and policy changes (Comaro & Comaro ). A similar transformation is
taking place in Nagaland. Against the backdrop of the Indo-Naga ceasere which has
been in place since , development programmes have focused on entrepreneurship
and an economically viable agriculture. Yet, redening the focus of agriculture for up-
land indigenous communities in Nagaland means addressing divergent cultural and
political perceptions about agricultural practices.
is means, among other things, that conversations about agriculture on the
James Scott draws our attention to the politics of state governance and notes how grand
schemes of the modern nation states oen fail. Asserting the importance of locally grounded
knowledge and practices, Scott describes how state planning places its faith in science and
authority, erasing the interdependence of grounded practice and state schemes (Scott ).
kvhaa konferenser 104
ground is oen polarised. Government agencies glorify jhum practices in Naga society
as cultural symbols but condemn them as unscientic methods with low productivity
yields. In contrast, the government initiatives to promote commercial cropping within
the state are promoted as scientic and market-friendly projects. As an anthropologist
tracing the government’s vision for a commercially viable agriculture in the uplands of
Nagaland, I came across cultivators, ocials, and students training to become Agricul-
tural Field Assistants, who all invoked seeds to underline dierent kinds of grievances
and anxieties. ese dierent and conicting stories are seldom visible in government
brochures and agricultural expositions organized by the state. By adopting seed stories
through the voices of these dierent groups in the following sections, this ethnograph-
ic essay elaborates on what Kull and Rangan call “associated bundles of knowledge” –
that are indicative of a larger political worldview (Kull & Rangan , ).
Crop zoning is a state policy in Nagaland. is initiative was introduced to transform
the agricultural economy of the hill state. When I interviewed an ocial in the De-
partment of Agriculture in , he explained the crop-zoning programme as follows:
Crop zoning has come up in the state. Earlier for example, or years ago, things were
dierent, but now crop zoning manages the districts. We see how districts in Nagaland are
suited for dierent types of crops. Accordingly, the Department has made a zone system. is
has gone on for the last ten years. is crop zoning is driven to transform from jhum to com-
mercial cropping. Suppose I distribute seeds to district X, which is not useful for that soil and
altitude, then it is no use. So, according to the crop type and places where the level of farm-
ers can come up to certain level, the Department makes a programme to distribute seeds.
ere are no particular ocers who are in charge of this, but this is a policy of the Depart-
ment of Agriculture. e District Agricultural Ocer and the Sub-Division Agricultural Ocer,
based on the district and areas, are suggesting to the Department what are the good crops in their
respective districts. e District Agricultural Ocer knows what is best for the district, so he
makes a decision. Take kholar7 (beans) for example. ere are two seasons, one is February and
the other season is in August. Aer we buy kholar seeds from the kholar-growing villages, we do
not re-distribute the seeds throughout the districts. We only give it free of cost to Mokokchung,
Kiphire, Longleng, Zunheboto, and Phek districts because the crop needs a high-altitude climate.
ere is no point giving it to farmers in the foothill areas.
ere are various types of kidney beans known as kholar beans grown across the uplands of
Nagaland, recognised as an indigenous food item. ey are grown abundantly in Tuensang
nagaland-together/ [accessed January ].
e crop-zoning policy to develop commercial agriculture was dependent on seed
distribution activities across the eleven districts of Nagaland. While these plans were
neatly drawn up at the department level, they were not implemented on the ground.
An agricultural ocer described the current seed distribution activity as “unsatisfac-
tory”, and said:
It is not carried out well. e central government gives us seeds for distribution, but maximum
agricultural activities are carried out in the hilly areas; around in the uplands, and only
in the low-lying areas like the foothills. You cannot use those hybrid seeds in the uplands, so
cultivators have to go for the old seeds. Seed distribution is just in papers.
