Rice Genetics Feeding Families and Stopping Floods

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By Manipadma Jena, Womens Feature Service

Orissa has long been held hostage to extreme weather. A state government’s document, ‘Status of Agriculture in Orissa’ (July 2008), records that over 48 years – from 1961 to 2008 – this eastern coastal state has had to grapple with floods 21 times, drought, 15 times, and has faced five cyclones. Moreover, for the first time in 2001 and again in 2006, the traditionally drought-prone hilly districts saw severe floods leaving families in 25 out of 30 districts in dire straits.

While the frequency of floods has increased two-fold, their intensity too has seen a sharp increase. In 2008, Orissa experienced 18 cyclonic depressions in the Bay of Bengal with heavy rain towards the fag end of the monsoon season, resulting in severe floods in 19 districts. Monsoons have become patchy and erratic. Rainfall of around 1,502 mm was regular in the eighties and nineties. The years from 2001-2004, however, saw a decline to 1,482 mm; and 2005 saw it further decrease to 1,451 mm.

Too much or too little rain has catastrophic consequences for a population of which 65 per cent derive a livelihood from agriculture, where 83 per cent of cultivated hand is held by marginal and small farmers, and where 67 per cent of farmland depends on the monsoons as the main source of irrigation. This translates into mass poverty, food insecurity, mass out-migrations and loss of primary education and health care. Out of the 61 lakh hectares of total cultivated land in Orissa, 44 lakh hectares are under paddy cultivation. Of this, 10 lakh hectares are chronically flood-prone, according to the Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI) in Cuttack district. Over the last decade, barring two years (2002 and 2008), the state has seen a rice deficit.

However, not everyone has remained puppets to Nature and its vagaries. Dekheta village in Nimapara block of Puri district literally hugs the Dhanua river – the entire village lives within 100 metres from it. For years the river has either provided a rich harvest to the farmers or flooded and damaged their entire crop. When they tried growing cash crops they discovered that they do not provide the food security that paddy does. Then, in 2006 and 2007, the river swelled very late into the monsoon, just when the paddy was flowering. Unplanned constructions had choked the natural rainwater drainage systems and the paddy remained under water for almost three weeks.

That year, grown-up sons in almost every family left the village in search of work. According to local estimations, 200 men have migrated out of this village of 100-odd households over the last few years. Some went to the flour mills of Hyderabad, others to the soap and oil factories of Kerala and still others to the motor units of Tamil Nadu. Take the case of Padmabati Parida, 55. Her son Satyanarayan, 30, having finally given up on farming, took off to reside permanently with his wife’s family in Bhuan, a neighbouring village, leaving his widowed mother to fend for herself.

With insufficient food grains to feed six-member families, women formed Self-Help Groups to generate inter-personal loans. But these too failed. “Prospective grooms demanded gold ornaments, household furniture, Rs 50,000 (US$1=Rs 48.5) in cash. With crops failing and my two daughters of marriageable age, I was at my wit’s end,” recalls Golap Parida, 52. She sold some of the ancestral land and cattle, took loans and managed to get her daughters married. Golap has a unique take on climate change. Says she, “When people have to buy grooms, this change in climate is how God punishes us.” Rambhabati Swain, owner of six acres of land, agrees with Golap, “Dharma is fast vanishing, hence the erratic rains, killing heat and warm winters.”

The men offered different reasons, ranging from the loss of green cover to the missile tests at Baliapal, in Balasore district. However, everyone agreed that the climate has changed for the worse.

Meanwhile, the CRRI and several agricultural universities, in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Manila, developed a stress-resistance gene called (Submergence-1) ‘Sub 1’, that can withstand water submergence for 10 to 15 days. Submergence of plants inhibits aerobic respiration and photosynthesis.

“The Sub 1 gene, through an ethylene response, regulates the metabolism and development acclimatisation response,” explains Dr Jafran Keshari Roy, former Joint Director, CRRI. “It was as though the rice plants are able to hold their breath until the water is gone,” explains another scientist.

Derived from a traditionally submergence-resistant rice variety called FR13A, originating from Orissa, Sub 1 gene was ingressed to the high-yielding Swarna variety. The Swarna Sub 1 appears to be the answer to the flood-hit rice farmers of Dekheta and could prove a boon for those in most Asian countries. The other new submergence-resistant variety called IR.64 Sub-1, too, can be grown for both the Rabi (paddy grown in winter) and Kharif (paddy grown in monsoon) seasons.

When Dekheta was selected as a field research base last year before the monsoons, the male farmers here were hesitant to use untried seed varieties. Bishnupriya Parida, 39, whose husband Trilochan, 45, is one of the larger landholders with 10 acres and a modest rice mill, says, “Over the past few years, the traditional sowing time-table, the government rain forecast – nothing has been working for us. We women have borne the brunt of crop failure year after year. We have had to put something on the plate for each meal. Our grown-up sons left home for work as daily wage labour despite the fact that we owned land. So I persuaded my husband to try the new seed. After all, what more could we lose?”

Floods came as late as on September 18 last year and water remained knee-high for 10 to 14 days. The five bigger landholders who sowed the two flood resistant varieties on portions of their land waited with bated breath. So did the CRRI and the Association for Integrated Development, the NGO that interfaces with the farmers. As the water receded the villagers saw the new paddy crop had not buckled down under flooding while paddy on all the other fields lay wasted. The layer of muddy silt on the leaves, however, had to be washed away and fast. After waiting for rains for two days, Trilochan finally pumped water out to clean the crop. In November, he reaped 300 kilograms of good quality rice from just over half an acre of land, nearly two times the quantity he would get from the normal Swarna seed. In a best-case scenario a Swarna harvest gives a two-tonne return per hectare. Swarna Sub1 gives 3.5 – 4.5 tonnes, claims Dr Roy.

Bishnupriya and sister-in-law Pratima proudly show the 50 bags (75 kilos each) stacked up to the storeroom ceiling – enough to keep their 12-member family going for six months, unlike the previous years.

After this spectacular development, Lata Parida has got husband, Laxmidhar, to sow the Swarna Sub 1 in a portion of their one-acre holding. So have the wives of 30 farmers in Dakheta and 21 farmers in nearby Garapada village. But that’s not all. Widow Padmabati, a marginal farmer with half an acre of land, has with other women farmers decided to revive their defunct Jadumali Mahila group to start a flood-resistant paddy seed bank and the CRRI is working towards providing special seed storage bags as seeds lose their feasibility within six to 12 months due to contact with atmospheric moisture.

As word spreads, many like Golap join the queue to buy the seeds now going at Rs 10 a kilo. That is how women of a small Oriya village have helped to break the jinx of bad weather and bad harvests.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.