I feel I’m in the seventh heaven… as if I’m floating among the clouds,” says a beaming Pradip Kumar Ray on the mobile from Kolkata while the rains lash outside my home in Thane. “I’m happy that our work in conserving an extinct rice variety has been recognised. I’ve just received confirmation of Harina Khuri being granted PPR (Protection of Plant Right).”
Though the authorities at the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Right Authorities had granted the PPR to Sagar Krishnanagar Swami Vivekananda Youth Cultural Society of South 24 Parganas (West Bengal) for conserving Harina Khuri in June they were intimated in the last week of July. Incidentally, Ray, a former banker is a mentor and resident agronomist to the Society which comprises of 37 farmer-members, residing in 15 villages.
Harina Khuri has been traditionally cultivated paddy in the lower Gangetic plains, particularly in the coastal saline zone of West Bengal since a long time. With the quick adoption of high-yielding rice varieties during the last 4-5 decades, Harina Khuri like other landraces was almost eroded except in few villages of coastal saline tracts of West Bengal, where it is under localized cultivation. The last mention of it was in the Handbook of Agriculture (1901).
Expecting no pecuniary benefits and six years into superannuation, Ray has been visiting Sagar Islands every week for the last one-decade boarding a train at Sealdah to reach Krishna Nagar in Sagar Island —a distance of 135km covered by train, bus, ferry and bike taking close to six hours.
How did Ray, a Kolkattan come in contact with South 24 Pargana farmers?
“I was then working as a manager of State Bank of India’s Rudranagar Branch in Sagar Island. One fine morning the farmers while visiting our branch told me about their effort to conserve an indigenous paddy variety which had become extinct,” he says.
The villagers had accidentally recovered some obscure seeds of paddy when an almost century-old kucha hut was being refurbished. Wrapped in a red-coloured shawl the seeds were stashed in a wooden box kept under a tin roof. Sown in a tiny patch of land and following harvest, the farmers realised that the seeds belonged to an aromatic variety of rice.
Following Ray’s advice, the villagers contacted the Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya and the latter verified the paddy variety in question. “We were told that the paddy variety has not been cultivated for some 75 years. The University having sowed and harvested it for six seasons found it to be a lost variety of paddy and named it Harina Khuri, basing it on documentary evidence,” remembers Ray.
Sagar Island, one of the 54 islands inhabited, experiences a subtropical monsoonal climate with an annual rainfall of 1,600 to 1,800 mm. and receives about four to six severe cyclonic storms per year between August and November. Surrounded by the Bay of Bengal on one side and the Hooghly and Muriganga rivers on the other two, much of the soil here is composed of silt. Salinity gradients change over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. Sagar Island is characterized by mangrove swamps, waterways and small rivers. It also shares the risk of coastal flooding and coastal erosion with other islands. Embankment breaches caused by river and sea, tidal surges, salinity, disappearing mangroves—the ill effects of climate change is all happening here.
“The rising sea level is like a demon to us. We grapple with it every day besides we are also exposed to increasing high-intensity cyclones and storms,” says farmer Sukhdev Nath who grows paddy on his one-acre plot in Krishnagar and is the secretary of Swami Vivekananda Youth Cultural Society. “The rising sea has already submerged Lohachara island in Sagar block, eaten nearly three-fourths of Ghoramara island and severely affected the bigger Sagar island,”
Officials from New Delhi’s Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) came calling to Sagar Island and met the farmer-members of the Society to check out on the technique adopted for the conservation of the indigenous paddy variety. In December 2016 the members of the Society along with farmers from other parts of the country were invited to a day-long seminar organised by the Ministry of Agriculture wherein the Swami Vivekananda Youth Cultural Society was adjudged the best performer for agricultural activities and awarded a cash award of Rs 10 lakhs. With the award money, the Society acquired a three bigha (0.33 acre) plot of land to further its conservation activities.
Harina Khuri is small-grained aromatic rice. Sown in the Kharif season it’s a 140-day long paddy variety. The unique feature of this variety is its yield. While the yield of aromatic paddy varieties grown in the North-Eastern Region is three and a half to four quintals per bigha, Harina Khuri’s yield is much more than that. In fact, a member of Swami Vivekananda Youth Cultural Society has harvested seven quintals in a bigha. Most farmers grow the variety the organic way using vermicompost and decomposed cow-dung. An all-purpose rive Harinakhuri is grown here mainly for individual consumption, especially for making of payesh (sweetened rice boiled in milk), khichuri (pulse-mixed rice), puffed rice and flattened rice.
Being an aromatic variety Harina Khuri has good demand in Kolkata and its suburbs but the Society is encountering serious hurdles to process the same. Elaborates Ray: “In order to retain its aromatic properties, it’s generally par-boiled. As Kakdwip and Diamond Harbour, the places closest to Sagar Island after one has crossed the estuary of Bay of Bengal which takes over an hour there is no special huller-fitted rice-milling machine to process unbroken rice.”
In the last several years the Society has made several representations to both State and Central Govt. to address the issue but failed to receive any assistance. “The growers of Harina Khuri are happy that they were granted the PPR but feel depressed as there are no processing facilities and so we’ve stopped growing it,” concludes Nath.
It’s time the authorities paid heed to the pleas of paddy growers of Sagar Island and not let Harina Khuri, revived after seven decades, not vanish into obscurity.
Updated and edited on August 20, 2020.