When I was conducting interviews with cultivators and ocials from the Department
of Agriculture, the seed distribution programme in Nagaland faced several challenges
on the ground but appeared as an organised policy in the departmental manuals and
guidelines. Some ocials were critical of the hybrid seed programme. Beneath the
stories of seeds and elevations, there were other concerns. An agriculture ocer noted
that hybrid seeds and fertilisers were economically viable only for big states like Ma-
harashtra and Punjab which were invested in large-scale commercial cropping. In Na-
galand, the land-holding system – a mix of communal and private ownership – would
not allow for commercialisation of agriculture unless the communal land-holding
system was converted to individual land ownership. But others in the government
ignored the land-holding system and the dierent cultivation calendar, and blamed
the failure of the hybrid seeds programmes on the lack of scientic knowledge among
the cultivators. Complaining about the existing conditions, one of the ocers said,
“ese (referring to the scientic methods of cultivation) are not new. Farmers know
it but they are not willing to adopt it. ey say, itu alchi ase (is is boring)”. He went
on to describe how cultivators did not connect with the Department’s initiatives such
as training programmes, support networks, and awareness workshops. is disengage-
ment, according to him, was due to the cultivators’ lack of knowledge about scientic
cultivation. He said:
See, for example, in cases of wet rice cultivation, when farmers are transplanting the crop to a fresh
portion of the eld, if we don’t teach them how to do it, they might put eight or nine seedlings
there – that is according to their will. at will spoil the crop. at is not the scientic way to do
it. If we don’t guide the farmers they will plant their crops in [a] haphazard manner; one here,
one there; here and then there.
Drawing invisible grids on the table to illustrate a scientic rice eld, he explained the
unscientic method of farming in the hills. His hand curled up into a st, it hopped
and skipped all over the table making a thok-thok-thok noise to demonstrate how the
kvhaa konferenser 104
current methods of cultivation were chaotic and without any order. e purpose of
the hybrid seeds was to “defeat” the local seeds. Pitched as high-yielding, they were
capable of producing three-fold more than the local seeds. But unlike the hybrid seeds
which required scientic care and supervision, the local seeds were wild and unruly.
Far from the haphazard and confused pattern of cultivation, a female cultivator
from Yimpang village believed that the slash-and-burn method of cultivation was
highly organised. She took me to her granary and explained that jhum cultivators
followed a system of planning centred around seasons and sustainability of the crops.
Like many cultivators, at the beginning of the jhum cycle she carefully selected dif-
ferent seeds, mixed them up on the palm of her hand, and sowed them in the elds.
What appeared as chaotic in the eyes of the ocial described above, was in reality a
synchrony of dierent seasonal crops (Scott ). is farmer described how crop-
ping cycles in the jhum elds sustained many families in her village:
For most of the year, we get everything from the eld. Starting in the summer season and continu-
ing until winter, dierent vegetables and fruits sowed at the start of the cycle become ready for
harvest, so that there is plenty of food until December and January. Even aer the jhum cycle is
over and the cultivators start to clear other patches of land for cultivation, they continue to visit
the old jhum sites to collect remaining vegetables and fruits. Actually, people buy vegetables in
the market only between March and April. During this time, the kitchen garden (where beans
and vegetables are grown) also provides food.
It appeared that the local seeds in the jhum elds oen became representatives of the
cultivators on the ground. Ocials, for instance, drew analogies of the low-yielding
jhum seeds with the perceived low-understanding capacity of the cultivators. is
was not unusual. Portraying cultivators as people lagging behind development and
progress was a theme that emerged in government schemes and projects focused
on agriculture and livelihood (Kikon ). But ocials I met during my eldwork
praised the hybrid seeds as harbingers of science and progress. Technicians, scientists,
and resources from the Department of Agriculture were employed to supervise the
cultivators on the ground. e future of agriculture, as ocials in the Department
professed, was not only high-yielding seeds but also the mechanisation of agriculture.
e benet from such projects, ocials noted, was to move away from subsistence
cultivation. “With a pharwa (spade) and dao (machete), one can sustain a family,
but we need mechanisation of agriculture for surplus production”, one ocial said.
e government of Nagaland gave out numerous subsidies to buy tractors and other
machines for agriculture. According to another ocial, the agricultural activities such
as workshops, training, and awareness campaigns to promote hybrid seeds failed to
have an impact because, “People have to see the practical aspects. It is like this. Some
are willing to follow Jesus only by looking at the photo. But others will tell me, ‘Show
me the Bible verses and explain the miracles, and then I will follow.’ Until then they
might not be convinced”.
