Govindia, a member of Odisha’s Bhumia tribal community, cultivates 70 indigenous varieties of paddy on just half an acre out of his three-acre farm in Nuagada village of the Koraput district. These include four pigmented varieties of paddy, which are rich in nutrients, antioxidant nutraceuticals and medicinal properties but fighting for survival.
Similarly, Kondh tribal Pabitra cultivates black and yellow pigmented rice varieties one acre out of his six-acre land where he grows eight other native types of paddy. “I cultivate black ‘Surubadi’ and ‘Bhaludhan’ along with yellowish ‘Lachia’ and ‘Hema’,” Pabitra of Bari village of Koraput tells 30Stades.
“We grow indigenous and pigmented varieties only for our consumption and conservation,” says Govindia’s spouse Raimati. This is in contrast to the scenario about half a century back. At that time, every tribal family in Odisha cultivated pigmented rice varieties not only for domestic consumption but also for commercial exchange through the barter system.
However, native paddy including pigmented rice started losing their popularity after the advent of the Green Revolution in the 1960s which shifted the focus to hybrid and high-yielding varieties. This wiped out many native rice varieties as farmers stopped their cultivation in favour of commercially successful hybrid rice.
Reviving and conserving pigmented rice
Realising the loss of biodiversity, Kendrigenda, a self-help group (SHG) of 10 Kondh women farmers in the Bari village, in Koraput, Odisha has set up a seed centre to conserve the remaining native paddy varieties. Set up in 2023, it has conserved the seeds of nine indigenous varieties including red-pigmented rice called ‘Bolak’ locally. The SHG in coordination with the farmers’ interest group (FIG) in Bari collect and conserve them.
“All 20 members of our FIG not only cultivate indigenous paddy but also motivate over 600 tribal families in Bari to follow suit. As a result, they have started cultivating both hybrid and indigenous varieties in over 100 acres including 15 acres where red ‘Bolak’ grows,” says Bipin Tadingi, a member of the Kondh tribal and the resource person of the FIG.
“We will continue to encourage farmers to pursue organic farming of indigenous paddy, including the pigmented black, red, yellow and brown varieties in place of the hybrid crops,” he adds.
The area under cultivation of native paddy has drastically decreased to less than 2 percent of what it was in the 1960s. “The yield of a hybrid variety is between 20 quintals and 25 quintals per acre, while that of a high-yielding variety varies between 15 and 20 quintals. On the other hand, pigmented paddy yields a maximum of 10 quintals per acre,” says Sarat Kumar Patnaik, the secretary of the Koraput Farmers Association (KFA).
This lower yield of pigmented rice can be made up by the higher market prices these varieties command. Pigmented rice sells at Rs 300 to Rs 500 per kg in the market due to its nutritional and medicinal benefits.
Tribal farmers of Odisha are trying to increase the area under their cultivation but undoing the past will take some years.
The world of native rice varieties
In the past, about 3,000 indigenous rice landraces including 320 pigmented ones are said to have been cultivated in Koraput, says Dr. Mihir Ranjan Mohanty, the head of Jeypore-based Regional Research and Technology Transfer Substation (RRTTS) of Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology in Bhubaneswar. Jeypore is a town in Koraput.
“This was revealed during the Jeypore Botanical Survey (JBS) undertaken by the Central Government between 1950 and 1955. Only 150 to 180 indigenous varieties including 20 to 25 pigmented landraces are under cultivation now in Koraput,” Dr Mohanty points out.
About 1,740 indigenous paddy varieties including a few numbers of pigmented rice landraces were collected during JBS, according to Dr Debabrata Panda, the assistant professor of the Department of Biodiversity and Conservation of Natural Resources (DBCNR) of the Central University of Odisha (CUO) in Sunabeda of Koraput.
When pigmented rice landraces are inching towards extinction, the state government has done precious little to prevent their disappearance. “The Government may soon take measures to promote pigmented landrace cultivation. Right now, aromatic landraces are the focus,” says Tapas Chandra Roy, the executive agriculture officer of the Kundra block.
When the scenario is dismal, some organisations like RRTTS, DBCNR of CUO, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) Jeypore and a few NGOs like Pragati in Koraput conserve indigenous varieties including pigmented landraces. While RRTTC claims to have 35 pigmented landraces in its collection of 554 indigenous varieties, MSSRF has 28 pigmented varieties among 361 indigenous ones.
“We have conserved about 400 samples of indigenous varieties including 20 pigmented ones,” says Prabhakar Adhikari, Director, Pragati.
“We purchase samples of black, brown and red varieties at Rs 40 to Rs 50 per kilogram from farmers who grow them in small patches of land for their consumption,” he adds.
“Motivated by us, about 5,000 farmers who mostly belong to Bhumia, Kondh, Gadaba, Paraja and Rana tribal communities cultivate pigmented landraces and other indigenous varieties in about 200 acres in over 100 villages under eight blocks of Koraput,” says Muralidhara Adhikari, the chief executive officer of Jaivik Sri Farmer Producers Company Ltd in Koraput, a wing of Pragati.
Pigmented rice landraces have several health benefits, according to the scientists of MSSRF and DBCNR of CUO. “Pigmented varieties have antioxidant properties. Besides, fibre in them helps prevent the possibility of diabetes,” says MSSRF scientist Dr Kartik Lenka.
The DBCNR of CUO has collected nearly 130 indigenous rice landraces and has researched the nutritional and nutraceutical content of eight pigmented varieties-- ‘Bedagurumukhi’, ‘Bhatamali’, ‘Haladiganthi’, ‘Kandulakathi’, ‘Kalachudi’. ‘Malimakada’ ‘Paradhan’ and ‘Tikichudi’.
“Pigmented varieties that we have studied contain fat, fibre, carbohydrates, protein, amylose, Vitamin C and Vitamin E, phenol, flavonoid, antioxidant, zinc and iron. All of them are beneficial to human health. For example, phenol averts damage to cells and promotes anti-inflammation capacity. Similarly, amylose boosts immunity, helps check diabetes and reduces risks of heart disease. On the other hand, flavonoids can dilute cancer risks, cardiovascular diseases, and several other disorders,” says Dr Panda.
(Niroj Ranjan Misra a Cuttack-based freelance writer. He writes on rural and tribal life, social issues, art and culture, and sports)