Chhattisgarh-based Leelaram Sahu has been growing brinjals since 1988. He developed the new and improved 'Niranjan Bhata' variety of brinjal that is now being grown by farmers across India with his help.
Often described as a ‘poor man’s vegetable’, the brinjal is popular amongst marginal growers. But almost every household in India—regardless of food preferences, income levels and social status—has eaten the vegetable also known as Solanum melongena.
Low in calories and high in nutrition, it has a very high water content and is a very good source of fibre, calcium, phosphorus, folate, and Vitamins B and C.
India is the second-largest grower of brinjal after China, as it is an important cash crop for over 1.4 million small, marginal and resource-poor farmers. A hardy crop that yields well even under drought conditions, it is grown in almost all parts of the country. West Bengal, Orissa, Gujarat Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Bihar are the major brinjal producing states.
Perhaps the most versatile crop in the vegetable world, brinjal has adapted to different agro-climatic regions and displays a wide range of fruit shapes and colours, ranging from oval or egg-shaped to long club-shaped; and from white, yellow, green through degrees of purple pigmentation to almost black.
There are over 66 known brinjal hybrid varieties, including Pusa Purple Long, Pusa Purple Cluster, Azad Kranti, Arka Keshav, Arka Shirish, and Pusa Hybrid — ranging from 10 to 25 cm.
But a Chhattisgarh-based farmer has grown a unique variety of brinjal that grows 46 cm in length. “I even had ones which were 60cms long but chose not to introduce them as I felt that it would not be easily accepted and difficult to market,” says Leelaram Sahu.
The 60-year-old has developed the brinjal variety named Niranjan Bhata from a traditional brinjal variety. Though brinjal is known as baingan in the Hindi-speaking belt, in Chhattisgarh it is called bhata — hence the name.
Its USP, the farmer says, is that it softens and dissolves once cooked, and has fewer seeds.
Sahu’s innovation has earned him the Plant Genome Saviour Award by the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority (PPV&FRA) New Delhi.
‘Smooth Like Butter’
He developed it by mass selection—a breeding method where the genetic values of individual plants are estimated and then based on these estimates selected to be the parents of the following generation—from a traditional variety conserved by his forefathers. “I have been cultivating the traditional brinjal variety since 1988 but started this selection in 2010. It took me another three years to develop the variety, all along keeping in mind its length, spine on stem and calyx, tolerance to pests and disease and number of fruits per plant,” informs Sahu.
A resident of Dhuma village in Kurud tehsil of Dhamtari district in Chhattisgarh, Sahu cultivates various crops throughout the year, like paddy, turmeric, gram, black-gram, vegetables, and other local crops on his family’s 7.5 acres. As his village regularly encountered water scarcity, Sahu voluntarily built several check dams which have led to increased irrigation in his and the neighbouring farmers’ fields. One who believes in growing traditional crop varieties and pursuing organic cultivation practices, Sahu’s achievements in organic farming have been highlighted in the NCERT textbook for Class 6 to 8.
For seven years now, Dhuma’s 150-households have been beneficiaries of Sahu’s innovative brinjal variety, and it is grown in 40-odd acres (most landholdings here are between 2.5 acres to five acres). Cultivating twice a year, the brinjal growers make between Rs 35 to Rs 40 a kg.
In 2016, Niranjan Bhata went on trial in six states at the instance of NIF-India and received encouraging responses. For instance, in Nandurbar in Maharashtra farmers, Ramesh Pawara and Jaysing Pawara of Bhujgaon village in the Satpura range grew it in their kitchen gardens with 50 plants each yielding 5kgs of fruits. “Initially, they struggled to make any sale due to the brinjal’s size and colour. But as word went around about its taste and quality, they sold their entire harvest and made around Rs 8,000,” says Padmakar Chandrabhan Kunde, scientist, Plant Protection, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Nandurbar. “I too was amazed by its taste and realised that once cooked it dissolved like butter.”
Niranjan Bhata is resistant to major insects and pests compared to the other varieties. “Here in Chhattisgarh, we are not much exposed to chemical pesticides and use organic methods, like neem-based pesticides and also broadcast the field with ash from the hearth,” says Sahu, honoured with a State award by the President of India during Festival of Innovation-2017, organised by the National Innovation Foundation (NIF)-India.
NIF supported Sahu for the variety’s on-site evaluation by the Department of Vegetable Science, Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwavidyalaya (IGKV) Raipur, Chhattisgarh, and confirmed its length (45-60 cm), fruit quality and lower susceptibility to pest attack and disease. It also facilitated its trials in other states, namely West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala, Nagaland, Manipur, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. For instance, its performance in a farmer’s field in Gujarat had excellent results with the fruit achieving an average length of 1.5 to 1.7 feet.
Seeds of Niranjan Bhata were distributed to four farmers in Manipur in 2016. According to Laishram Yelhounganba Khuman, Innovation Fellow at NIF-India, its fruit size was considerably larger as compared to a local brinjal variety. “Though the infestation of Fusarium wilt and stem borer were observed, which could be due to the quality of soil and season, however, its fruit was fleshy, remained soft and contained lesser seeds even during the maturation stage,” he states.
Niranjan Bhata has found new takers in the southern states where it can be grown all year round. A farmer from Tiruchanapally in Tamil Nadu who has been growing the variety for three years now told Sahu that when used in sambhar the variety “melts and makes the gravy thicker”. While a farmer in Jatpur in Raigarh district, bordering Odisha, who planted it on a half-acre plot, had plants reaching a height of 12 ft. The said farmer not only made a handsome amount selling the vegetable in the neighbouring state but disposed of the crop remains, used as fuelwood, for an additional Rs 18,000.
A conservator at heart, Sahu has built a seed vault at home and is working on breeding newer varieties of paddy, turmeric and cluster beans. Rather than outsource the germplasm to seed companies, Sahu prefers to sell the seeds of Niranjan Bhata to individual growers and regularly interacts with them to know about its performance and even offers guidance on the agronomic practices to be followed.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)