Sukhdev Nath, a farmer from Sagar Island in the Sundarbans, was nine years old when he witnessed the 1978 flood. The devastating flood ruined his family’s paddy fields as the crops could not withstand saline water.
The Green Revolution that began in the 1960s promoted high-yielding varieties of paddy and wheat. It wiped out many indigenous varieties, and Sagar Islands’ native paddy crops were no exception. Many small-and-medium grain non-Basmati aromatic rice varieties, which could withstand climate change, and were under cultivation in West Bengal for centuries, were lost because the farmers did not conserve their seeds.
By the time Nath grew up and began farming, paddy landraces had been replaced by high-yielding hybrid rice almost everywhere. He was, however, particularly drawn to a type of paddy that he had seen in his childhood. Called Harinakhuri, this landrace could withstand flooding and salinity.
In 2005, he found a clay container filled with Harinakhuri at his maternal grandfather’s house. The paddy was stored meticulously in the air-tight earthen pot with Neem leaves. The pot was sealed with cow dung and clay mixture.
“I knew nothing about its cultivation but I attempted to grow it for the first time over one kattha (0.06 acres) of land on an experiment basis in 2006. The crop was successful,” recollects Nath.
From extinction to expansion
“Later, in 2009, I decided to go the Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya (BCKV) and shared the paddy variety with the scientists,” says Nath, who helped in the conservation of the native rice. He follows organic farming for paddy, using only vermicompost and cow dung manure on the farm.
The scientists at BCKV then successfully multiplied the native paddy and began distributing it among other farmers interested in organic farming of Harinakhuri.
Nath says Harinakhuri may have originated in the East Midnapore area. It is possible that this landrace existed in Midnapore 150 to 200 years ago.
The earliest record of ‘Harinakhuri’ rice is found in the ‘Statistical Account of Bengal: Districts of Midnapur and Hugli’ published in 1876. It was traditionally cultivated in the lower Gangetic plains, particularly in the coastal saline zone of West Bengal.
Harina means ‘deer’ and the doe-eyed aspect of Harinakhuri earned it the moniker. The dusky-shaded paddy is heavy, with a tinny whisker on either end. The thin layer of husk covers the pale crimson grain. Harinakhuri is resistant to disease, pests, salt and drought. It has a very unique aroma.
Once successful, Nath, with the help of five farmers, set up the Sagar Krishnanagar Swami Vivekananda Youth Cultural Society in 2010 to preserve and advance Harinakhuri. This paddy was thereafter distributed to the farmers in 19 blocks on Sagar Island, including those in Mathurapur, Canning, Basanti, Gosaba, Kultali, Raidighi, Kakdwip, Namkhana, etc. The cultivation of Harinakhuri takes place along the coast. This is a kharif crop that grows well in salinity.
Currently, around 5000 farmers are growing Harinakhuri on 62.5 hectares of land and reaping the rewards of their efforts. It is used to prepare payesh (dessert), khichuri (mix of lentils and rice), puffed rice, rice cakes and chira (flattened rice), among other items. The paddy rises to a height of five to five and a half feet.
The yield of Harinakhuri paddy is around 30 quintals per hectare, which is higher than the national average of 27.18 quintals per hectare (FY22).
The cost of cultivation is less because the water requirement is low (resulting in lower electricity expenses) and the variety is resistant to both pest and climate change. Farmers sell Harinakhuri rice at Rs 100 to Rs 120 per kg because the native variety is high in demand. The produce is sold to local merchants and consumers without any branding or packaging.
Farmers get much higher rates than the conventional rice type because of the higher demand and growing awareness about organic rice. In contrast, the MSP for conventional rice is Rs2183 per quintal for FY 23 (Rs 21.8 per kg).
Nath says apart from increased incomes for farmers, there have been other benefits of organic farming of Harinakhuri. “Soil and water pollution levels have significantly decreased. Earthworms are sadly in danger of going extinct, but honeybees and other insects have returned as a result of less pesticide usage and birds flock to the fields to feast on insects,” says Nath.
The farmers' group has set out to raise awareness about Harinakhuri outside Bengal as well. “We have sent paddy to farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh because seeds have a 99 percent probability of germination. We are using hay bale wrapping and clay pots to store seedlings,” explains Nath
Revival of native paddy varieties in West Bengal
Led by farmers like Nath, West Bengal has seen a significant increase in the production of local aromatic rice cultivars. The cultivation of indigenous rice landraces, such as Tulaipanji, Harinakhuri and Gobindobhog, has resulted in a 20 percent rise in income for farmers in the state's north and south regions.
