Saving rice

Rice is at the heart of a fierce strategy debate as the country prepares to launch the second Green Revolution in the eastern states. Policymakers and scientists have drawn up ambitious plans to increase the productivity of this cereal which feeds two-thirds of Indians.

Enormous funds are being poured into research aimed at improving seed varieties, with a heavy focus on developing hybrid rice. Is it the right option for millions of small rice farmers who are already battling high input costs and increasingly unpredictable weather? Or does part of the solution lie in efficient methods of cultivation that will cut down water use and improve yield?

Latha Jishnu analyses these varied strands as she visits research institutes and gets down into the paddy fields of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh to understand what might work. She discovers that traditional rice varieties are making a significant comeback in Odisha—as in Karnataka, where Aparna Pallavi finds some farmers have abandoned high-yielding varieties in favour of indigenous varieties and organic farming to meet the challenges of climate change.

From West Bengal, Sayantan Bera reports that the largest rice producing state has a different set of problems to contend with if it has to reap the promise of the new Green Revolution.

By Sayantan Bera, Aparna Pallavi, Latha Jishnu
Published: Friday 31 December 2010

Saving rice

riceSomething is stirring in paddy fields across India. New seeds, new crop management techniques and newly minted food security policies are about to hit the countryside. Not all of the changes that are being forged in Krishi Bhawan, headquarters of the Union agriculture ministry, in the top-flight research institutions across the country, and in the boardrooms of leading global and domestic seed companies are visible as yet. But these policies could transform the country’s rice landscape, perhaps, in an unalterable manner.

Driving past lush green rice paddies in Odisha’s Cuttack and Khordha districts, the picture seems timeless as ever. Farmers are surveying their ripening crop and counting panicles, the branching flower cluster that carries rice grains, to get an idea of the expected yield. It is a richly verdant tapestry that is on view for mile upon mile: the predominant expanse of high-yielding dwarf varieties broken here and there by fields of distinctively taller traditional rice plants. As one travels southwest to Koraput, the fields of traditional rice varieties appear to be more widespread. Here lines of colourfully clad women from tribal communities are working in the paddies, transplanting the same kind of rice they have been growing for centuries. This ageless picture of bucolic charm, so closely tied to the country’s culture and history, is, however, deceptive.

There is a crisis in rice—both for the farmer, battling unprecedented changes in weather and escalating costs of cultivation, and the government, which needs to ramp up rice production by two million tonnes annually to ensure the nation’s food security. There are other concerns as well. India is a highly water-stressed country. Since every kilogramme of rice requires 4,000-5,000 litres of water, making it an ecologically unsound crop, there is a question mark over the issue of increasing rice production. The biggest worry is stagnant yields. India has the largest area under rice in the world—about 44 million hectares (ha)—but its productivity is way behind a dozen other countries. High-yielding varieties cover slightly over 80 per cent of the rice acreage, but the yields of these varieties—the result of decades of research by the huge network of public-funded institutions— have touched a plateau. Farm experts say the primary reason is poor agronomic practices. In contrast, China, the biggest producer of rice in the world, churns out 193 million tonnes of paddy on just 29.2 million ha, notching up yields of 6.61 tonnes per ha compared with 3.37 by India.

There is a sharp dichotomy in the approach of the farmer and the policymaker on what can be done on this score. There lies a huge perception gap between the farmer’s search for sustainable livelihood and ecologically sound practices in the face of climate uncertainties and dipping water table, and the government’s focus on industry-promoted solutions for boosting rice yield.

Let’s take a few examples. In Mandya district of Karnataka, paddy farmer Boregowda of Shivahalli village has switched to traditional rice varieties from the high-yielding Jaya and Tanu, which he was cultivating with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Output had fallen from the initial 2.5-2.7 tonnes per acre (0.4 ha) to 1.8 tonnes, and given the cost of cultivation his farming was proving unremunerative. Besides, unpredictable weather was making his livelihood precarious. Boregowda started with his grandfather’s favourites, Coimbatore Sanna and Doddibatha. The varieties, revered for their drought-tolerance and special taste, had disappeared after the Kannambadi dam brought irrigation to the area. He now harvests 2.7- 3 tonnes per acre and gets a better price for his organically grown rice.


At the other end of the country, in Koraput, the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation has given the tribals an assured income through conservation and cultivation of the scented Kalajeera rice. Starting with just 5.6 ha in 2002, the prized rice is now grown over 48.8 ha, yielding 134 tonnes in 2008. The rice, says Susanta Sekhar Chaudhury, senior scientist at the foundation, is fetching cultivators a handsome premium. There are countless such stories where farmers are shrugging off modern farm practices to return to the healthier cultivation of the past (seeThe custodian of indigenous rice').

But can traditional varieties alone meet the country’s growing food needs? The Planning Commission estimates that India requires 122.1 million tonnes of milled rice by 2020 to meet food security norms. At the existing 1.34 per cent rate of growth India can hope to produce no more than 106 million tonnes.

How is the country to bridge this deficit?

A major initiative to meet this challenge was kicked off in 2007 with the launch of the National Food Security Mission which has been mandated to bump up rice production by 10 million tonnes by 2011-12. The three-pronged mission—for rice, wheat and pulses— has been allocated generous funds of Rs 4,882 crore with rice getting the lion’s share of Rs 1,963 crore. This year, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced another scheme, more ambitiously titled the Second Green Revolution for the eastern states, in his budget. With an outlay of Rs 400 crore from the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojna (RKVY) funds, the thrust is to step up rice yield, along with that of pulses and oilseeds, in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal and eastern Uttar Pradesh. This is good news for the rainfed region that has received little attention from policymakers in the last six decades. While agriculturists believe the region holds the greatest potential for meeting the country’s galloping food requirements, there is a yet-to-be-settled debate on the path forward.

