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Reviving Our Rice Bowl: Bengal Farmers Preserve 200+ Traditional Rice Varieties

Reviving Our Rice Bowl: Bengal Farmers Preserve 200+ Traditional Rice Varieties

West Bengal hosts over 5,000 varieties of rice, a majority of which have disappeared due to faulty agricultural practices.

For over five years now, Ujwal Das (35), has been growing and propagating extant folk rice varieties in West Bengal’s Koro village. On two bigha land (where three bighas equal an acre), he grows Sitasal, Kalobhat, and Kalamkati, for his eight-member family; and the remaining four bighas are occupied by a high-yielding variety (HYV) called ‘Lal Sarna’.

Das is a member of the 50-member strong farmer-run Amarkanan Rural Socio-environmental Welfare Society (ARSWS). Their efforts were recognised by Narendra Singh Tomar, the Minister for Agriculture & Farmers Welfare. He conferred on them the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s Plant Genome Saviour Community Awards, which came with a citation and a cash award of Rs 10 lakh.

Most efforts to conserve folk rice varieties in India have been individual or institutional initiatives. That’s what sets the farmer-run ARSWS apart. It is led by Dr Anjan Kumar Sinha, a botanist and assistant professor with Purulia’s Raghunathpur College. The Society has so far conserved and preserved over 200 extant varieties, growing them on plots of land as tiny as an office cubicle, and sharing the seeds with fellow farmers so that they can be multiplied.

Of these, 106 varieties have been registered with the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority—an effective system for the protection of plant varieties and the rights of farmers and plant breeders.

Paddy varieties identified on a plot of land.

Once considered the rice bowl of India, West Bengal boasts of a large number of local varieties and landraces. According to an estimate, the State hosts over 5,000 varieties of rice, a majority of which have disappeared due to faulty agricultural practices. Interestingly, these varieties are of immense value in agriculture as they are a treasure house of innumerable genes that have evolved in the environment over millions of years. Development of disease-resistant newer varieties is possible only with the help of genes available in landraces.

Lured by HYVs, farmers have confined themselves to 15 such races and ceased cultivating folk or local varieties due to poor yield and lesser market demand, despite the scarce inputs needed to grow them.

A study conducted on 65 landraces in 2012 on small farm areas has shown immense promise from varieties like Kalamkati, Danarguri, Tulsibhog, Nagrasal, Bahurupi, Sitasal, Gobindabhog, Barani, Khajurchari, Keralasundari, Kabiraj, Chandrakanta, Daransal, Dangapatnai, Kataribhog, Badshabhog—all indigenous rice cultivars of West Bengal. What sets these varieties apart from the HYVs like Lal Sarna, IR 64, Jyoti and Lalat is their use, both medicinal and nutritional. They also possess several stress tolerant properties which act as positive factors in the retention of the rice landraces in the face of increasing propaganda for cultivation of high-yielding varieties. Traditional rice varieties therefore represent important genetic reservoirs with valuable traits.

In West Bengal, rice is associated with every step of life, beginning with mukhe bhat (introduction of the infant to a solid meal) and ending with an offering made to the departed souls. Besides being a part of the staple diet, it is also used for making foods, like piteh (rice cake), chire (beaten rice), khoi (puffed rice), chaler payesh or kheer (sweetened rice) and muri (rice bubbles). For instance, Dharansal is used for daily cooking; Sukalma and Bhootmori for rice bubbles, Tulsibhog for sweetened rice and others.

Paddy being dried in the sun for storage.

Rice growers of six villages in Bankura have formed the Ranbahal-based ARSWS. Seeds are stored in clay pots with dried neem leaves. The Society also runs a seed gene bank and distributes seeds to prospective farmers free of cost. The initiative being an on-site conservation, seeds of the varieties to be conserved are grown and multiplied on farms with the desired traits refined through adaptations to changes in the natural environment.

With each rice-planting season, the number of farmers propagating the folk varieties has been growing, although at a slow pace, as there is a lack of awareness among consumers about these indigenous varieties.

According to Dr Sinha, farmers can become members of the society by expressing their willingness to cultivate the traditional paddy variety in their field without the use of chemical-based farming inputs.

Before transplanting the folk varieties of paddy, most farmers replenish the soil using leguminous green manure crop as Sesbania or Gliricidia, which are ploughed down and crushed with the soil. Both the roots and stems host the friendly Rhizobium bacteria, which trap atmospheric nitrogen—their decay releasing large quantities of nitrogen in the soil, along with organic matter, thus enriching it.

Paddy seeds stored in clay pots.

Every farmer-member is offered 500 g-1 kg of seeds, which is cultivated for 3-3.5 months, to end up with 1 kg of seeds following harvest. Most farmers grow these for their consumption due to their aromatic and nutritional content. A kilo of seeds yields between 300-500 kg of rice and can get premium rates in the market compared to HYVs. To further increase consumer awareness, farmers attend krishi melas along with their produce and educate prospective consumers.

Of the several farmers is 51-year-old Biman Sinha of Ranbahal village, 28 km from Bankura town, who has been growing aromatic varieties like Gobindobhog, Danarguri, Badshabhog on five bighas of land for the past nine years using organic methods. “The yield from the folk varieties may be less, but we are compensated with the price we get,” he informs.

Efforts of farmer groups like ARSWS play an important role in providing us with the opportunity to tap into its germplasm to develop new varieties that can mitigate climate change, issues like erratic increase/decrease in temperature, and humidity, resulting in the appearance of new pests and diseases.

So far, ARSWS has shared the seeds of a folk rice variety with research institutions like Bidhan Chandra Krishi Vidyalaya; the Department of Genetics and Plant Breeding, Vishva Bharati University; the Department of Botany, University of Burdwan; Rice Research Station, Bankura; and the Department of Botany, Vinoba Bhave University.

Also Read: Farmer Develops New Custard Apple That Doubles Yield, Has Fewer Seeds & More Pulp

Folk varieties, adapted to local ecologies over centuries, have proven hardier against pests and droughts, unlike modern varieties designed for intensive agriculture and large doses of chemical fertilisers. Farmers conclude that modern varieties are unsuited for variable conditions and increasingly unpredictable weather. In this scenario, while sharing of seeds of folk varieties is a good thing, it is important to remember that breeding takes years.

(Edited by Shruti Singhal)

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