By Leneesh k on 14th May, 2019

Rice Diversity Blocks in Kerala and five other states preserve over 1,000 indigenous varieties of rice that were at risk of being lost.

In the Indian subcontinent, the birthplace of paddy, the colours of the crop’s many varieties are as diverse as the land, its people, languages, cultures, costumes, dialects and so on. But most of that variety was lost, when farmers were asked to forgo indigenous varieties of paddy for a few high yielding varieties (HYVs) developed in labs.

This was 50 years ago, when the Green revolution saw India intensively push for replacing its more than 1.5 lakh heritage varieties with the new HYVs, simply to ensure better productivity.

Today, thanks to a few farmers, who refused to forgo their heritage seeds, and thanks to the efforts of scientists like Dr Richaria, and later Dr Debal Deb, as well as national campaigns like the Save our Rice Campaign (SoRC), more than 1,000 varieties are preserved and propagated every year in fields, and maintained in Rice Diversity Blocks (RDBs) and live seed banks across India.

Indigenous Rice Diversity Blocks are fields that maintain the various varieties of paddy across years, either as a collective effort by entities like the SoRC or by individual farmers. The Save our Rice campaign has facilitated themaintenance of many RDBs across six states – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand. Together, these RDBs conserve more than 1,000 indigenous varieties, which over 30,000 farmers have adopted.

One such RDB at the Thanal Agro-ecology Centre (TAEC) in Panavally in Wayanad district of Kerala has grabbed wider public attention this year. This RDB has 219 indigenous rice varieties, of which 164 are native to Kerala. This is the largest live collection of paddy varieties in the state.

The campaign started its RDB work in Kerala in 2010. The first RDB was trialed at Kammana in Edavaka gram panchayat in Wayanad district. It was maintained on the paddy field of an indigenous farmer called Cheruvayal Raman. It had 22 indigenous rice varieties, all local to the Wayanad district. Cheruvayal Raman, later went on to become an icon of his own, as a conserver of seeds.

This RDB attracted a lot of attention especially among farmers and students. Dr Leena Kumari, then Professor and head, Regional Agriculture Research Station (RARS) (expansion), Mankombu and Sri Krishnaprasad, the seed consultant with the Campaign, provided the technical support, training RDB curators and field organisers in Kerala in maintaining RDB and seed purity.

Rajesh and Reena, two nature enthusiasts gave their paddy land to Thanal, a voluntary organisation with its Agro-Ecology Centre at Panavelly, Wyanad for maintaining the RDB. This helped SoRC increase the number of varieties and scientifically manage its own RDB. The Campaign had, by then, collected 64 indigenous rice varieties. Nearly half of the varieties in this RDB were local to Wayanad.

In 2011-12 SoRC conducted seed exploration trips in Kerala. In February 2013, it also ran a seed caravan from Kasargod to Thrissur for sensitising the public about the importance of conserving indigenous seeds. Both helped SoRC increase its collection of indigenous rice seeds.

There were many issues in maintaining so many varieties of paddy in one block. The wide difference in duration of the varieties was the main challenge. The flowering of the different rice plants needed to be asynchronised (made not to coincide), to avoid cross pollination and ensure each variety remained pure. It took 3 years to stabilise the functioning of this RDB. In 2013, the team managed to establish the asynchrony in the RDB and built it up as a rice learning centre. The RDB was not maintained merely as a field where diverse rice seeds are grown. It soon grew into a centre for knowledge sharing. The first rice field days event, a residential workshop for a growing group of seed savers from different parts of Kerala, was conducted at the RDB at Panavelly in November 2013. At the event, knowledge about the diverse varieties was shared, and this motivated them to take more efforts to conserve indigenous rice varieties.

Compared to 2010, there is a passion among farmers today for traditional seeds, and many have adopted them in their cultivation. Interestingly, the Agriculture Department is now interested in promoting these varieties. This development is seen in the other rice campaign states of West Bengal, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as well. This is indeed a welcome development.

It is now also seen that many of these varieties also compete well with the HYVs, show a better resistance to pests and diseases, and most importantly adapt well to local climatic conditions. Some of them have excellent stress tolerance properties, and are highly suitable for changing climate conditions. The collection includes varieties that are scented, medicinal, palatable for different culinary purposes, recipes and so on.

In April 2014, the RDB Panavally launched its seed distribution programme. Following this, C Vijayan, a farmer from Kannur district, established an RDB in his village Alappadamba with the rice seeds he collected from Panavelly.

Owing to increased interest among large sections of people, especially farmers and schools, the field days turned into a field week programme in 2014. After visiting the RDB, a few inspired minds started similar RDBs in other parts of the state, including one in Kasargod by Prabhakaran, a school teacher and farmer, and another in Wayanad by T Unnikrishnan, a farmer Thanal along with the SoRC conducted its first seed festival in the region in April 2015 at the LP school in Panavally. It was a one-day seed festival featuring events such as seed exhibition, seed exchange, a food festival and sessions on various topics related to seed conservation, agro-ecology and so on.

The year 2016, was an exciting one for paddy seed conservation in Kerala. Five seed festivals were conducted, which drew visitors from across the state. 13 RDBs now exist across the state, having spread to the districts of Kasaragod, Kannur, Wyanad, Thrissur, Malappuram and Palakkad.

The icing on the cake came when photographer Midhun Raveendranath and his team, used a helicam over the Rice Diversity Block in Panavelly and gave the world a bird’s-eye view of the RDB. With such photographic evidence, the world came to see a paddy diversity field, in all the various hues and colours of nature.

With interest in indigenous rice varieties growing among scientists, farmers and policy makers, and thanks to the growing popularity of RDBs, the future looks brighter for the preservation of the diverse varieties of paddy, in all their natural glory