Over half a century ago, these native rice varieties were farmed for domestic use.
Scientists from BCKV are now helping rice farmers in north Bengal with the cultivation of Tulaipanji, while those in south Bengal are planting Harinakhuri.
The name Tulaipanji comes from the Tulai River between Bangladesh and India. The small-scale farmers in north Bengal replanted their land for Tulaipanji farming in 2016. On average, they produce 2-2.5 quintals of rice per bigha (0.25 hectare). It was awarded a Geographical Indication or GI tag in 2023 after the Gobindobhog variety received it in 2017.
Tulaipanji, classified as a non-Basmati aromatic variety, is sown in August and harvested in January. It reaches a height of 42 to 45 cm on average and requires a water level of 2.5 inches. The paddy measures 5.3 mm in size. At the tip, it has a little whisker.
This area is home to a few local rice millers who have tied-up with the local traders. The traders prefer the paddy with the shorter whisker because of its aroma, while the paddy with the longer whisker is less fragrant. The grade varies depending on the climate and soil condition. The district of North Dinajpur's Raiganj subdivision has loamy soil where it grows well. Tulaipanji cannot grow on clayey soil.
Tulaipanji is grown in large quantities in the blocks of Raiganj, Kaliagunj and Hemtabad. Belal Rehman, a farmer and the secretary of Kaliyaganj Krishi Udyog Producer Company Limited, says, “Currently, 300 to 400 hectares of land is under Tulaipanji cultivation and it has greatly benefited us monetarily.”
Currently, 1,248 farmers affiliated with Kaliyaganj Krishi Udyog Producer Company grow it for commercial purposes.
The yield of Tulaipanji is 16 quintals per hectare. Last year, the farmers earned Rs 7,000 per quintal from paddy sold immediately after harvest without any processing.
Tulaipanji is a pest-resistant variety and is cultivated without any fertilisers. When cooked, the rice is flavourful, non-sticky and has a brownish hue. Rehman explains that the scent of Tulaipanji is distinct from Gobindobhog that lingers longer.
Role of rice scientists
The BCKV scientists started researching aromatic rice around 15 years ago. In collaboration with UBKV (Uttar Banga Krishi Viswavidyalaya), BCKV launched the Rashtriya Krishi Vikash Yojana in 2009, focusing on Bengal’s aromatic rice varieties.
They are now promoting seven indigenous aromatic rice types - Gobindobhog, Harinakhuri, Kalajeera, Kalonunia, Lal-Badshabhog, Radhatilak, Radhunipagal and Tulaipanji.
The scientists started 40 groups of farmers from various districts to participate in extension operations that were based on their research work. In addition to the groups, 100 independent farmers produce rice in their individual capacity.
“We used seeds that were obtained from farmers in 2013-14 to conduct a characterisation test. Under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Authority (PPVFRA), BCKV submitted registration applications for four kinds of rice. Gobindobhog received registration in 2014, Harinakhuri in 2020, Lal Badshahbhog in 2021, and Radhuni Pagal in 2022,” says Dr Mrityunjay Ghosh, Professor and Principal Investigator, Department of Agronomy, BCKV.
BCKV provided the farmers' group with pure seeds along with technical help. Before expanding their cultivable acreage to plant more fragrant paddy varieties, these farmers grew standard rice varieties.
“Harinakhuri is highly beneficial for human consumption. It contains 56 qualities. It is now more widely cultivated. Farmers obtain considerably higher rates for Harinakhuri. Their financial circumstances have greatly improved. The State government is pushing farmers to start cultivating it,” informs Ghosh.
While Tulaipanji and Kalonunia are grown in the north Bengal region, Gobindobhog, Harinakhuri, Radha Tilak, Radhuni Pagal, Kala Jeera and Lal Badshabhog are cultivated in the south Bengal region. In the South Bengal region, Gobindobhog output has increased from 20,000 hectares to over 35,000 hectares. The agricultural lands have also greatly increased in size.
Markets for organic native rice
On the other hand, farmers in North Bengal sell their grains in neatly sealed plastic packets. The rice varieties are sold in Sufal Bangla outlets in addition to local markets. Rehman says Tulaipanji is sold on the internet platform Mystore ONDC in Assam, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana.
“Gobindobhog is shipped to Bangladesh and Nepal. We can export more varieties of West Bengal's aromatic rice in the future if we have a well-structured policy,” Dr Ghosh continues, “It will benefit the farming community.”
(Partho Burman is a Kolkata-based award-winning journalist. He writes inspiring human interest and motivational stories.)