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`Sugandh' set to take on Thai Jasmine rice

Harish Damodaran

New Delhi , Oct. 12

FINALLY, India has found the answer to `Jasmine', the long-grain aromatic rice that does an annual export business of around $650 million for Thailand.

The Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) has developed new high-yielding long-grain scented rice varieties, which are being promoted under the `Pusa Sugandh' series to take on Thai Jasmine rice. ``Although the new varieties are of basmati-quality, we are consciously seeking to market them by the Sugandh trade name. Over time, Sugandh should develop a distinct identity in the world market on par with basmati rice,'' said Dr S. Nagarajan, Director, IARI.

Currently, there are 11 basmati varieties notified under Section 5 of the Seeds Act. These are, in turn, categorised under two broad heads — Premium Indian basmati (traditional) and Indian basmati (crossed/hybrid). The former includes Basmati-370, Basmati-386, Basmati-217, Dehraduni Basmati (Type-3), Taraori Basmati and Ranbir Basmati. The non-traditional, crossed/hybrid varieties are Pusa Basmati 1, Punjab Basmati-1 (Bauni Basmati), Kasturi, Haryana Basmati-1 and Mahi Sugandha.

The traditionally grown basmati cultivars are tall plants prone to lodging, with paddy yields averaging 2.2 tonnes per hectare and maturity period extending to 155 days. Further, they are photoperiod sensitive, i.e. there is a definite length of photoperiod (around October) required for their flowering. Hence, they are best suited for cultivation near the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, which are seen to provide the `right' combination of climatic and soil conditions.

Pusa Basmati-1 was the first ever non-lodging, semi-dwarf, high yielding basmati strain bred by IARI and released for commercial cultivation in 1989. With average yields of 4.5 tonnes per hectare and maturing in just 135 days, Pusa Basmati-1 was claimed to combine the essential grain traits of traditional basmati rice (aroma, non-stickiness and elongation upon cooking) with high-yielding attributes of modern semi-dwarf varieties. Moreover, being substantially photoperiod insensitive, the variety could also be grown outside its traditional territory

The latest `Sugandh' varieties are considered to be an improvement over even Pusa Basmati-1. Pusa Sugandh-2 and Pusa Sugandh-3, both released in July 2001, yield about half-a-tonne per hectare more than Pusa Basmati-1 and mature in just 115-125 days. But what is more noteworthy is their superior grain quality in terms of higher aroma and lower chalkiness content. Pusa Basmati-1 grains not only do not possess the desired extent of aroma, but they also have a dull chalk-like appearance.

Besides Sugandh-2 and 3, there are two other scented rice varieties that are in the process of being released. These are Pusa-2511 and Pusa-2512, both of which yield six tonnes per hectare and mature in 120-125 days. In addition, there is the just recently released Pusa-1121, which has lower productivity (4 tonnes per hectare) and later maturity of 140-145 days, but its grains have an exceptionally high elongation ratio of 2.5 times (in terms of kernel length) upon cooking, compared to 1.8-1.9 for normal basmati-quality rice.

But in spite of all these positive attributes, IARI is not attaching the `basmati' tag to these new varieties, while preferring clubbing them under the `Sugandh' series. The reason for this is that as per the official definition, the description `basmati' can be used only for those long-grain aromatic rice varieties, which have at least one traditional or `pure-line' parent. According to Dr F.U. Zaman, Head of IARI's rice breeding programme, the parents for the `Sugandh' varieties are Pusa Basmati-1 and Haryana Basmati-1, both of which are crossed or evolved lines.

But Mr R.S. Seshadri, Director, United Riceland Ltd — the country's largest basmati exporter to the European Union - does not view this as a liability. "If we want to protect basmati as a geographical indication specific to our conditions, it is necessary to make a clear distinction not just between traditional and evolved basmati varieties, but even basmati and non-basmati long-grain aromatic rice. Sugandh can occupy the third category and offer competition to Thai Jasmine,'' he said.

Mr Seshadri noted that the Thai rice industry tried to initially market Jasmine as basmati from Thailand, but when this failed, their strategy in the mid-1990s shifted to promoting it as a long-grain aromatic rice traditional to Thailand.

As a result, Jasmine today fetches a price of $510 per tonne, which is higher than even the $480 per tonne for Pusa Basmati-1, while being below the $800-850 level for premium Indian basmati. ``We should come out of this exclusive basmati fixation and realise that there is a market for other long-grain aromatic rice as well,'' he added.

India now exports about 6 lakh tonnes of basmati rice (both traditional and non-traditional), whereas Thailand exports twice that quantity of Jasmine rice alone.

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