Preserving indigenous varieties
Assam college creates a rice bank to safeguard seeds of native varieties from extinction while encouraging farmers to cultivate them, writes Aditya Baruah
A college in Assam has walked the extra mile by not only setting up a rice bank to preserve seeds of indigenous varieties that are losing out to new high-yielding varieties but also encouraging farmers to grow them so that they do not become extinct.
The Silapathar Science College, located in Dhemaji district along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border, has so far documented and preserved 251 indigenous varieties through its rice bank. Set up in 1996, the college started to work closely with farmers in the district since 2015 and organised a "Rice Mela" to showcase the indigenous varieties grown in the district.
"That was the beginning. We have encouraged our students to visit the whole of the district and collect the samples of rice grown by the farmers. Dhemaji used to produce a large variety of rice, but most of these are not available now due to various reasons," Ranjit Saikia, principal of the Silapathar Science College, told IANS.
He explained that while the government is promoting high-yielding varieties of rice through various schemes to boost production, local farmers also prefer these as more production means more financial gain. "This is a bad trend as the state's indigenous rice varieties will become extinct," he said, adding that the indigenous varieties of rice are tastier and more nutritious compared to the high-yielding varieties.
Rice is the staple diet for most of the tribes and communities in Assam and the state produces a huge quantity of it. According to government statistics, Assam produced over 70 lakh tonnes of rice in 2017, compared to 52 lakh tonnes in the previous year. Besides the normal rice, Assam also produces different varieties of aromatic rice, locally known as "Joha"; some varieties of soft rice, locally known as "Komal Saul" that needs no cooking; and a huge variety of sticky rice, commonly known as "Bora".
"High-yielding varieties of rice are affecting the indigenous varieties. Farmers have lost interest in growing indigenous varieties as production is less. However, the indigenous varieties are better suited to the local climate and there must be a sustained effort to improve production of the indigenous varieties," Saikia explained.
"We maintain a register of farmers. We are in constant touch with them and give them necessary support for cultivating the indigenous rice varieties," he said, adding that the college is aware of which farmer is growing which indigenous variety every year.
"This year, we have encouraged some farmers to grow 'Meleki Bao', an indigenous variety of red rice. At least 40 farmers have assured they would do so this year. We are working on a plan so that we can buy back the rice from the farmers at a standard price compared to the market," said Dr Jitu Gogoi, a professor of the college's botany department.
He said that compared to high-yielding varieties, it is easier to grow the indigenous varieties. "If one grows high-yielding varieties, one needs pesticides, fertilisers and a lot of labour. However, our land is so fertile that no manure is required for the local varieties. The farmers can harvest three months after sowing the seeds," he said.
"As of now we are documenting and preserving the indigenous varieties of rice grown in Dhemaji district of Assam. However, we hope other institutions will also take steps to document and preserve the indigenous varieties grown in other parts of the state," Saikia said.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)