Seed stories are centred around “government seeds” and “our seeds”. Villagers of
Anaki Yimsen, an Ao village with households in Mokokchung district, described
how the quality of rice was poor because of the high limestone and sand content in
the soil. So they concentrated on rubber, yams, and seasonal vegetables. In , the
Department of Agriculture sent an ocial letter to the village instructing them to col-
lect hybrid beans and maize seeds from the district headquarters. e villagers refused.
A village elder explained, “e seeds are all mixed with chemicals, that is why we do
not take them. We keep our own seeds. Whatever we produce, we keep aside a portion
of the seeds for the next season.”
When I visited villages in Wokha and Mokokchung districts, residents invited me
to their homes and showed me their seed collections. Wrapped up in old newspa-
pers, stored in bamboo baskets, smoked and dried above the replace in the kitchen,
dried and strung together from the ceiling above their beds, spread out on wooden
chairs in the storage room behind the kitchen, stored in empty whisky and rum bot-
tles, and lined up on the kitchen cabinets: seeds stored in every possible way. Dier-
ent colours, sizes, and shapes of seeds all stored away for the appropriate season of
sowing. Seeds travelled with people and communities. Tales of migration, marriages,
friendships, and reconciliation all contained seeds. Clan members and kin groups
carried seeds with them when they migrated to new settlements. During a discussion
about agriculture I had with the pastor of Yonlok village in Nagaland, he said: “We
have stored seeds from the very beginning. When we came to start the new village,
we brought our seeds from our hilltop village.” Knowledge about seeds, people, and
farming all travelled together.
e connection between seeds and the people was perceived as a moral and ethical
relationship that was connected to regeneration, mobility, and security. e emphasis
“from the very beginning” was an assertion that Naga villagers had lived and cultivated
long before modern state institutions like the Department of Agriculture came into
their lives. e resistance against the introduction of hybrid seeds and against doing
away with the old seeds must be understood in this context. A dialogue is needed to
recognise community histories and local knowledge about seeds. Gradually move-
ments on the ground have developed where communities invite government depart-
ments to share and listen to their stories and to recognise the disappearance and loss
of indigenous seeds at an alarming rate. Since , the Sustainable Development Fo-
kvhaa konferenser 104
rum Nagaland, an alliance of stakeholders in Nagaland, has organised the Heritage
Seeds and Cultural Festival in Mokokchung district. Advocating diversity, unity, and
resilience, the festival calls for the co-production of knowledge and envisions a fu-
ture where stakeholders and policy-makers recognise the multiple practices of agro-
biodiversity primarily focused on seeds. e theme of this festival focuses on seeds
as keepers of culture and history, and connects the indigenous community’s heritage
with seeds. An organiser of the festival believes that the loss of seeds leads to the loss
of knowledge that is associated in keeping and managing the seed. is in turn leads
to the disappearance of language and words that are associated with the management
Fig. 1. Diversity of corn in the Heritage Seeds and Culture Festival in Mokokchung district. Photograph by
of the seeds. More than that, organizers reminisced how elders and participants in the
Heritage Seeds and Culture Festival invoked neighbouring villages and communities
as they traced the stories of seeds (Figs. 1 & 2). In other words, seed stories highlight
histories of community ties and relations.
