Looks like Basmati but

India is losing the pride of many a pulao -- the aroma and taste of basmati rice. What are scientists and legal experts fighting about?

Published: Friday 15 January 1999

Looks like Basmati but

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania) patenting of basmati rice by Ricetec Inc of the us has been in and out of the news since February 1998. In response to a public interest petition filed in the Supreme Court, the Attorney General of India says Indian scientists and the best legal brains in the us are wracking their brains on the issue.

Well, they may as well go home. The very characteristics of basmati -- the aroma, the softness and the sweetness -- are being lost. The victory, if at all, of India's attempts at winning over patent rights from the us will be Pyrrhic if the product itself ceases to exist.

Area under traditional basmati cultivation around Dehradun, the ideal environment for fragrant basmati , has declined. High-yielding varieties ( hyv s) have replaced the traditional ones. What may be left behind is a long-grained rice that looks like basmati, but lacks the aroma and the sweetness, rendering the very need of geographical appellation of basmati redundant.

The grain and the chaff

Not so long ago there were many aromatic varieties of rice, collectively known as basmati ( bas means smell in Hindi). Some have already been lost, including Anjana, Anjani , Ram Jawain , Raat ki Raani , Durga Pasand , and Mukhmalti . The government has done nothing to preserve these.

Discussions on the quality of basmati range from banal to effusive prose. Fussy basmati eaters from Dehradun look down upon basmati grown in Punjab and Haryana. Connoisseurs go a step further: they insist on basmati from Majra, a village in district Dehradun, because this is where the aroma is.

Legend has it that basmati seeds were introduced into Dehradun from Afghanistan around 1840. According to Prakash Bharadwaj of Majra, whose family has cultivated basmati for eight generations now, the variety then spread to adjoining villages. However, basmati from Majra ruled the roost. Now, most of Majra is a commercial jungle. Land prices have shot through the roof.

Farmers say that the characteristic aroma is due to the local conditions; low temperature (22 c to 27 c ) during flowering and grain development, use of farm yard manure, good soil fertility, irrigation, direct sowing, and lighter soil and upland conditions. "Basmati from areas around Dehradun is known for its sweetness, softness and aroma. High-yielding varieties have none. The reason for these qualities is also the water comes from forests, dissolving nutrients from forest produce," says Vijay Jain of Dehradun, who trades in basmati. Jain is confident that real quality basmati cannot be grown anywhere else. He procures roughly 80 per cent of the basmati grown in and around Dehradun. Agricultural practices also add their bit -- basmati gives a better aroma when directly sown rather than transplanted.
Decline in variety Results of a survey by Indian Rice Research Institute, Cuttack, are disturbing. Though the area under basmati cultivation in Dehradun district increased from 100 hectare (ha) in 1990 to 1,500 ha in 1996, almost 80 per cent of prime rice-growing area has been swallowed by urbanisation. Majra is an example.

Some rice exporters have bought farms along the Delhi-Dehradun highway. They cultivate hyv s of basmati. The aroma of these is much inferior to that of the traditional basmati grown in native farming areas.

"Unwary buyers are often duped by suppliers who mix a handful of Dehradun basmati with basmati from Haryana and Punjab," says R K Mishra, a resident of Dehradun. While India does not recognise the importance of geographical appellation, Kuwait, the biggest exporter of basmati rice from India, has a legislation insisting that the exported basmati must be from the sub-Himalayan region, namely, in and around Dehradun.

Why are we losing the aroma

The reasons vary from the cultivation of hyv s and the absence of government seed conservation programmes to depletion of forest cover and the use of fertilisers, says Anil Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

In the absence of a proper seed conservation programme, propagation of hyv s by government agencies is eliminating the finest genepool of local varieties of aromatic rice. The pure strains are either getting lost or getting mixed with other, inferior varieties.

Chemical fertilisers have also taken their toll. Most local rice varieties are tall and susceptible to lodging (grain falls before ripening). Application of nitrogen fertilisers may improve growth but aggravates the lodging problem. And also disease. "With the use of fertilisers we now face increased (plant) diseases," says Jain.

The availability and the use of organic manure has declined, forcing farmers to use nitrogen fertilisers. Also, farmers believe that urea adversely affects the aroma. "The quality of basmati that my grandfather produced on our fields was so much better that I do now," rues Jain, who uses nitrogen fertilisers. "I have no choice. I have to get yields. Besides I do not have many cattle on my farm now," he says.

Soil quality also matters, though exactly how it does is not known. Farmers feel that the decline in forest cover has also adversely affected quality. The topsoil is no longer enriched by forest litter and microbes. Moreover, farmers are sometimes forced by economic circumstances to undertake mixed cropping and cash crop cultivation, which drastically reduce soil fertility.

If the government is fighting the patenting of India's natural resources and heritage, it should first make sure that the resources exist and will continue to do so. Unless some steps are taken to revive the fragrant basmati, we could well end up fighting over history.

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