Remembering the Nilgiris tuber in the Year of the Potato…
It was perhaps the shortage created by the Irish famine that gave the initial boost to potato cultivation in the Nilgiris. Not that the tuber was unknown to India till then. India got the first taste of potato in the 17th century when the Portuguese brought it with them and planted it along the west coast from Surat to Goa. Shortly afterwards it spread to the hilly parts of the erstwhile State of Punjab. It was introduced in Uttar Pradesh in the early part of 19th century.
John Sullivan, the indefatigable builder of modern Nilgiris, introduced potato in the Nilgiris in the 1820s when he had the seed imported, along with those of other ‘English’ vegetables, from the UK.
Sullivan first experimented with potato around Stone house hill with the help of an English farmer named Johnstone and an African assistant named Jones. Encouraged by the rich harvest, he extended the cultivation to Wellington, where the yield was reported to be ‘phenomenal’ owing to the virgin soil.
The establishment of the experimental Botanical Gardens in Ootacamund in 1848 gave further impetus to potato cultivation, which began to attract the local Badaga farmers. Francis, an enthusiastic Collector of Nilgiris, prevailed over the government to import two tonnes of good seed potatoes from Europe and Australia for distribution among the “native growers”. The European settlers also started cultivating potato in the wastelands around their bungalows.
From mid-1850s potato increasingly started replacing the traditional millets in the Badaga villages. Initially, Badagas did not relish the crop but merely marketed it to meet the demand created by the Irish famine. Subsequently, potato became their staple diet which it remains today.
By the beginning of the 20th century, potato cultivation became the mainstay of the district’s agricultural economy. The introduction of chemical fertiliser in the early 1920s and export demand during the two World Wars made it a thriving crop.
To meet the growing demand for seed potato, an Agricultural Research Station was established as early as in 1917 at Nanjanad, about 18 km from Ooty. Varieties of seed potatoes suitable to the local soil and climatic conditions were evolved here. The most notable of them was a variety called “Great Scot” owing to its “early maturity, cosmopolitan habit, round-medium tubers, smooth white skin, fleet eyes and hard flesh”. A brand of fertiliser called “Nanjanad Mixture” evolved at the centre also remained popular with the farmers for decades. Later a subsidiary of the Central Potato Research Institute, Simla was set up at Muthorai, about 6 km from Ooty, in the mid-1950s to provide the necessary research and extension support.
Ups and downs
The decline of potato cultivation in the Nilgiris started in the early 1960s when diseases such as Late Blight and Golden Nematode hit the crop. Competition from new potato-growing areas added to the problem. In the 1970s the infamous ‘up and down’ method of potato cultivation came under severe criticism from environmentalists as it led to maximum soil loss. An Indo-German project with much fanfare and hope was initiated to rescue potato cultivation and to diversify the district’s cropping pattern but its impact was limited owing to several factors. In any case, by the 1980s the tea boom, which was fast unfolding, lured most of the potato-growers away to the promise of the ‘green gold’.
Today potato is cultivated in India under highly diversified agro-climatic conditions ranging from sea-level to snowline, making the country the third-largest potato grower in the world. But the acreage and yield are still much below China and Russia, the top two countries in the world.
Unstable prices, poor marketing support, low productivity, concentration of seed potato in a few areas, not to mention certain mistaken beliefs associated with it, stand in the way of further progress of this wonder crop. Better awareness and more attention in this year should accord it due importance in the interest of the country’s food security. As for Nilgiris, it is right time the sportive spud regains at least some of the ground lost to tea.
The UN has designated 2008 as the International year of the Potato.
(The author is the Honorary Director of Nilgiri Documentation Centre and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)