On the ground, as sensibilities around seeds and histories emerged, ocials tried to
attract cultivators towards hybrid seeds by underlining how the characteristics of hy-
brid seeds were similar to the local seeds. When I encountered an ocial from Wokha
district in Nagaland at a meeting with cultivators, he said: “Once we distribute the
high-yielding variety and you start using it in your own soil and climate, it becomes
almost like the local seed.” But this was not attractive enough to cultivators. A woman
from a Lotha village told me: “We got some soya bean seeds from the government
and planted them, but they did not sprout. We heard the same story from our neigh-
bouring elds.” She connected the story of failed hybrid seeds with corruption and
bad governance. Just like the personalities of corrupt and dishonest government of-
cials and politicians, the hybrid seeds were considered as chemically generated enti-
ties that would contaminate the local soil and agricultural practices. ose who re-
Fig. 2. Diversity of seeds in the Heritage Seeds and Culture Festival in Mokokchung district. Photograph by
kvhaa konferenser 104
sponded to the Department of Agriculture’s call to collect hybrid seeds were a group
of villagers from Yimpang. According to them, the nearest seed collection oce was
an eight-hour walk through the mountains from the village. It was located in the town
of Bhandari, a sub-division headquarter in Wokha district. When the Yimpang culti-
vators arrived in Bhandari, they found that the seed distribution oce was closed, so
they returned home empty-handed. On their second visit, they learned that the seed
distribution ocer-in-charge had gone o to the next town for some work. Since the
journey to and from took up so much of their time, they eventually gave up on collect-
ing the government’s seeds.
When I asked an ocial why most cultivators were le out of the seed distribution
system, he explained that a particular day was xed for training and demonstration,
and whoever made it on that particular day, received the seeds. “What happens in
case there is no proper communication in an area, and they do not get the message?” I
asked. e ocial replied: “Information in the form of a letter is sent to all the village
councils, addressed to the village secretary or maybe the village headman. Not even a
single village is le out. e village will send someone to collect the seeds. Sometimes,
when they don’t turn up it means they don’t want the seeds. We don’t discriminate
against any village or any farmers.”
It might seem that cultivators were given a choice to use or reject hybrid seeds, but
there was a strong pressure, almost a moral obligation, to accept the hybrid seeds given
by the state. For any state subsidies or agricultural projects/grants, the cultivators were
obligated to adopt the state vision of implementing commercially viable agricultural
projects on the ground. is meant, among other things, embracing the hybrid seeds
and rejecting the old ways of sowing and storing local seeds. But the logistical challenges
of distributing hybrid seeds and the absence of mountain infrastructure in the state was
a real issue. Yet, the most convenient ocial explanation about the existing state of agri-
culture was a cultural one. “Naga people are very resistant to new technolog y and know-
ledge the state is trying to give them through the Department of Agriculture. ey want
to stick to their culture and tradition. Our culture and tradition revolve around jhum
cultivation,” an agricultural ocial said. e cultivators’ rejection of hybrid seeds and
other cash-crop initiatives were interpreted as a refusal to give up a “cultural” practice.
Yet, in reality what these stories highlighted was a deep failure of the state agencies to
deal with broader issues of indigenous knowledge systems and the absence of adopting
cultivators as stakeholders. e issue was not about taking a position for or against the
use of hybrid seeds, but rather to consider how cultivators who had switched to hybrid
seeds were extremely anxious because they were unable to sow the seeds again in the
elds. Although the high-yielding seeds delivered a rich harvest, the cultivators became
increasingly dependent on buying hybrid seeds from the market.
