Heady scent of rice

Venkat Iyer | Updated on November 07, 2014

Villages once redolent with the aroma of freshly cooked Kasbai have shifted to hybrids

At the mere mention of ‘Kasbai’, 70-year-old Devu Handa’s eyes turn dreamy. In a voice shaking with excitement, this farmer in Dhanivari village, Palghar district (Maharashtra), tells us that at one time everyone in his village grew only Kasbai. “People passing by our village during lunchtime would be forced to stop and ask for a meal. Such was its alluring aroma,” he reminisces. The heady scent of the rice hung over the area as everyone cooked it.

A traditional long-grained variety, Kasbai has a distinct aroma like Basmati, though much milder. Over the years, with the entry of newer hybrid varieties, Kasbai has almost vanished from the district. Handa also blames irrigation for Kasbai’s changing fortunes. In days gone by, the village had no canal system and depended entirely on the monsoon. With irrigation, farmers were tempted to grow a second crop and the long-duration Kasbai crop was replaced by shorter-duration hybrids.

Though reluctant to switch to hybrids, Handa had no choice as his fields were not fenced. After harvest, cattle are allowed to roam free. “If only my field has Kasbai standing, it will be a treat for the cattle,” he says. Hybrids need more water, fertilisers and pesticides. He says yields were good initially, but were dropping steadily. In contrast, he fondly remembers that even during flash floods in the 1960s, Kasbai stood its ground. “Such was the strength of the rice, and look what we did,” he laments.

Sanjay Patil, thematic programme executive (agro diversity) at Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation, says Maharashtra boasts more than 1,000 indigenous rice varieties, with 100 in Jawhar taluka alone. “Since 2007, BAIF has collected over 225 varieties from all over the state, with 70 from Jawhar.”

Besides Kasbai, they learned of five other scented varieties the taluka no longer grows. Under the programme, supported by the Ratan Tata Trust, BAIF uses a participatory method of working with farmers. Indigenous paddy varieties are grown in farm conservation centres. Farmers are invited to pick a variety. Trained farmers grow the selected seeds and check its genetic purity before handing over for cultivation. The farmers are also trained in organic practices and seed-saving methods.

Last season, nearly 15 selected varieties were grown and over 50 quintals of seeds distributed. Besides their fodder value, indigenous varieties are prized for nutritional and medicinal properties.

However, getting farmers to grow indigenous varieties is still an uphill task, thanks to the active promotion of hybrids by seed companies, says Patil. On the bright side, recurrence of diseases and pests and the vagaries of climate change are pushing more farmers towards indigenous varieties.

While efforts like that of BAIF may seem like a drop in the ocean, it may well be the only hope for people like Devu Handa who appreciate the rich biodiversity their land once boasted and wish they had never let go of it.

The writer is an organic farmer based in Dahanu, Maharashtra

Published on November 07, 2014

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