Thursday, April 23, 2015

Saving India's rice

“If you tickle the earth with a hoe,” it is said, “she laughs with a harvest.”

Not anymore.

The agricultural yield of India has been steadily decreasing over time. Nowhere is this depletion more evident than in the cultivation of rice, once a staple crop in the country.

There was a time when fields across the country saw the harvesting of numerous varieties of rice that were native to a particular village and were not to be found anywhere else. These strains of rice were treasured by generations of farmers for their capacity to grow well in extreme weather conditions such as droughts or floods. Such rice also had a strong medicinal value (some could even prevent cancers) and were not affected by saltwater.

Dr Debal Deb, noted India rice conservationist, estimates that India was once home to more than 100,000 local varieties of rice. That number has now dropped to 6000, owing to modern methods that encourage the growth of hybrids in the hope of netting high yields.

Abysmal as the loss is, it would have been much worse were it not for the efforts of Dr Deb, who has singlehandedly worked hard to remedy the situation. An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Science, Dr Deb is a Fulbright scholar who has done post-doctoral ecology work at the University of California at Berkeley. Buoyed by the courage of his convictions, he gave up his job at the World Wildlife Fund to save the country’s rice strains.

Dr Deb has made it his personal mission to give renewed life to those lost varieties of rice. He visits remote regions and gets in touch with marginalized farmers that the country has forgotten about in his quest to source the seeds to these varieties. His efforts require him not only to battle larger issues of climate change and poverty, but also to fight against bureaucracy and the apathy of people.

His battleground is a 2.5 acre plot of land in a forest area on the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha, where Dr Deb is growing 920 varieties of rice. These varieties are planted in the traditional manner, with care taken to ensure that no two varieties grow at the same time, to prevent cross pollination and ensure the genetic purity of the varieties.

Over the last few decades, Dr Deb has collected more than a 1000 varieties of rice from 13 states across India. He stores the seeds in a seed bank named Vrihi, the Sanskrit word for rice. These are seeds that Dr Deb painstakingly collected from farmers. But for his efforts, these numbers would have been added on the debit side, aggravating the loss that the country suffers.

To do this, Dr Deb has initiated a unique method, a seed exchange programme that rewards farmers for sharing. He grows the rice and then distributes it in 1kg packets. Farmers receive the packets free, but must bring back 2kg to him, to prove that they have cultivated it. And so the cycle continues, including more and more farmers in its ever increasing spiral of generosity.

The spurt given to the cultivation of these varieties of rice contributes to food security and helps perpetuate the culture and the local biodiversity. Enabling these varieties to thrive has also served farmers well. When Cyclone Aila destroyed parts of West Bengal in 2009, some farmers in the Sundarbans who were cultivating salt-tolerant varieties of rice, with the support of Dr Deb, reported a rich harvest.

As the devastating effects of global warming become a reality and extreme weather conditions become more and more evident, the value of Dr Deb’s efforts will become more evident. Dr Deb also hopes that this resurgence will re-kindle farmers’ interest in traditional farming methods.

In a world in which food security has begun to cause grave concern and in which food varieties are disappearing forever, Dr Deb’s efforts can help herald a new era for Indian agriculture.

I believe that Dr Deb's efforts are all that stand between profusion and extinction for India’s rice heritage.

Dear reader, if you are reading this and believe, as I do, in the perseverance against all odds displayed by Dr Deb, please do not forget to vote for him. Please vote for Dr Deb. 

I’m voting for Dr Deb’s #WillOfSteel and blogging on BlogAdda to help him get felicitated and eventually enabled by JSW."

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