SAVING POKKALI RICE

By Soumik Banerjee on 14th May, 2019

It was water everywhere and we were being rowed on a boat to reach the coconut lined edges, as we stepped into the grassy bunds overgrown with shrubs, we could see to our amazement – golden panicles of POKKALI Paddy waving at the light wind growing on a pool of water…. POKKALI - A unique salt tolerant, flood resistant variety that is endemic to coastal taluks of Alapuzha, Ernakulum & Thrisur districts in the southern Indian state of Kerala; grown across a few hundred acres, this variety was awarded the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2008 as well as Plant Genome Savior Award in 2011. Pokkali rice is large grained rice with distinct flavor and commands higher price than ordinary varieties. It is cultivated without need/ use of any external inputs- fertilizers or pesticides.

 The rice is cultivated from June to November, followed by fish prawn culture in the same field after harvest of paddy. The prawn fishlings swim in from the sea and the backwaters after rice harvest and feed on the leftovers of the harvested crop. The rice crop further gets nutrients from the prawn excrements and other remnants, thus making rice-prawn mutually complimentary. The prawn-fish crop is harvested by the middle of March, the outer bunds are then strengthened to prevent any seepage of saline water and by end of March -saline water is completely drained/pumped out, and by June paddy seeds are sown. After a month they are transplanted in the same field, completely through human labor (without using cattle), further harvesting the paddy in mid Nov.

The cultivation is highly dependent on the southwest monsoon and the tidal action of the Arabian Sea, the high salinity of the water-logged fields caused by high tide is washed off by the plentiful monsoon rains. 40 years ago 26,000 ha were under pokkali cultivation however today only 5000 ha is left and 500 ha cultivated; due to the high cost of paddy cultivation. This is despite the increased demand, export potential and income from prawn cultivation. Currently saline water is let into the paddy fields before mid-Nov , resulting in intolerable levels of salinity that is not only causing the destruction of one of the highly nutritious indigenous rice traditions but also destroying the houses in and around.

 This is being done to facilitate the prawn industry at the cost of rice farming. The high levels of salt is destroying the plaster, brick and cement of the homes, paint (which contains lead) dust is being inhaled by the families residing in the area on a continuous basis further resulting in asthma, liver and kidney ailments and a number of other complications. Even drinking water is no longer consumable as an acre of paddy field would recharge 3 lakh litres of sweet rainwater into the ground and with the collapse of the riceprawn system and intensification of salinity families are forced to buy drinking water (in one of the highest rainfall regions in the country) from water tankers paying hefty sums.

Most of the landowners in the area are absentees; thus it is the common people who suffer; they have lost the ability to produce highly nutritious chemical free rice for themselves, lost employment opportunities during rice cultivation, in addition to facing the health and drinking water access problems. In this backdrop the Pokkali Samrakshana Samara Samiti (PSSS), translating to Pokkali Conservation Agitation Committee, was initiated, in 2009, under the leadership of Francis Kalathunkal, a Professor, in an Engineering College, who has been struggling to revive Pokalli rice cultivation.

After numerous appeals- the Govt proposed one rice-one fish approach meaning 6 months of rice followed by 4 months of prawn/fish. However this is not being adhered to primarily due to the greed of the powerful and well entrenched prawn establishment which does not want to wait for the Nov 15 deadline of keeping saline water off the paddy fields. . In the year 2013, PSSS initiated a unique approach to revive Pokkali rice by floating one thousand rupee bonds. After harvest (in 6 months) the investments are returned through highly nutritious, organically grown Pokkali rice or in cash without interest.

Though this approach was quite successful, in 2014 the landowners, under pressure from the prawn establishment, refused to lease out lands for Pokkali rice and thus the bonds could not be floated. Currently thousands of families in the area are affected and in spite of the efforts of the PSSS and even some support from the district administration Pokkali rice continues to be affected and destroyed. At the time of our visit, the Pokkali Samrakshana Samara Samiti had registered an FIR to protest the release of saline water into the rice fields before the stipulated deadline resulting in complete ruin of the maturing crop. Thanks to the Pokkali farmers, Francis Kalathunkal, Gasper Kalathunkal and all those who helped us to document this unique tradition and their struggle for its revival.