The Gobind Bhog Utsab 2016
The Agriculture Marketing Department’s Gobind Bhog Utsab will be remembered for a long time, not by all those who attended it but even by those who could not attend the inaugural as February 26, 2016 turned out to be the wettest day in 116 years of Kolkata’s recorded meteorological history. It rained incessantly, and all the arrangements made by the Indian Chambers of Commerce for the grand opening of the Gobind Bhog Utsab in the verdant lawns of Nalaban at Salt Lake had to be hastily redone in a smaller, adjunct hall which was overflowing with people because the rain had not been able to dampen the enthusiasm of those committed to the propagation, research, promotion, and research on Gobind Bhog, and other aromatic varieties of rice in West Bengal. Of course, the open air stage would have been much better, both for the lovely song Banglar Maati, Banglaar Jal, which was so apt for the occasion – and the discussion on Gobind Bhog that followed.
Gobind Bhog literally means “offering to Lord Gobind” (a popular name for Krishna), and many other aromatic rice varieties of West Bengal are not just part of the folklore, ritual, and the culinary traditions of Bengal, but also show the resilience of farmers in retaining the unique eco-system for their cultivation and preservation even though, till recently, the entire focus from the extension services, agribusiness corporations, and public procurement agencies was pre-eminently on quantity, and quantity alone. Thanks to the concern for labour of a few scientists and agriculture department officers at the Bidhan Chandra Krishi Vishwavidalya and the Agriculture Training Centre at Fulia (both in Nadia district), not just Gobind Bhog, but three hundred and twenty other indigenous rice varieties, including fifty-one aromatic varieties are being conserved, and thirty-one of these are being grown on farmers field, and under observation – both from the point of view of suggesting improvements in production and consolidation of produce for marketing, besides, of course, getting them under the ambit of Geographical Indicators and registering them as Farmers Variety to ensure that the communities preserving them get the necessary recognition as well as financial benefits in the long run.
Let’s take a look at other members of the Gobind Bhog family. If there is a rice for Gobind, how can Radha not have a variety named after her! So we have Radha Tilak growing in almost the same clusters, with a higher productivity and fetching the same premium as Gobind Bhog. Other incarnations of Vishnu cannot be left behind either there are Ramachandra Bhog, Kamini Bhog, Mohan Bhog, among others. Reflecting the changing power structures in the medieval times, Badhsah Bhog became a popular variety, especially for Biryani. The Governor Generals and Viceroys probably did not relish rice on their high table – obsessed as they were with replicating most of the Continental cuisine – else we would have had a few varieties named after them!
As a hard-nosed businessman would ask: all this is fine, but what is the revenue model? Why should this rice be grown? Where is the market? How does one get the volumes for export? And the Agriculture Department would want to know if it will really help the farmer get higher incomes?
It is precisely to address these issues that the festival had been organised. To expand the spatial and temporal spread of the market for these varieties, especially as these will cater to the upmarket, health savvy, brand conscious Bengalis – both in India and abroad, besides, of course, making these varieties part of the “gourmet cuisine”. Taking cue from Basmati which has become a global brand in just two decades, there’s a potential to showcase these varieties as the perfect ingredient for a range of delicate dishes and confectionery. But this calls for “convergence” and working together: understanding the market dynamics, developing a robust value chain – from authentic planting material to certification with regard to Good Agricultural Practice and/or Organic Production, world class packaging, established branding, logistics and traceability up to the farmers field.
Should convergence not take place naturally? It should, but it does not. As Agriculture Minister Purnendu Basu pointed out, beyond the formal communication which the department has with the university and the extension machinery, there has to be a meeting of minds. While all those present here could provide the orchestra, the tune, the tenor, the rhythm, and perhaps even shortlist the song, “the voice” can be given by the cultivator herself. The point was received in the right perspective, and should be rectified in the next edition as Gobind Bhog Utsab has to be a regular feature to make a lasting impact. Also, a serious effort has to be made to identify potential business partners both for domestic retail and the export markets. The Agri-Marketing Department has indeed made a very positive beginning- but the real impact will be felt only when the corporates and the producers evolve a mutually beneficial relationship. The Farmer-Producer organisations and co-operatives can also play a significant role in consolidating the produce and providing the necessary support for extension and traceability, and working in partnership with established brands, food for the gods can soon adorn the plate of mortals!
(Sanjeev Chopra is Additional Chief Secretary to Government of West Bengal. Views expressed are strictly personal.)