Monday, February 12, 2007

Jabberwocky: Folk rice wisdom
Folk rice wisdom
Samantak Das

RECENTLY, I had the privilege of spending a few days at Vasudha, an extraordinary farm in a remote corner of Bankura district, where Dr Debal Deb, an ecologist of international repute, has been trying to preserve an irreplaceable part of our natural heritage — those varieties of rice that have been selectively bred over generations by our farmers in order to create hardy specimens capable of yielding good crops in extreme climatic conditions.These traditional or “folk” rice varieties require none of the inputs that we associate with High Yielding Varieties of rice so beloved of our agronomists and planners — no chemical fertilisers, no insecticides or pesticides, and little or nothing by way of augmented water supply (supplied, in the typical HYV scenario, by largescale irrigation projects). These traditional rice varieties have played a significant part in assuring India’s food security over millennia. Scientists estimate that India had some 62,000 varieties of rice in the not-too-distant past. That number has now dwindled to 4,000. Of these, several hundred varieties are cultivated in West Bengal, although this number, too, is decreasing under the pressures exerted by the Green Revolution-led push towards standardisation and homogenisation. On Dr Deb’s farm, there are hundreds of folk rice varieties, collected over many years from all over the state, with a bewildering combination of characteristics.Such varieties include “kelas”, a black rice whose pink starch is given to post-parturition and nursing women, and which is well-adapted to dry and semi-arid land. Or take, for example, “dudh-sar”, whose name suggests its white, bold grain. A highly nutritious variety, believed to possess curative properties, it can be grown in rain-fed lowlands. “Khaskani” is a small-grained, highly aromatic variety of rice used on festive occasions, while “dahar-nagra” has a bold grain particularly suited for making muri (puffed rice). Then there is “asit-kalma” with a medium-long grain, which gives high yields and is well adapted to medium lands. These are just five of the over 500 folk rice varieties that Dr Deb grows on his farm.A recent (October 2006) publication by Greenpeace International entitled “Future of Rice – 2006”, jointly authored by Drs Deb and Emerlito Borromeo, formerly of the International Rice Research Institute, spells out, in no uncertain terms, the threats posed to the wellbeing of our planet and the food security of the majority of its human inhabitants by the use of Green Revolution techniques of rice cultivation and the push to introduce Genetically Engineered rice varieties. The report is, in its own words, “about the compelling reasons why we should embrace rice knowledge developed by farmers over thousands of years and combine it with the best of modern biotechnology; not genetic engineering but science that is precise, predictable and acceptable to the public”.With a wealth of data the report demonstrates that “the real cutting edge solutions to the problems of rice production lie not in developing GE rice but rather in developing and/or adopting strategies that take advantage of ecological principles within agricultural systems, and integrating traditional farming practices with modern scientific knowledge”.Dr Deb works without any institutional support, and very meagre funds, yet his methods for sustainable, ecologically viable agricultural practices have not only won him international renown, they are increasingly being adopted by local farmers, tired of the decreasing yields and increasing inputs required by HYV rice varieties. I came away from Vasudha with a sense that I may have witnessed the small beginnings of a way of life and living that might well be our last chance of survival in this, our already abused, bruised and overburdened planet.

(Dr Debal Deb can be contacted at