e cultural explanation, furthermore, overlooked the history of militarisation,
charges of corruption levied at state ocials, and the absence of schools and infrastruc-
ture across the districts. ere were no paved roads in many villages across the hills of
Nagaland. Cultivators walked for several hours to sell a basket of yams or papayas in
the weekly haats (markets). I also learned that subsides, grants, and other schemes were
distributed by politicians as gis to their supporters and seldom distributed fairly to
cultivators in the villages. It was peculiar how cultivators were made to shoulder the
responsibility of progress but were simultaneously identied as culprits resisting devel-
opment and progress. e cultivators’ resistance to give up jhum cultivation was more
than a “cultural thing”. Jhum cultivation practices were connected to the larger social
and political history of their village, neighbours, friends, and families, and dened
them as a group and people. Pushing them to give up subsistence agriculture and em-
brace commercial farming was equivalent to asking them to embrace dierent moral
standards and economic habits. Agricultural projects in several villages failed because
the seasonal calendar of the cultivators clashed with the standardised two-season crop
cycle in India – the kharif (summer crop) and rabi (winter crop). In order to address
these challenges, the Department of Agriculture focused on imparting scientic and
technological training to the next generation of farmers in the state. e team who
would represent the state and work with the cultivators in this great agricultural trans-
formation would be the Agricultural Field Assistants.
During my eldwork in , an ocial at the district headquarter in the town of
Mon dened the relation between the Agriculture Field Assistant (AFA) and the
cultivators as a “seed-to-seed” bonding. He said:
Even aer the farmers get the seeds and sow them and the seeds germinate, the AFA and the
farmers will stay in constant touch. is is the concept of “seed-to-seed”. Aer the farmers are
given seeds, the seeds germinate, and there is a harvest. Aer that, the post-harvest technolog y is
implemented. [roughout these processes] the connection between the AFA and the farmers
will be there. Any time the farmers need help and training, we (AFA and the Department) pro-
vide it. In the wet rice cultivation system, even during the transplantation system, we teach them
how to sow the seeds, and tell them how many kilos of seeds are to be sown.
e Agriculture Field Assistants are employees of the Department of Agriculture
and described as the link between the Department and the cultivators. e ocial
e AFAs work at the village level, so they are supposed to be based in the village. ey are the
connecting poles. ey are the connection between the farmer and the Department. So any kind
kvhaa konferenser 104
of important information about seeds and agriculture, or any important activity that is to be held
in that area, is the responsibility of the AFAs to communicate to all the villages under his [or hers]
jurisdiction. Based on the household and the area, they are given responsibilities – according to
the size of the village and households. As humans, there are discrepancies and loopholes in the
way we function, but of seeds are reaching the farmers.
Described by ocials from the Department of Agriculture as the bearer of informa-
tion, seeds, and technical support, the AFAs lived in the villages and worked closely
with the cultivators. ey conducted workshops and training and were known to the
cultivators. Yet, when I enquired about the presence of the AFAs in the villages, cul-
tivators laughed. ey said, “We do not know where they are.” When I tried to meet
with a group of AFAs in Mon, they enquired, “What do you want to know? Why do
you want to talk to us?” Sounding anxious, they interrogated me before making an
appointment. e following day they failed to show up for the appointment. When
I called up an AFA on a mobile number he had given me, he sounded inebriated. He
apologised and said, “ere has been an accident, so we are all in the hospital.” I heard
riotous laughter in the background as he spoke to me. He too began to chuckle and
muttered “Sorry, sorry,” before hanging up the phone.
Curious to nd out more about the AFAs and their job prole, I made a trip to the
Integrated Extension Training Centre in Medziphema. Established during the for-
mation of the state in , the objective of the Centre was to impart training to eld
workers, ocers, and farming communities across Nagaland. Enrolled in a two-year
diploma course, the AFA students at the Centre were required to equip themselves
with aptitude, knowledge, and skills.8 e Centre shared the campus with the School
of Agricultural Sciences and Rural Development, commonly known as the Agricul-
ture University of Nagaland. e Centre was part of the Department of Agriculture
and the Department’s ocials were oen sent to the Centre as teachers. According to
the teachers, only the brightest students who scored top grades were qualied to apply
for a government job in the Department.
