Rice variety resistant to seawater floods is Kerala’s answer to climate change

'Pokkali' is an endemic type adapted to saline water. To survive the high tides it started growing taller and can reach around 1.5 meters height

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The government's push for the agri sector comes amid protests against its three farm laws that the farmers believe are in favour of corporate interest.

When Super Cyclone Amphan hit 24 South Parganas district of West Bengal in May last year, it broke embankments, allowing seawater to directly enter the rice fields destroying the crop. Agricultural experts and farmers there started the search for rice varieties that are saline water-resistant and climate change adaptive. Their search finally ended at Ezhikkara, a coastal village on the outskirts of Kochi city in Kerala where a saline tolerant rice variety was being cultivated for several centuries.

This endemic rice variety is believed to have grown only in the upper reaches of the Western Ghats in the present Idukki district of Kerala till the 14th century, according to popular legend. At that time, as the legend goes, a massive flood in the river Periyar broadened the reach of the rice to Ezhikkara and a few other villages as it spread across the coastal areas of Ernakulam, Alappuzha, and Thrissur districts.

Over the years, the rice variety had adapted to the saline backwater region, and to survive the high tides it started growing taller. Now it grows to around 1.5 meters. Its name, Pokkali, comes from its height. In Malayalam, Pokkam means height and Aali means plant.

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With the help of the non-profit organisation Breakthrough Science Society (BSS), representatives of the farmers in South 24 Parganas, mostly those who live in the proximity of Sunderbans, reached out to Pokkali farmers in Ezhikkara, and seeds were sent there. According to Francis Kalathungal, an office-bearer of the Kerala chapter of BSS, Pokkali farming on an experimental basis has already started in over 10 acres of rice fields in the South 24 Parganas and farmers there believe that it can withstand saltwater incursion, primarily linked to climate change, into the rice fields.

Ramkumar Mandal and Khudiram Halder are two farmers in Mathurapur Block-2 cultivating the rice in 30 cents (around 0.3 acres) of land and their yield is ready for harvest now. According to Mandal, more than 80 percent of rice fields in the Sundarbans are facing the issue of saltwater incursion. If the Pokkali experiment becomes a success, it would be promoted across the region as a practical solution.

Though Pokkali farming, which requires no fertiliser or pesticide, has won worldwide attention in recent years with rice experts initiating studies on its adaptation in areas sandwiched between backwaters and the sea, this peculiar seed and its unique kind of farming are not getting required patronage in the home state Kerala.

The Geographical Indication (GI)-tagged rice, which was once prevalent across the coastal regions of central Kerala, is now confined only to Cherthala taluk in the Alappuzha district, Kochi-Kanayannur-Paravur region of Ernakulam, and Kodungallur in Thrissur district. In Kerala, it is now cultivated over less than 5,000 hectares annually. Earlier, the cultivation was spread over 25,000 hectares.

Though the pandemic induced lockdown and a delayed monsoon have affected rice cultivation severely in Kerala during 2020, Pokkali remained an exception. The farmers who cultivate the rice through indigenous organic ways say they have not faced any hurdle.

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One of the major promoters of Pokkali in Kerala now is P. K. Hormis Tharakan, a former chief of India’s external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Hailing from Thaikkattussery on the banks of ecologically sensitive Vembanad Lake, he came to know about the virtues of Pokkali after the Kerala floods of 2018. Agriculture was badly affected by the floods in the coastal regions of Kerala with bunds getting broken and floodwaters inundating low lying fields. But Tharakan recalls that the Pokkali rice had withstood the floods and the accompanying heavy winds. Knowing about its advantages, Tharakan began cultivating it on the farmlands he owns.

“Now there are many takers and promoters in and outside the state for this exceptional indigenous wild rice variety with high nutritious value. But, sadly, its growers are still struggling to make ends meet. The agricultural practice behind Pokkali is labour-intensive and the yield is not getting proper markets in the state,” points out Gopinath Parayil of The Blue Yonder, a responsible travel initiative that works with farmers of Ezhikkara and promotes the village for visitors to experience the unique cultivation practice of Pokkali. Parayil who introduced the rice variety to students of the Culinary Institute of America is now attracting buyers for Pokkali rice from across the globe by spreading its story using multimedia.

