How tsunami resowed resilient paddy in the farms of Nagapattinam

Farmers like Anbumani (in pic) in Thalaignayiru village of Nagapattinam, who lost their paddy crops to pests, are contemplating switching to traditional paddy varieties. Photos: N Vinoth Kumar

The tsunami of 2004, that wrought devastation along the coast of the Indian Ocean, swallowing villages, destroying farmlands and causing huge fatalities in the coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala, left an indelible mark on the lives of people who witnessed its fury and survived its consequences.

For the farmers of Nagapattinam who have been losing swathes of farmland to frequent cyclones and coastal erosion, the severity of tsunami was a wakeup call to switch to traditional paddy varieties.

Prey to natural disasters

The district, whose coastline constitutes 15 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s coastal stretch (1,076 km), is a frequent casualty of cyclones that develop in the Bay of Bengal. During the 2004 tsunami alone, the district witnessed 6,065 of the total death toll (8,081) of the state.

Due to the frequent occurrence of cyclones and erratic monsoon, farmlands in the district suffer from flooding, salinity due to intrusion of sea water as well as pest attacks. The district is also the first to be affected by floods during the onset of the northeast monsoon and the last to receive water from the Mettur Dam, making it vulnerable to droughts.

According to a study conducted by water expert S Janakarajan, Mettur Dam, where river Cauvery enters Tamil Nadu, blocks the river’s natural flow and vital sediments. Geologists say the flow of the river depletes by the time it reaches Nagapattinam, after travelling almost 350 km from Mettur. When the ground water in the coastal district doesn’t get replenished by river water, the vacuum created due to usage of groundwater, sucks water from the sea.

“This makes the district highly vulnerable to seawater intrusion,” Janakarajan adds.

According to the District Survey Report for Sand-Nagapattinam District 2019, parts of the district could start slipping under the sea in the coming decades if mitigation efforts are not implemented. A significant shrinkage in area of cultivation could also adversely affect the food production of Tamil Nadu, the report said.

The district has also been categorised as the ‘most vulnerable to high storm surges’ by the state Environmental Information System (ENVIS) due to the repeated bouts of cyclone.

The irregularities have affected the paddy production in the district which once contributed a substantial share of rice production to the state. While, earlier, paddy was cultivated during the three rice seasons of Kuruvai, Thaladi and Samba, the submersion of thousands of acres of land into the sea has now restricted farmers to the Samba season.

“The sea has eaten into almost 4,000 acres of farmland between Vailankanni, close to Chidambaram and Muthupettai, 200 km south of Puducherry, since Tsunami. The village of Thalaignayiru alone has lost 300 to 500 acres of farmland to the sea,” says Ayappan, a member of the Tamil Nadu Cauvery Farmers Association.

Switch to tradition

It is in this backdrop that the farmers in the district are gradually turning to traditional paddy varieties which experts say not only consume less water, but can also be grown in saline soil and are resistant to pest. What’s more, the crop can be cultivated the organic way.

And the shift gained momentum post Tsunami, after Nammazhvar, an organic farming scientist toured the delta districts of the state and conducted seed festivals, to sensitise farmers on the effectiveness of growing traditional crop varieties that are resistant to disasters and climate change, says Varadarajan, founder, Thaaimann, an organisation working towards traditional farming.

“Farmers in almost 16 villages of the district have embraced the traditional way,” says Balasubramanian, a farmer based in Vedaranyam, who is also one of the directors of Valanad Sustainable Agriculture Producer Company Ltd, a Nagapattinam-based organisation which distributes traditional seeds to farmers.

Also read: Rise in sea level, coastal erosion: Looming threats that TN’s coast faces

Popular varieties of traditional paddy include Maappillai Samba, Kichili Samba, Seeraga Samba, Poongar, Karuppu Kavuni, Thooya Malli and Kuzhivedichan. As the state agriculture department doesn’t supply these seeds to farmers, they procure it from individual organic farmers, seed banks and NGOs advocating traditional varieties.