During my visit in –, teachers at the training centre said that a large num-
ber of students training to become AFAs had completed only high school. I learned
that many students joined the AFA training programme with the hope of securing
government employment. Across Nagaland, as in many parts of India, government
jobs are highly coveted because they are regarded as prestigious and secure. Every AFA
student I met had a similar aspiration. Sharing a classroom with their fellow students,
many students shared stories about poverty, and the pressure from their respective
families to secure government employment. ere were limited seats at the training
https://agriculture.nagaland.gov.in/ietc/ [accessed November ].
centre and oen parents and relatives requested politicians and bureaucrats to exercise
their inuence to get their wards into the AFA training programme. Employment was
the primary goal and everything else, including agriculture, came into the picture later,
I gradually learned as I spent time with the students and the teachers.
“Twenty years ago, there was less interest in becoming an AFA. Who would want to
become an AFA? But now there are so many people who want to study and become
AFAs. Even graduates want to apply for this course now,” a teacher at the training
centre said. During their two-year training, in a programme designed by the Depart-
ment of Agriculture, the students are taught about scientic agriculture systems. e
programme is taught in English and focuses half on theory and half on practical eld-
work. For the practical sessions, students are allotted individual patches of land and
provided with seeds to grow dierent kinds of vegetables. Each patch is marked with
the student’s name, the name of the vegetable, and the student’s enrolment num-
ber. ey were all judged according to who grew the best vegetables, who sowed well,
which student was best in weeding, and the best applicator of fertilisers.
During my visit to the IETC in Medziphema, two teachers organised an interac-
tive session one weekend. Eight students joined us for a conversation about the pro-
gramme. Aer we introduced ourselves, I asked them how they learned about the pro-
gramme and what motivated them to become AFAs. “Are your parents cultivators?
Is that why you want to be AFAs?” I enquired. “Some students have diplomas,” one
teacher commented. A female student described her diploma. “I was trained as a beau-
tician, but now I am doing this course since I also took a diploma in entrepreneurship.
I nd it interesting, but I am not used to farming. I have never done it before, so it is
hard. I am learning how to make gardens,” e second teacher interjected: “If these
students do not get jobs aer this course, they have to do their own business such as o-
riculture, poultry, piggery. ey can become big farmers, progressive farmers, and be-
come businesspeople.” When I returned to the IETC campus in to visit the new
batch of AFA students, their aspiration remained the same: all of them were interested
to secure government employment. e eldwork visit to the AFA campus was
interesting because my conversations with the current batch of AFA students led me
to reect on my earlier eldnotes. Approximately ten years earlier, I had written down
a detailed interaction with the students. For instance, when I enquired how students
learnt about the course, they took turn and shared:
kvhaa konferenser 104
Student : “I have an interest in business so I am here.”
Student : “My parents put me here. e training is dicult.”
Student : “My parents asked me if I was interested and I was happy to join this course.”
Student : “Parents.”
Student : “My father is in the Department of Agriculture, so I heard about it from him.”
Student : “Parents. I am a graduate.”
Student : “Parents got me here.”
Student : “My uncle got me here.”
“He is a Korean star. She is a model.” Students in teased one another about their
clothing and hairstyles as they discussed their lives. ey were aged between and
years and they wore jeans, colourful shirts, scarves around their necks, and leather
bracelets. e girls carried colourful bags and wore makeup. Some students had tat-
toos on their arms and highlights in their hair. As the teasing continued among the
students, one of the teachers commented: “It is a disciplined life here.” She appeared
annoyed with the behaviour of the students. Soon, she began to moderate our discus-
sion and stressed how the programme was designed to transform lives of the AFA stu-
dents, just as hybrid seeds were to transform the future of the Naga farmers. Referring
to the fashionable appearance of the students in the room, she illustrated the untamed
nature of recent entrants and described the challenges of disciplining the students:
ey come to the institute quite wild. ey have been out of school for quite some time, and
they are used to freedom. Once they come here, at least, I make it an eort to also guide them
along a spiritual path. You see, it is all about disciplining them. e AFA training is an intensive
two-year course, and it is actually a life-changing course. We make sure they go out to the eld
and clear the jungle, weed the farm, and learn how to use the tools and implements. As teachers,
we know that the students really suer, but they have to learn that way …the AFA is a wholesome
e “wild nature” of the students and their limited academic qualications also posed
challenges for the teachers. “[I] have a Master’s degree in Agricultural Sciences,” a
teacher said. She continued:
See, the Bachelor of Science students [at the University of Agriculture] are easier to handle. At
least they have [a] science background in their + education. ey understand the science
terminology we use, so we are not starting from scratch. But in the case of the AFA trainees, we
have to bring them to zero, and then teach them everything from the beginning.