According to Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar the best bet is the Chinese model. At the first conclave of agriculture ministers of the newly designated Green Revolution states in July, Pawar said there was much to learn from the Chinese model of agricultural growth, particularly in using hybrid paddy. To ensure that the correct strategies were followed, he announced the formation of a special task force on hybrid rice. One of the primary objectives of the task force would be to foster the production of hybrid rice seeds through public-private-partnerships (PPPs) and make these available at reasonable rates to farmers. The belief is that only hybrid rice can bridge the yield gap of one-two tonnes per ha. Ashish Bahuguna, additional secretary in the agriculture ministry who heads the task force—it is made up of half a dozen bureaucrats—confirms that the Green Revolution interventions would willynilly be focused on hybrid rice. In fact, to fast forward the process, India would import hybrid rice seeds from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Our institutions can continue with their adaptive research but we can test these varieties for the next kharif,” Bahuguna says. This is a decision which could prove controversial.

Two decades of concentrated research on hybrids by premier research institutions in the country—the Directorate of Rice Research (DRR) in Hyderabad, the International Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) in Delhi and the Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI) in Cuttack—have not made much headway. Since the 1990s, the Centre and states have released 43 hybrid rice varieties, of which 28 are developed by public labs. In addition, says Tapan Kumar Adhya, director of CRRI, 30-40 truthfully labelled hybrids developed by the private sector are being cultivated in the country. Yet, just about 3 per cent of the area under rice has gone over to hybrids (see ‘Sterile growth of hybrids’).

“We can’t do without hybrids,” insists B C Viraktamath, director of DRR. “Varieties may give us five tonnes per ha but that crucial extra tonne per ha can only come from hybrids.” He, however, concedes that “increasing the yield should not be the only criterion” since it has “derailed the sustainability of rice production system”. Therefore, “the Green Revolution in eastern India should be ushered in based on the principles of sustainability, soil health and environmental protection”, Viraktamath says. He believes half the irrigated area under rice, that is 9-10 million ha, can be brought under hybrids if all goes well. DRR has just released its first hybrid variety in a marketing and licensing deal with four private companies.


It is perhaps on account of such poor acceptance that the National Food Security Mission (NFSM), too, is focusing much of its energy on popularising hybrid rice. It has set a target of bringing three million ha under hybrids by 2011 although mission officials have not found the response of farmers encouraging so far. Mukesh Khullar, joint secretary in the agriculture ministry, who heads NFSM says, “Farmers don’t appear to see much benefit in using hybrids, and there are issues relating to quality and availability of the seed.” The mission provides financial assistance for production of hybrid rice seed, Rs 1,000 per 100 kg, because it concedes that “hybrid rice seed production is a very complex and risky task. The ultimate realisation per unit area in hybrid rice is very low”. Along with funds for distributing mini kits of hybrid and high-yielding varieties, it also offers assistance for conducting demonstrations on farmers’ field. Some of the eastern states have an issue with the priorities outlined by Pawar. A member of West Bengal Planning Commission, who did not wish to be named, says, “The large-scale transition to hybrid rice in India is not practical since the input costs are too high and it’s not easy to convince farmers. Besides, hybrid rice requires better irrigation management which is not possible everywhere in West Bengal.” In any case, even with the existing semi-dwarf high-yielding varieties, productivity of four-five tonnes per ha is achievable.

There are other gripes. S K Samanta, joint director of research at Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, an agricultural university in Kalyani, West Bengal, points out that state agricultural scientists were not consulted during the formulation of the new Green Revolution plan. What has been overlooked in the formulation of the plan is that most farmers here are small and marginal landholders. They are efficient in crop management but are not suited to farm mechanisation, which is a significant component of the plan.

Overall, the obsession with promoting hybrid rice as a priority has not gone down well with the larger community of agriculture scientists. They point out that the new stress-tolerant varieties that have been introduced in several states have done much to revive the fortunes of rice cultivators—and add to the foodgrain kitty. One of the biggest breakthroughs has been the development of rice varieties that can take on prolonged submergence, drought and grow well in extreme salinity. Uma Shankar Singh, South Asia regional project coordinator of the International Rice Research Institute’s STRASA (Stress Tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia) project, points out that a significant strategy to enhance rice productivity in rainfed areas and mitigate the impact of climatic changes is to go for stress-tolerant rice varieties. A major success of the STRASA project in this line, partnered with the Central Rice Research Institute, is Swarna Sub1, which can rebound after over two weeks of submergence and is seen as a breakthrough for coastal areas. Similarly CSR36, a salt-tolerant variety developed by the Central Soil Salinity Research Institute in Karnal, Haryana, is performing exceptionally well. Stress-prone rice area in the country accounts for as much as 24 million ha, of the 44 million ha, posing a huge challenge for stabilising rice production.

All of this appears to have led to a quiet war in the research community over the right rice strategy for India. According to insiders, a group of scientists from the apex Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) has brought up this issue with Pawar and Krishi Bhawan officials, pointing out that tilt towards hybrids would only benefit the private seed companies. Hybrid seeds cannot be reused by farmers like other seeds and have to be procured each season from the developer. “Is it surprising therefore that private seed companies are not interested in inbred seed research but are focusing almost exclusively on hybrids?” asks a senior ICAR scientist who has worked on international programmes.

The new Green Revolution may well usher in a rice revolution in the east but before that it could lead to a bitter battle for India’s rice market.

With inputs from Jyotika Sood





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