A unique rice variety. A unique farming practice. And, a unique way of financing farming.
A small band of activists and organic-farming enthusiasts have banded together to revive a dying farming practice in the coastal rice fields at Ezhupunna in Kerala’s Alappuzha district.
The rice variety: Pokkali, a saline-and-flood resistant tall-stalk variety. The farming practice: alternate rice-and-prawn culture. The form of financing: ‘Pokkali bonds.’
The Pokkali Samrakshana Samara Samiti (Pokkali conservation agitation committee), which has leased 140 acres of marsh-like Pokkali fields that have been fallow for a quarter century, has found a new way to finance its effort: by floating informal ‘Pokkali bonds.’
Bonds have been floated at Rs 1,000 each. After the harvest, investment is returned in kind: organically cultivated, highly-nutritious and protein-rich Pokkali rice. “You have two options: you can either take your money’s worth of rice or we will return your money, without interest, after six months,” said Francis Kalathunkal, a socio-political activist and lecturer, who is the general convenor of the samiti. Already, over 120 people, mostly social activists, have purchased the bonds.
“This is a highly labour-intensive farming practice and hence the cost of production is high,” Kalathunkal said. Groups of students from colleges, who fancy a day out in a rice field, occasionally help with the tasks.
Pokkali (pronounced Pokkaalli) rice, which is grown only on a few hundred acres in the coastal areas of central Kerala, was awarded the GI (Geographical Indication) tag in 2008. The large-grain rice has a distinct flavour and commands a higher price than ordinary varieties.
Pokkali is an ancient farming practice. One season of rice farming is alternated with another season of prawn culture. The rice variety’s remarkable tolerance to salinity and floods makes it unique.
It is cultivated from June to early November when the salinity level of the water in the fields is low. From mid-November to mid-April, when the salinity is high, prawn farming takes over.
The prawn seedlings, which swim in from the sea and the backwaters after the rice harvest, feed on the leftovers of the harvested crop. The rice crop, which gets no other fertiliser or manure, draws nutrients from the prawns’ excrement and other remnants. “Rice farming and prawn farming are mutually complementary,” said Kalathunkal.
“The cultivation method is totally dependent on nature,” pointed out V. Sreekumar, agronomy professor at Kerala Agricultural University’s Rice Research Station at Vyttila, Kochi. “The south-west monsoon and the tidal action in the Arabian Sea are the critical factors.” The high salinity of the water-logged fields caused by the up-tide is washed off by the monsoon rains.
Four decades ago, there were 26,000 hectares of Pokkali fields. Now, hardly 5,000 are left, of which only 500 is cultivated. Pokkali’s productivity is very low — 1 to 2 tonnes per hectare. New high-yielding varieties of rice and high cost of production have contributed to its near-extinct status.
The Kerala Government has taken many steps to promote Pokkali, but the area under cultivation continues to shrink. Kalathunkal said he is not sure that the business model in the Ezhupunna fields is sustainable.
“We are just trying our best to preserve this unique method of cultivation,” he said.