e dedication of the teachers towards the students was inspiring. However, when I
enquired as to why the training centre accepted students with limited academic quali-
cations, the teachers explained that it was the Department of Agriculture’s policy
not to take any graduate students for the programme because of “bad experiences”.
One of them said it was due to a “clash of interest” and explained:
Imagine the Agricultural Field Assistant and the Sub Divisional Ocer are both graduates. e
AFA will try to show that he or she is an equal, or at least that their educational qualications are
same. We consider graduates overqualied for this work. e AFA should be able to take instruc-
tions and follow orders of the Deputy Agriculture Ocers and the Sub Divisional Agriculture
More than the issue about authority and hierarchy, what transpired at the IETC
campus was the challenge of training AFAs about scientic methods of farming. If
the teachers found it extremely challenging to handle the students because they had
to spell out every single word and constantly write explanations on the blackboard,
the students equally struggled to learn about scientic methods, seeds and agriculture.
During my visit to the campus in , the instructor informed me that many stu-
dents came from the social sciences, and struggled with the science subjects. A male
student commented, “I do not t here. I am not interested in this course but I am here
because of my parents”.
In , I followed students to their allotted farms. Once the teachers were out of
sight, the students began to discuss the challenges they faced. Daisy, a -year-old rst-
year student, showed me her allotted farm and said that aer six months she knew the
scientic name of only one vegetable, Raphanus sativus. “What is that?” I enquired,
and she replied “radish”. Why would the scientic name of radish or for that matter
any other vegetable become an integral part of the AFA programme? I wondered. An-
other female student replied:
It is very dicult. In the hostel we joke around and invent scientic names for our daily activities.
When we have a headache, we say that we have headachology, when we are bored we say we are
dealing with borology. What is the dierence? If we add an “(o)logy” to all our activities, they
immediately sound scientic.
I had the opportunity to interact with female students regarding their curriculum in
, and again during my visit in . Almost a decade apart, yet their experiences
were similar, although there had been a signicant transformation in terms of the
infrastructure of the campus. In , for example, boys and girls lived separately in
simple dormitories made from old, converted government quarters. e rooms were
sparsely furnished except for a bed and table for each student, and the students cooked
their own food. “See, the funds are very limited, so last time we gave them corn seeds,
and with the production of maize there was good harvest. In one harvest, they sold
maize worth , rupees ( USD). With that money, we bought them a satellite
kvhaa konferenser 104
television,” a teacher told me. e Department supplied seeds for their practical ses-
sions, and the teachers sold the harvest from the experimental farms to improve the
facilities of the students. e Centre did not aim to generate any revenue, but was tak-
ing up these projects to teach the students how to value agriculture and also recognise
that their hard work did not go in vain.
By , in contrast, there were concrete buildings and the hostels had proper
study and living areas and recreation spaces, as well as proper toilets and shower ar-
eas with water supply (Figs. 3 & 4). Yet, the hostels appeared to be overcrowded. e
AFA training programme was in high demand, and the current batch of approxi-
mately students was the highest in the last decade. In addition, the Department
of Agriculture had removed the requirement for students to have basic knowledge of
natural sciences in their high school curriculum. e majority of the students spent
time reading, but their favourite part of the programme was sketching agricultural
tools and implements. Many of them also spent time nding ways to adapt to the
AFA student life.
