A handful of farmers from Akola taluka in Maharashtra have been growing black rice for two successive seasons, showing that the preserve, usually grown in the Northeastern states, can be cultivated in other areas as well. But the variety that these farmers grow, called Neela Bhat, is slightly different — when cooked, it acquires a bluish-purple hue.
It all began in 2019, when farmer Vikas Arote (41) of Mehenduri village, who is also a member of the Agasti Farmer Producer Company, planted 3 kilograms of black rice on five gunthas (up to 5,000 sq ft) of land.
Mehenduri, is located 30 km from the hill retreat of Bhandardara, and is a medium-sized village with around 400 families. Most families here grow rice during the kharif season, and follow a mixed-crop pattern during the rabi season, wherein they grow six varieties of marigold and chawli (black-eyed beans) using the drip irrigation method. The most common variety of rice grown here is the Indrayani variety.
“I sowed the paddy seeds on the insistence of Raosaheb Bendre of the Agricultural Technology Management Agency (ATMA). Until recently, he was working among us, and gifted me 3 kilograms of seeds before moving to Assam,” says Arote, who took to farming in 2000 after he was unable to land a job, despite having a diploma in engineering.
ATMA, a registered society at the district level, works with different agriculture-related institutions for sustainable agricultural development. Its objective is to coordinate various research and extension activities at the district level, as well as for the decentralisation of the public agricultural technology system.
While serving as ATMA’s Nagar District Agriculture Marketing Expert for 10 years, Bendre was instrumental in forming 14 FPCs (Farmer Producer Companies) in Akola. Currently based in Assam, it was Bendre who realised that the agro-climatic conditions of the taluka were conducive for the cultivation of black rice. “Having acquired paddy seeds, I approached Vikas some time in mid-June,” he says.
“The paddy is harvested after 110 days of plantation, and a fragrance emanates during the crop’s flowering. I got a very good harvest, around 210 kg, of black rice, which was much more than the Indrayani rice variety we have been cultivating here for the last 10 years,” he says.
A thank you note from the CM
Arote’s initiative to grow black rice in an area that otherwise saw the same variety for generations proved exemplary. In June, 2020, officials of Akola taluka’s agriculture department got involved, and with Arote’s help, distributed black paddy seeds to 26 farmers across four villages, including three tribal areas. The combined harvest was 1,200 kg from 6.5 acres, thanks to farmers following good crop management practices. “I grew it on one guntha and had a yield of 60 kg,” says one Shantaram Baramete (39) of Dhamatvan village.
Arote’s experiment with growing black rice in Maharashtra has led to numerous visits by mediapersons, farmers, agriculture officials and politicians to his paddy fields in Mehenduri. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray also held a videoconference with Arote and his wife to thank them for their initiative, and assured assistance to others who wished to grow the crop. Meanwhile, Akola farmers have made a representative to the World Bank-assisted Balasaheb Thackeray Agribusiness and Rural Transformation (SMART) Project for a rice mill, along with storage and packing facilities. Presently, farmers travel to Rajgurunagar, which is about 45 km away, to mill their paddy harvest.
The name Neela Bhat came to be when, in September 2020, a sample of the rice was sent by the state agricultural department to the Nawal Analytical Laboratories in Tamil Nadu for analysis. Owing to specific agro-ecological conditions in Akola, the rice acquired a unique blue colour, and was named thus so it could be a separate identity from the original. This rice is suitable for porridge and other sweet dishes, and this particular variety from Akola is sticky in nature.
Maharashtra’s Agriculture Department plans to promote the cultivation of the crop among rice growers of Akola, and insists they follow proper crop management practices to ensure good yields. Pravin Gosavi, the taluka’s Agriculture Officer, says, “We plan to scale up the cultivation of the variety to 100 acres in 2021, mainly for three seasons — its yield is more, as compared to the Indrayani variety, it offers quality fodder for the cattle, and the rice yields an attractive price of Rs 350 per kg.”
In the historical context of the crop, in imperial China, commoners were forbidden from consuming black rice (oryza sativa) because of its high nutritional value, which meant that it could only be eaten by the emperor. Black rice is indigenous to Northeast India, and is extensively grown in Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand.
Commonly eaten in Manipur, the dish is called chak-hao, which translates to rice (chak) which is delicious (ahaoba). A Manipur-based farmer, Potshangbam Devakanta, whose rice germplasm collection is wide, attests to the crop’s drought-resistant trait. In 2012, he received the prestigious ‘Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act’ Award for conserving black rice varieties and promoting its cultivation in Northeast India. However, it was in Assam that farmers were encouraged to take up the cultivation of the crop. Assamese farmer Upendra Rabha of Amguripara village in Goalpara district is said to be the pioneer of black rice in the state, having started its cultivation back in 2011. His success led to a variety of black rice to be named ‘Upendra rice’. The Assam Agricultural University estimates that black rice is grown on about 1,000 hectares in the state.
Rich in antioxidants
Black rice also has plenty of health benefits. According to agronomist K. P. Prabhakaran Nair — a senior fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and chairman of an independent committee of experts appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate BT Brinjal — it contains more Vitamin B and E, niacin, calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc as compared to white rice. The crop is rich in fibre, and the grains have a nutty taste. “The anthocyanins not only act as antioxidants, but also activate detoxifying enzymes. Research by Li-Ping Luo, a celebrated Chinese cancer specialist, and his research team has shown that anthocyanins from black rice specifically arrest the growth of breast cancer cells,” he says.
Boston-based American Chemical Society considers black rice to be better than blueberries, which are a well-known source of antioxidants. A report by the society states that a spoonful of black rice contains more healthy antioxidants than that of blueberries.
According to Nair, the best way to promote black rice is to emphasise on its nutritive value. “The darker the colour of the rice, the better it is. By providing infrastructure, market support and financial incentives, black rice can be a good bet for Indian rice producers and consumers — domestic as well as foreign,” Nair tells The Better India.
Edited by: Divya Sethu