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  • Sohel Sarkar

An Emerging Rice Renaissance in India

Sunrise on a rice field

In Bengal, to inquire after someone’s wellbeing, you ask “bhath kheyecho?”, literally “have you eaten rice?”. If you have, it is assumed you must be well.

Most of India’s rice is cultivated in the state of West Bengal. Here, the grain is sustenance as well as history, culture, and identity. We often self-deprecatingly refer to ourselves as “bheto Bangali” – loosely, “rice-loving Bengali” – because of the storied penchant among our ancestors (at least, those who could afford it) to eat rice three times a day. Rice is embedded in our rituals surrounding birth, death and intervening rites of passage. Not surprising given that rice is plentiful with harvests in autumn, winter and summer, known as aush, aman and boro, respectively.

It is an infant’s first ceremonial solid food and the last offering to recently departed souls. It is central to ritual foods offered to deities during festivals and an integral part of many Bengali wedding rituals. Beaten, crisp and popped rice (known as chire, muri and khoi, respectively) are essential in many Bengali ceremonies. Historically, each has been made with specific rice varieties: Kelas, Dahar nagra and Nalpai rice for the best muri, Ajirman, Chandrakanta and Manik kalma for chire, and Binni varieties of rice produce light and airy khoi.

While chire, muri and khoi continue to flourish in Bengal’s cuisine, many of the unique rice varieties used to prepare them have either disappeared or are on the verge of extinction. Today activists and farmers are working to restore the region's biodiversity through seed banks and grassroots movements.

The beginnings of loss

Kelas Ajirman and Manik kalma are a few examples of the innumerable indigenous rice varieties – also known as folk, heirloom, traditional or native rice – developed in Bengal. They are descendants of cultivated Asian rice (Oryza sativa) which was first domesticated in China nearly 7,000 years ago and later spread to SouthEast Asia, Nepal and India. Oryza sativa has three distinct strains: sticky, short-grained japonica, broad-grained javanica and non-sticky, short and long-grained indica. It is the indica variety that has been cultivated in India for nearly 4,000 years.

Ancient farmers–many of whom were ancestors of Bengal’s indigenous Santhal, Ho and Munda communities–developed thousands of folk rice variants that adapted to specific soils, topographies and climatic conditions. These specialised grains uniquely suited the environments they were grown in, and each variant had specific nutritional and medicinal properties which benefited their human cultivators.

The first major disruption in Bengal’s flourishing rice economy came from the British East India Company (EIC), and later the British colonial state, which, starting in the eighteenth century, pushed farmers to shift to cash crops such as jute, indigo and opium, leading to a decline in overall rice acreage. More crucially, colonial-era policies resulted in at least six devastating famines across Bengal (in 1770, 1783, 1866, 1873-74, 1896-77 and 1943), plunging its agrarian and food cultures into further disarray. Each famine was linked to rice in one way or another but the 1943 Bengal famine, in particular, had a direct correlation with the grain.

As Japan prepared to invade British India via Bengal during the Second World War, the colonial government followed what is known as a scorched earth or denial policy – confiscating rice from vulnerable coastal districts and hoarding it in corporate godowns in urban centres. To “deny” the advancing Japanese troops access to local food stocks. British officials, aided by their Indian middlemen, even confiscated the rice that farmers saved to sow in the following season. A devastating loss since many native rice varieties can only be preserved by planting them every year. The effects of the famine that started in early 1943 lingered well into the following year, and even now we continue to see echoes of this loss.

This catastrophic event left three million people dead in its wake, and its trauma lingers among subsequent generations to this day. My father, who was born a year before the 1943 famine in Bardhaman – one of the worst affected districts of Bengal at the time – does not leave a single morsel of rice behind on his plate. Every time I baulk at the prospect of throwing away days-old rice, I realise that I too have internalised his trauma.