Fig. 3. Hostel corridor. Photograph by
During my eldwork in , I asked some young women how they spent their
leisure time in the dormitory. ey described it was dicult to apply any makeup
and to maintain clean nails. “We had to switch to darker shades of nail polish since
we have to be very active in our model farms for our practical classes. A dark shade
of nail polish – but we made sure to apply two to three coats.” Applying two to three
coats of nail polish kept the nail polish intact for longer, and hid the dirt and cracks.
Although students were serious about the AFA programme, their focus was not on ag-
riculture but rather on the employment opportunity that came with the programme.
Every study table was stacked with books, and on the wall above each table was pasted
hand-written timetables and lists of scientic names of seeds and plants, meant to help
prepare for weekly quizzes. “It is all about memorising and memorising,” one student
commented. Many had beautiful pencil sketches of farming tools and machinery on
their notebooks. e notebook of one female student had neat charts and beautiful
diagrams of plants and seeds with descriptions about the functions of the machines.
When I enquired about her diagrams, she said “My village does not own such ma-
Fig. 4. Hostel dormitory. Photograph
by Dolly Kikon.
Fig. 6. Student notebook with diagrams. Photograph by Dolly Kikon.
Fig. 5. Student notebook with diagram. Photograph by Dolly Kikon.
chines”. “What do you feel about these heavy agricultural machines?” I continued. She
replied: “Aliens.” (Figs. 5 & 6).
ere was a disjuncture between what the technical programme oered and how
the students absorbed the training. But the magnitude of the gap between the class-
room courses and the students surfaced when students talked about the seasons. Rath-
er than referring to them in the language of the agricultural cycle of sowing and har-
vesting, the students instead talked about the manner in which the seasons brought
about various kinds of bodily ailments. eir bodies suered as they worked in their
allotted farms during their practical class. January and February were dicult seasons
since it was windy. ey also suered from all kinds of allergies. During this season,
aer every practical class in their model farms, they always came back to their dormi-
tory with rashes on their bodies. eir routine aer working in the eld during this
season was to mix drops of Dettol solution in a bucket of water and wash their bodies
and then take antihistamine tablets.
“See our hands are all sore and swollen.” Students showed me their palms with red
blisters and calloused skin. While the Department portrayed them as the “link” be-
tween the cultivators and the government, the students predominantly came from ur-
ban areas and were ignorant about agriculture. Scientic agriculture, binomial names
of plants and seeds, and the functions of dierent kinds of mechanised farming equip-
ment were all part of the curriculum, but were far removed from the lives of students.
Local knowledge and names of seeds, plants, and indigenous stories about ecology
and worldviews were kept outside the classrooms on campus. In this process of trans-
forming agriculture in the upland state of Nagaland, seeds were something that had
become scary and foreign.
e stories above, elicited through conversations with government ocials, cultiva-
tors, and students, draw our attention to the ongoing agricultural transformation and
development models in the upland state of Nagaland. As I have illustrated in this
essay, among ocials in Nagaland, the gure of the cultivator reinforces and valorises
colonial and post-colonial stereotypes of a retrograde, primitive, and backward tribal
person. I have also tried to depict how seed stories allow us to reect about human
relationships and histories of communities in the uplands of north-east India. More
importantly, seed stories highlight sites of contestations and challenges among indig-
enous communities experiencing agricultural transformation. In that context, seeds
are not solely about one’s capacity to grow food and practices of interdependence,
but also about the role of the state in introducing “scientic methods” of agricultural
kvhaa konferenser 104
practices and focusing on high-yielding crops. e eradication of local seeds, as I have
noted in the essay, and the supply of (and resistance to) hybrid seeds invites us to pay
attention to concerns that are oen dismissed under the rhetoric of jhum cultivators
as ignorant and lazy communities unwilling to change their way of life. e fears and
anxieties about hybrid seeds, the belittling of cultivators by government ocials, and
the struggles of AFA students to adopt a dierent epistemology of seeds and agri-
culture as opposed to an existing practice, reects how contemporary politics and
governance among indigenous communities are entangled with seeds.
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