“It is due to the efforts taken by organic farming activists like Nammazhvar and Nel Jayaraman, that we have been able to save more than 100 traditional rice varieties of paddy. We provide seeds to the farmers for free of cost. After the harvest, the farmers should return the same amount of seeds to us, but for a price. Through this kind of rotation we continue the practice of cultivating traditional rice varieties,” Balasubramanian says.

Organic answer to pest menace

Farmers say cultivation of traditional paddy varieties have spared them of dealing with the growing pest menace that has been ailing the district for the past few years. Farmers and agriculture experts attribute the increase in pest menace to climate change and irregular rainfall.  According to Tamil Nadu Cauvery Farmers Association, more than 100 hectares of land has been affected this year due to pest attack, which will lead to farmers losing about 70 per cent of their cultivation.

“Heavy rainfall usually arrests pest activity. An insect cannot sit on the crop and feed on it if there is heavy rainfall. But, a windy drizzle, gives space to the insect to feed on the crop,” says entomologist N Selvam.

Modern crop varieties like ‘CR 1009 Sub’, which require large amount of urea to enhance cultivation, are vulnerable to pest attacks.

“Farmers growing modern paddy varieties use copious amount of urea to enhance the cultivation. Urea is useful if the weather is sunny. But if the temperature drops, the pests take advantage of it. The weather, the growth stage of the crop and the size of the pest are the three factors which affect paddy cultivation,” he adds.

“In Thalaignayiru, pest attack was not common until recently. But this year, crops have been severely affected by Gall Midges (called Aanai Komban in Tamil), which is new to the district,” says Kamal Ram, district secretary, Tamil Nadu Cauvery Farmers’ Association.

However, farmers who cultivated traditional paddy varieties like Mappillai Samba, Seeraga Samba, Kichili Samba, Karuppu Kavuni and Kuzhivedichan did not suffer from pest attacks. Almost all the farmers in the 16 villages of the district, who cultivated traditional paddy varieties strictly followed organic farming, says Balasubramanian.

Balasubramanian, a farmer in Vedaranyam shows a panicle of the Kuzhivedichan variety of paddy which is highly resistant to cyclones and droughts

“I cultivated both Maappillai Samba and sub-varieties of CR-1009. But I used only organic manures like Panchakavya (a composition of cow urine, cow dung, milk, curd and ghee) and Amirtha Karaisal (a mix of fermented cow dung, cow urine, country sugar and green gram) to fortify the soil. These manures are extremely beneficial in arresting pest attacks,” says Rajendran, a farmer at Valivalam village of Thirukkuvalai block.

Also read: River linking: Good in logic, bad in science

“Leaves of traditional paddy varieties are scratchy in nature, which keeps pests off their surface. Leaves of modern paddy varieties on the other hand are smooth, making them a succulent option for pests to feed on,” Selvam says.

Sturdy, saline resistant

Their ability to grow above flood water also makes traditional paddy varieties an alternative for the farmers of Nagapattinam. For instance, the Mappillai Samba variety can grow up to 7 feet and Seeraga Samba up to 6 feet.

What has boosted the confidence of farmers is the exceptional resistance of the Mappillai Samba variety to salt water.

“Last year, despite the advice of farmers, we grew Mappillai Samba in a field close to a salt pan. The salt mining company that owned the pan had almost 1.50 lakh ton salt in its possession of which half covered the fields located within 100 metres of its factory. A few months later, when Cyclone Gaja hit the district, it not only flooded the paddy field with sea water, but also led to the deposition of salt from the nearby pans on its soil. But surprisingly, the crop didn’t wither in the saline water and gave us a good harvest,” says Balasubramanian.

Besides, experts say traditional paddy varieties consume less water.

“While the cultivation of a kilo of modern rice variety will need the vaporisation of 1,300 litres of water, traditional varieties will consume only 300 litres of water,” Balasubramanian adds.