Food ‘security’ gone awry

Two centuries of colonial extraction and recurrent famines across the entire country meant that by the time of independence in 1947, India was left completely reliant on “ship-to-mouth” food imports to feed its population. To fix its crushing food insecurity problem, the post-independence government in the 1960s and ‘70s initiated a set of agrarian reforms aimed at increasing the production of staple foodgrains, mainly rice and wheat. Under this so-called Green Revolution, the government, prodded by the World Bank, Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation and the US State Department, encouraged farmers to replace indigenous rice varieties with hybrid, high-yielding and input-intensive seeds.

While the Green Revolution quelled hunger in the short term, it left farmers completely reliant on imported hybrids that needed huge investments in chemical fertilisers and pesticides as well as irrigation equipment. In the long run, the unchecked use of chemical inputs would degrade the soil and deplete water tables, stymieing yield and forcing farmers to deploy ever-increasing amounts of inputs to coax the same yield out of the same soil. Despite the negative impact of these changed farming practices, heavy government subsidies incentivised farmers to switch to monocultural hybrids.

The cultivation of folk breeds was seen as unpredictable at best and unprofitable at worst. When the Indian economy was opened up in the ‘90s, the reforms put in place by the Green Revolution were further entrenched within farming practices across the country. By the turn of the century, foreign multinational seed companies such as Monsanto held complete sway over the country’s farms. Whereas earlier farmers would save seeds from one season to the next and exchange seeds among themselves, now multinational agriculture corporations held seed patents, which prevented farmers from reusing seeds and left them completely dependent on imported hybrid seeds. The expensive chemical pesticides and fertilisers that were essential to grow these hybrid seeds also had to be purchased by farmers from the same companies .

Collectively, these policies meant a protracted flattening of Bengal’s (and India’s) rice biodiversity. In the 1940s, undivided Bengal (comprising present-day West Bengal and Bangladesh) was home to 15,000 recorded folk rice varieties. By the 1960s, this number had dwindled to about 5,500. According to a survey of indigenous rice in West Bengal conducted by ecological scientist Debal Deb between the early ‘90s and 2006, most folk rice had either been lost or was on the verge of extinction by the mid-2000s.

Deb’s interest in the matter was sparked in 1991 when he came across a farmer’s wife in southern Bengal drinking the starch water drained after cooking indigenous Bhutmuri rice. He was told the drink is a known cure for anaemia in pregnant women. Intrigued, Deb began to look for records of traditional rice varieties in the state, but came up with nothing. No help was forthcoming from the state government either, so Deb began his own survey in 1994. By 2006, he found that “90 percent of the documented varieties had disappeared from farmers’ fields”. Of the 110,000 native rice varieties recorded across India in the 1970s, only 6,000 survived.

The staggering erosion of biodiversity meant the long term effects of the Green Revolution achieved the very opposite of a food-secure future. Instead resulting in “food insecurity for poor and marginal farmers, who no longer have the stock of landraces fine-tuned to local soil and climatic conditions, nor are able to buy the costly inputs,” Deb wrote in Gastronomica. This was accompanied by the erasure of centuries-old folk knowledge pertaining to heirloom rice and the loss of local food cultures.

Sowing the seeds of revival

My father, who is seldom given to nostalgia, readily admits that his beloved Bardhaman Sitabhog (the sweet) has none of its earlier flavour and aroma. That may have something to do with the fact that the sweet is now made with the modern high-yielding varieties of rice that currently dominate Bengal’s fields. The Sitabhog rice the sweet was named after has long since disappeared. Another sweet at the risk of losing its distinct flavour is Joynagarer moa. Kanakchur rice that is integral to this delicacy is still grown in the South 24 Parganas district, but a decline in its area under cultivation has led to worries over “fake moa” in recent years.

Sitabhog is made from a rice-based dough that is extruded to appear like vermicelli and garnished with miniature nikhuti, a regional variety of gulab jamun.

To secure the fate of Bengal’s surviving heirloom rice, Deb has been collecting and sharing them with farmers through a seed bank he founded in 1997 called Vrihi (Sanskrit for “broadcast rice”). Through Vrihi, a farmer can get one variety of folk rice seeds from the bank by exchanging it with another. In 2019, over 7,600 farmers had exchanged more than 900 varieties of rice this way. By 2021, Vrihi had collected over 1440 varieties of indigenous rice.

Supporting farmers in the cultivation of traditional rice is only the first step. Through Vrihi, Deb hopes to equip farmers to set up their own community seed banks, thus restoring the tradition of seed exchange that largely disintegrated amid the “global agri-food trade and its associated rules and regulations regarding the patenting, ownership and transfer of seeds”.

Deb, who is often referred to as India’s rice warrior, is an early pioneer of an initiative that is taking the shape of a broader movement. Since 2011, the West Bengal-based grassroots organisation Forum of Indigenous Agricultural Movement (FIAM) has been supporting farmers who want to grow folk rice varieties and working towards conserving these seeds. Like Vrihi, FIAM also depends on non-commercial seed exchange. The organisation started with six members and twelve varieties of indigenous seeds obtained from a government agricultural training centre. It now includes about eighty farmers who grow over seventy varieties of folk rice between themselves, says FIAM member Mousumi Basak.

With many folk rice varieties critically endangered, the organisation often solicits them from older generations of farmers in different parts of the country who persisted with cultivating them, Basak adds. To ensure viability for fellow farmers, seeds obtained in this way are first tested by FIAM members on a farm developed by the organisation for this very purpose, before being distributed to others. The seeds collected by Vrihi are similarly grown in the Basudha conservation farm established by Deb in Odisha in 2001.

These seed exchange initiatives often involve farmers from the other rice-growing states of Assam, Nagaland, Jharkhand, Odisha and Kerala where similar preservation initiatives are underway. In Assam, an “indigenous seed saving library” has collected over 250 varieties of locally-adapted nearly-extinct rice such as Joha, Tulsi Sali and Kokua Boro and shares them with farmers who want to grow them. In Uttar Pradesh’s Rampur district, the short-grained aromatic Tilak chandan is being revived as part of the ‘Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India’, a project run by the University of Sheffield in collaboration with local historian Tarana Khan.

Hope for the future?

Indigenous rice varieties require only low-cost organic inputs. Adapted to local conditions, they have evolved to survive droughts, cyclones, floods and other calamities that have begun to strike with unprecedented frequency in an increasingly climate-insecure Global South. In a world grappling with rising sea levels and consequently increasing salinity of coastal areas, a greater unpredictability of monsoons, and higher incidence of weather-related disasters, farmers – as well as scientists, ecologists and researchers – are turning to traditional rice varieties for potential solutions.

The high yield of modern hybrids is contingent on the availability of enormous quantities of water and mechanised irrigation. This means they have little or no ability to withstand unpredictable weather such as low, delayed or unseasonal rains and drought. Selected for a single trait, high yield grains are also susceptible to a whole gamut of pests, and cannot be grown without chemical pesticides and fertilisers which are both costly and have long-term adverse environmental and health impacts.

While lower yields and/or longer growth periods are often blamed for farmers’ reluctance to grow traditional rice – Tilak chandan, for instance, takes 180 days to mature compared to 90-140 days for hybrid Basmati, and yields a fifth of modern rice varieties – many indigenous varieties beat these odds too. In Bengal and Odisha, folk rice breeds like Bahurupi and Kerala Sundari have produced similar or greater yields compared with modern hybrids like Swarna.

When West Bengal declared drought in at least eleven districts in 2010, drought-resistant Bhutmuri, Rangi and Kelas rice variants, which have evolved in laterite soil with lower water-retention capacity, enabled farmers to get through a particularly tough year.

In the previous year, after Cyclone Aila raged through Bengal in 2009, agricultural fields in the low-lying islands of Sundarbans lay submerged under brackish water for many months. Not only were standing crops lost, the soil rendered increasingly saline and subsequent plantings of high-yielding rice were also decimated. At the time, Vrihi shared a few salt-tolerant folk rice seeds such as Lal getu, Nona bokra and Talmugur with farmers in the Sundarbans, ensuring they were able to grow a crop that year.

The cyclone also prompted the transfer of salt-tolerant and flood-resistant Pokkali rice to the Sundarbans all the way from the southern Indian state of Kerala. Adapted to the low-lying coastal areas of Kerala, Pokkali rice varieties grow up to two metres tall and can withstand brackish waters. Following the devastating Cyclone Amphan in 2020, this rusty-red rice once again helped farmers in the Sundarbans and its surrounding areas tide over saltwater incursion.

Just as recurrent cyclones prompted a renewed search for salt-tolerant and flood-resistant folk rice in Bengal, the devastating floods of 2018 led to a resurgence of interest in Pokkali rice in Kerala. The floods spelt doom for certain parts of the state where rice is typically cultivated close to ten feet below sea level, and efforts are currently underway to widen the uptake of Pokkali cultivation in these areas, and develop variants which can produce higher yields.

That isn’t to say these heritage grains come without their own problems. Pokkali and other flood-tolerant varieties of heirloom rice demand backbreaking labour. For some varieties, the prospect of a relatively lower yield and a harvest season spent in waterlogged fields serves as a deterrent. In Goa, only a handful of farmers still grow the saline-resistant Korgut to keep the tradition alive. Like Pokkali, harvesting Korgut is labour intensive, threshing has to be done manually and the yield is lower than modern high-yielding hybrids. As a result, it has given way to modern high-yielding rice over the last forty years and a wider uptake of the grain is unlikely.

That’s not to suggest that farmers stand no chance of profiting from cultivating folk rice. Recently, a women farmers collective in West Bengal’s Jhargram district was able to profit from growing four traditional varieties of rice – Kalabhat, Mallifullo, Kerala Sundari and Sathia. The collective, called Aamon Mahila Chasi Producer Company Limited, has been growing them since 2017. Over time, with the help of a non-profit PRADAN, Aamon also set up its own biofertiliser unit and rice processing mill which helped to keep costs low. Their efforts on the field coincided with a resurgent interest in folk rice among urban consumers and restaurants in “rice-obsessed” Bengal, fetching a good price for their produce.

Ultimately, the revival of indigenous rice has to be understood beyond the confines of yield and profit. While some varieties like Sitabhog still exist only in seed banks, and others like the low-yielding Tilak chandan and the tough-to-grow Korgut are all but forgotten, the last remnants of India’s rice biodiversity can still act as insurance for farmers during hard times. What’s more, in a highly climate-insecure world, prone to floods, droughts and unseasonal monsoons, India’s emerging indigenous rice renaissance holds out hope, even if dim, for a diverse food-secure future.

Works Cited

Amartya Sen (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1981.

Daisy A. John Giridhara R. Babu (2021). Lessons From the Aftermaths of Green Revolution on Food System and Health, in Frontiers.

Debal Deb (2019). The Struggle to Save Heirloom Rice in India, in Scientific American.

Debal Deb (2021). Rice Cultures of Bengal, in Gastronomica.

Janam Mukherjee (2015). Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire, Oxford University Press, 2015.

Madhushree Mukerjee (2010). Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, Tranquebar Press.

Sharanya Deepak (2021). The Ghost Crop of Goa, in Orion Magazine.

Sharmila Vaidyanathan (2021). Food for a Future Planet, in Hakai Magazine.

Utsa Ray (2015). Culinary Culture in Colonial India: A Cosmopolitan Platter and the Middle Class, Cambridge University Press.

Sohel Sarkar is an independent journalist, editor, and feminist researcher currently based in Bengaluru, India. Her work has appeared in Whetstone Magazine, Eaten Magazine, Goya Journal and Sliced, among others. You can find her on Twitter as @SohelS28 and on Instagram as @sarkar.sohel10.

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