Paddy that survives the flood

Agriculture


The paddy strains that are grown in the Varada river basin are flood-resistant

Farmers in the Varada river belt have adapted to the fury of the river that flows in Sagar, Soraba and Sirsi taluks. The rivulet, which takes birth at Sagar, flows through Sirsi and Soraba for about 11 kms before joining the Tungabhadra. During its short journey, the Varada wreaks havoc and destroys thousands of acres of paddy fields when continuous rain swells the waterways. This puts at risk at least 30,000 people in 25 villages depending on it.

Flooding is an annual phenomenon here. However, it does not mean that farmers do not grow anything during the flood. They possess a unique wealth that enables them to grow paddy even in flooded conditions, and the varieties of rice can subsist deep standing water for a long period.

Now, while scientists are pondering over developing submergence-tolerant varieties of paddy, farmers around Sirsi, Sagar and Soraba taluks are much ahead of them when it comes to cultivating flood-resistant varieties.

“Flooding is a common phenomenon here. Every year, there is flooding and farmers have adapted to it. At a time when agriculture by itself is considered a tough occupation, farmers have found a way out by cultivating some of these rare varieties,” says Raghunandana Bhat, a resident of Banavasi.

Remarkable diversity

Over centuries, farmers in the region have carefully developed and preserved varieties that can survive when their lifeline, the river Varada, invades their fields. These flood-resistant varieties hold a significant place in the biodiversity of the area.

The Varada basin is home to deepwater rice varieties like Nereguli, Karibatha, Sannavaalya, Karijaddu, Kani Somasale, Jenugoodu, Nettibatha, