Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade, an award-winning Dalit rice innovator, died at a hospital at Shodhgram, run by health activists Abhay and Rani Bang in Gadchiroli on Sunday.
Khobragade was suffering from complications arising out of a crippling paralysis.
Khobragade, 79, a resident of Nanded village in Nagbhid tahsil of Chandrapur district, is largely credited for developing the famous HMT variety of rice. But the state agriculture university of Panjabrao Krishi Vidyapeeth (PKV) had released the variety under the name PKV HMT, claiming it to be its own. Khobragade fought a long unsuccessful battle with the university but to no avail.
The Indian Express was one of the earliest to report Khobragade’s travails.
Khobragade later went on to develop seven more varieties, winning the National Innovation Foundation’s Award in 2005 for original innovation.
A poor farmer with just 1.5 acres of land, Dadaji had imbibed the habit of research from his father, who would always preserve distinct looking grains to grow on his field in the next season. Around 1983, Dadaji had noticed some rice, which was grey-yellowish in colour and smaller in size.
He preserved them and sowed them in the next season. He went on increasing the yield and by 1988, it was being grown by many farmers in the area. A trader at a nearby market yard purchased a few bags of seeds from Dadaji and named it HMT after his newly-bought wrist watch of the then famous brand.
Since then it became famous as HMT rice. It became popular for its distinct taste and scent and farmers all over the district and other places stated growing it.
The PKV, however, continued to claim that it purified the seeds taken from Dadaji and developed it as a stable variety, which is not possible for a farmer.
In 2006, the Maharashtra government gave him the Krushi Bhushan Puraskar that later became controversial due to the ‘gold medal’ turning out to be actually a copper one. The government had constituted an inquiry and had made amends by replacing the medal with genuine gold.
In his last few years, Dadaji lived a life of penury and was helped by a digital marketing consultant, Sukhada Chaudhary, through a crowd-funding appeal on Facebook. Rs 7 lakh was collected within 15 days but Dadaji couldn’t recover from his illness. “The money gave the confidence to the family to try giving him every possible treatment available. But unfortunately he couldn’t be saved,” Chaudhary said.
Dadaji’s grandson Deepak said, “He had sought a house and 20 acre land from the state government by writing to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Finance Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar. Nothing has been heard from them yet except for Rs 2 lakh, which the government provided for his treatment.”
Dadaji was cremated on Monday in presence of hundreds of people and with North Nagpur BJP MLA Milind Mane, former MLA Wanmanrao Chatak and several other political activists from various parties in attendance.