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'The Tuber Man of Kerala’ on a Mission to Showcase India's Rare and Indigenous Crops

Shaji's valued collection now includes over 200 species of wild and indigenous tuber crops. "Agriculture should begin in our hearts, not on the ground."

Shruti Kandwal
The tuber man of Kerala
The tuber man of Kerala

Shaji NM, also known as “the tuber man of Kerala,” has travelled around India over the past two decades, checking bushes in tribal settlements and studying the ground of forests closer to home among the lush hills of Wayanad in Kerala. His sole objective, and what has earned him his title, is to gather uncommon indigenous tuber crop types.

"People call me crazy, but I do what I do for the love of tubers," Shaji explains. "I've formed an emotional attachment to the tuber." We had tubers when we did not have anything else to eat."

Shaji's 8,000 square metre (2 acre) farm is home to a diverse range of tubers, some of which are on the danger of extinction and others that yield record-sized fruits. Better-known kinds including yams, sweet potato, cassava, taro, and Chinese potato flourish there as well. Shaji, like many Keralites, like dioscorea – he grows over 60 types on his property – and he especially enjoys white yams.

Occasionally, word of mouth assists him in locating uncommon tubers, and Facebook and WhatsApp groups keep him up to date on possible discoveries. He explains when he discovers a new variation, "I contact the elders and farmers of the many tribal communities, and we attempt to call the tuber something closer to the tribe’s name.”

Shaji's work in protecting and popularising the tuber has earned him a number of honours at the state and national levels, including an India biodiversity award for the protection of domesticated species in 2021.

Shaji believes that tubers are important not just as a food source, but also for their therapeutic characteristics. "We used to eat food as medicine; now we consume medication as food," he explains. "It must have been the tubers that kept my grandparents healthy even at the age of 110."

Shaji's valued collection now includes over 200 species of wild and indigenous tuber crops. In his opinion, knowledge should be easily available. "I raise these crops on my land and then provide the seeds to farmers and anybody else who wants them." In exchange, I urge them to expand the crops and incorporate them into their diet," adds Shaji, who prefers to refer to himself as a "cultivator" rather than a farmer.

However, as the environment warms, it will be more difficult to preserve some of the rarest tubers. Kerala's biodiversity is dwindling as unseasonal rains sweep away lush farmland. When Kerala saw one of the worst recorded rainfalls in its history in 2018, Shaji's land was submerged for 15 days.

"The experts warned me that everything would go bad, and I believed them. "I believed it was fine to lose everything and start again, as I had done before," he adds.

But, much to his – and the village's – amusement, "everything started sprouting again after a month or two," Shaji adds. "I have never, ever put a chemical on my land." Perhaps it's because my land is so wonderful that nature doesn't destroy my farm."

Researchers stated in research published in 2018 that tuber crops "are adaptable to climate change due to their potential to surge over harsh conditions by falling dormant and resuming tuber development during favourable conditions, hence reducing crop failures."

According to the researchers, the tuber's capacity to withstand shifting climate conditions makes it "extremely essential for the food security and income of people in this region as well as in many other regions of the country."

Farming, however, means much more to Shaji than merely supplying food. "Agriculture should begin in our hearts, not on the ground," he argues. "And then, simply by looking at it, we know how to take care of it."

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