Another advantage of cultivating traditional paddy varieties is the low amount of weeds they allow.

Chockalingam, a farmer who cultivates the Karuppu Kavuni variety, says he spent almost nothing to control weeds in his field. “I spent literally nothing for herbicides. I used no fertilisers. These varieties have the capacity to control the weeds by themselves,” he adds.

Pocket-friendly and rewarding

Farmers say the switch from modern paddy to traditional varieties has also brought down the production cost of cultivation. While a farmer spent between ₹15,000 and ₹18,000 per acre in cultivating modern paddy varieties, the cost has fallen to ₹10,000 to ₹12,000 per acre for traditional varieties. For farmers, who have been strictly growing traditional paddy varieties for years, the production cost has come down to ₹3,000.

Besides, farmers say traditional varieties are more profitable than their modern counterparts. “One acre of land yields around eight sacks of rice. If a farmer sells a sack of CR sub-variety rice for ₹900, the same quantity of Mappillai Samba will fetch him ₹1,500,” Rajendran says.

Farmers who cultivate these traditional varieties have a niche clientele including individuals and private agencies who collect it from their house.

The trend to cultivate traditional paddy varieties is also picking up among youths who have left cushy jobs to become organic farmers in Tamil Nadu.

Yet, roadblocks galore

Despite its many benefits, many farmers are yet to warm up to traditional paddy cultivation as they are not procured by the government.

“These traditional varieties are now being grown on subsistence basis. It is either used by the farmer’s family or sold to private parties as the district procurement centres only accept the modern varieties,” says Rajendran.

Also, as the traditional rice takes much longer time to cook compared to the modern varieties, buyers prefer the latter. “People always look for polished and smoother rice varieties. The rice of traditional paddy is a little hard but the nutrition level is high. Unfortunately, consumers are not aware of that,” says Kannan.

Getting seeds of these traditional varieties also becomes difficult for farmers, since the government sells only the modern varieties. Any interested farmers to sow traditional varieties depends on the seed banks run by activists and NGOs.

“But for how long can individuals and NGOs shoulder the responsibility. It is time the government came forward to encourage cultivation of traditional rice varieties,” Balasubramanian adds.

Dr Ashok Dalwai, chief executive officer, National Rainfed Area Authority and the chairperson, Doubling Farmers Income Committee, Ministry of Agriculture, says despite their strengths traditional paddy varieties have their share of weaknesses.

“But their yield is very low, which will not fulfill food production demands. More yield will need more water and more inputs like fertilisers,” he says.

Although the state government promotes organic farming through schemes like Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana, it relies on modern rice varieties over traditional ones when it comes to procuring them from farmers, as modern varieties yield more and will address food security better, he adds.

Seconding Dalwai’s point, Dr Nadesa Panicker Anil Kumar, executive director, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, says organic farming cannot be a standalone option as of yet.

Also read: For waterman, Ganga is so holy yet so unholy

“We live in a time when we have to produce more food from less land. To do that we need different forms of agriculture, and cannot solely depend on organic farming. The traditional varieties need niche markets. Some of these varieties have low glycemic index. If you see in the lifestyle perception, these traditional varieties are useful. But for sustainable food production, we need commercial farming,” he says.

Dr V Ambethgar, director of Tamil Nadu Rice Research Institute, who agrees that traditional varieties cannot produce a substantial yield despite their sturdy nature, says a cross between traditional and modern varieties can be a solution.

“We try to find hybrid varieties by crossing the sturdy traditional varieties with the lab-developed modern varieties. By this the hybrid variety can have the strengths of both the varieties,” he says.

He, however, says that the perception that organic farming is less expensive, is wrong. “If a farmer uses 10 kg of urea in inorganic farming, he would need the same amount of natural manure in organic farming. But we don’t have enough livestock, to cater to the needs of organic manure,” he adds.

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