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“People are paying more than Rs 100 per kg for rice varieties like Basmati. If positioned right, and the story behind Pokkali is conveyed to consumers, there are buyers for Pokkali. Challenges of Pokkali are never about lack of market but about making it available for consumers,’’ says Parayil.

It was in recent years, Palliyakkal Service Cooperative Bank that has branches across Ezhikkara and surrounding areas has come forward with a comprehensive package promoting the revival of Pokkali farming.

It promotes Pokkali as a food security product by streamlining the production and sale in all the 34 grama panchayats where the crop is growing. The bank has also prompted the farmers to produce a dozen value-added products which include tooth powder using the husk of the grain.

According to K. G. Padmakumar, director of International Research and Training Center for Below Sea Level Farming (IRTCBSF), climate change has prompted the world to look for saline-resistant crop varieties and, if promoted widely, Pokkali will have a great future. “Sea level is rising across the world and the rice varieties which can grow in both saline and fresh waters have a great future. We need to promote its large scale cultivation,” he said.

M. P. Vijayan, secretary of Palliyakkal Cooperative Bank, said the farming of Pokkali rice normally happens between April and October. Post-October, the rice fields are utilised for prawn and shrimp cultivations. “It’s a unique way of agricultural activity. There are seven months for rice cultivation and five months for aquaculture. The decayed Pokkali stems feed prawns and the prawn shell wastes nourish the paddy. As prawn farming is more economically viable, farmers can compensate their farming losses through it,’’ says Vijayan. The downside though is that several farmers are shifting to prawn farming completely without engaging in Pokkali cultivation.

Vijayan said the Agency for Development of Aquaculture, a project under NABARD, is offering an 80 percent subsidy for Pokkali cultivation, inspired by commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change. But the marketing of the product remains a huge problem.

Padmakumar said that Pokkali cultivation is environment friendly as the crop successfully resists seawater. The fields are also being used for rainwater harvesting in monsoon and so the freshwater availability is also getting promoted. According to him, Pokkali farms let rainwater percolate into the subsoil and thus offset salinity pressures.

As a result of the efforts undertaken by Parayil through his responsible tourism initiative, Ezhikkara gram panchayat and the farmers are preparing to widely promote Pokkali variety rice by organising a conducted tour to the farms and offering souvenirs. “In the case of taste, Pokkali can match with basmati. But people are not ready to spend more on Pokkali like in the case of basmati. But our experiences show that it’s the rice for the future,’’ says Parayil.

“Despite the pandemic, farmers were able to harvest better yield this time. We are planning to expand the area of cultivation during the next season beginning April,’’ said A. K. Sreelatha, who works as a scientist with Rice Research Station of Kerala Agricultural University at Vyttila in Kochi.

Sreelatha said the available Pokkali variety is capable of surviving more than a week underwater if transplanted in the traditional indigenous way. Several research institutes including the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines are studying Pokkali’s gene pools and they have already identified a portion of DNA on one of its chromosomes is crucial for salt tolerance.

Vijayan of Palliyakkal Cooperative Bank said hardly 20 percent of the 400 acres under the bank’s Pokkali cultivation drive in Ezhikkara were lost in the massive 2018 floods. The rest had managed to survive despite remaining underwater for three continuous days since August 16 that year. In the absence of any mechanisation, Pokkali is still being cultivated traditionally. So the Palliyakkal Bank is evolving different schemes to ensure supplementary income to farmers. Rice, fish, and responsible tourism have now turned into its motto. It has plans to introduce cycling on the roads surrounding Pokkali farms, organizing rides on canoes in the backwaters, and establishing eateries with fresh home-made food.

But farmers are still lamenting about the lack of mechanisation, unavailability of labourers, and the lack of a proper distribution network. The bank, which recently started a portal explaining the importance of Pokkali rice, is now attempting to standardise its farming by preparing a standard rating system.

(The story first appeared in Mongabay)

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