On a recent May morning, Sebastian Joseph is hard at work on his 1.5-acre (around 65,000 sq. ft) plot of land in the Kattapana hills of Idukki, Kerala. It’s a small field and Joseph, who has been a farmer all his life, manages and works on it himself. This morning, he is dressed in a lungi, a coloured and patterned piece of cloth worn like a sarong that is popular across south India, and a shirt. His face is weather-worn and creased and he looks like any of India’s multitude of small landholders who eke a meagre livelihood out of agriculture (which he is), not like the man who changed the face of cardamom farming in India—which, too, he is.
In the 1990s, Joseph developed the Njallani, a variety of cardamom that now accounts for 70% of all of the spice, some 11,250 tonnes in 2006, grown in India.
Cardamom grows wild in the rain-fed forests of the Western Ghats, largely in Kerala and a bit of Karnataka. Much of the world’s supply came from these natural growing plantations of the spice, until the British chose to established organized plantations of the crop in the 1800s in Kerala and other parts of the country where they already had coffee plantations. Until Joseph came up with the Njallani, though, conventional yield per hectare (around 2.5 acres) of the crop was 200-250kg. Njallani increased that to 1,500kg.
J. Thomas, director of the Indian Cardamom Research Institute (Icri) at Myladumpara in Kerala, describes Joseph’s contribution to cardamom cultivation in India as “simply great” and says that it is partly because of him that the country now has a “major place in global cardamom cultivation” after Guatemala.
In 2006, the global market in the spice was around 40,000 tonnes, of which the Central American country accounted for 68% and India 30%. Thomas adds that the Njallani variety accounts for 90% of the crop grown in Idukki.
Pollinating an idea
Joseph was born in Pala in the Kottayam district of Kerala to parents who were agricultural labourers. He grew up poor, dropped out of school after Class IV and took to odd-jobs on other people’s fields. He migrated to Kattapana in 1953 after his marriage. He bought some land, built a small house, in which he still lives, and tried his hand at growing rice, banana and tapioca, but nothing worked till he picked cardamom.
The spice didn’t make him rich, but it helped him raise his four sons —three of them have moved out, but the youngest, Roy, still lives with his parents.
Joseph discovered Njallani by accident. He has an apiary on his farm; bee-keeping, he thought, would bring in additional income. The bees helped cross-pollinate different varieties of cardamom on his farm and Joseph’s idea was born watching them do that. He isolated varieties that had emerged from cross-pollination (through the simple expedient of throwing a net over them to prevent the bees from sullying the strain) and marked each of them. He then counted the output of these plants, in terms of number of cardamom berries, or capsules. He picked the high-yielding varieties among these, and cross-pollinated them. A decade later, he developed a variety that produces 120-150 berries (per plant) compared with the 30-40 of normal varieties. He named this Njallani, his family name. Icri confirms the variety yields more than traditional varieties.
Joseph also came up with a radical way of growing cardamom. For years, farmers had planted seedlings and waited at least three years for their first crop. He planted shoots cut from the high-yielding variety he had discovered and found that the first crop could be harvested after two years.
Poor personal yields
News of Joseph’s discovery spread. “Farmers began stealing my plants after they heard that their yield was high,” says Joseph. “The only way out was to sell them for a small price.”
Cardamom is an expensive spice. Indian cardamom trades around $7-8 (Rs287-328) per kg in the international market and Rs350 per kg in the domestic one.
However, Guatemalan cardamom trades only around $4 per kg. Njallani, by increasing yields from 250kg a hectare to 1,500kg, increases yields per hectare for farmers between Rs87,500 and Rs5.25 lakh.
B. Sreekumar, economist and deputy director of the Spices Board, says the lives of the growers in the region changed after the coming of Njallani. With higher yields, their income rose, improving their standard of living. And with more pluckers required per acre than before, the farmers started hiring more people.
The demand for pluckers even led to an increase in their wages, benefiting the overall economy of the region. But Joseph, the man behind Njallani, hasn’t benefited much from his discovery. “I never knew how to make money,” he says.
As Joseph gave the plants away, Njallani became the dominant variety grown in Idukki. Its fame spread to Karnataka and farmers from there visited Joseph’s farm. He visited some of their estates and advised them on the right way to grow Njallani. They paid him Rs2,500-10,000 he says, more as a token of respect than anything else.
Joseph has mixed feelings about the fact that plantation owners who grew Njallani make millions while he continues to eke out a modest livelihood, but he claims he is satisfied that he could change the fortune of the country’s cardamom growers. Joseph did not patent Njallani because he says he doesn’t know anything about patenting.
“I am 78 (years old),” he says. “I have studied only till Class IV. I did not know the true value of my work and still remain a marginal farmer.” He doesn’t mind patenting the new variety he is developing but does not know how to go about it. “I have heard about patents, but neither can I afford them, nor do I have the knowledge or expertise required. I am developing a new variety using the same old methods. But I cannot reveal details. All this patenting can happen only if someone comes forward to help me,” he adds.
In 2001, a farmer from Vandanmedu won the Spices Board award for harvesting 2,750kg of cardamom from a hectare of the Njallani variety of cardamom plants.
A new challenge
Abraham Koshi, a farmer in Idukki, says Njallani comes with its own share of problems. “The yield is best in conditions where there is assured irrigation and good land management practices,” he adds. “We need to develop more varieties (of cardamom) and not just depend on one variety,” he says.
Times have also changed in Idukki. Icri’s Thomas says that the massive use of chemicals and deforestation are coming back to haunt most cardamom farmers.
The three acres Joseph started with have now come down to 1.5 after he gave some land away to his sons. He continues to grow cardamom but is acutely conscious of the challenge that looms ahead of the industry. “I am a cardamom man and shall continue with this throughout my life, but there are serious problems (facing growers) now,” he says, referring to the effect chemical fertilizers and pesticides have had on the soil of the region.
Joseph uses only biofertilizers and natural pesticides in his plot, but admits that because of this, the yield is low. He is working on a high-yielding ‘organic’ variety, but says that despite 80% of the work done, he isn’t sure if he will “complete it.” “Age is not on my side,” he adds.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to email@example.com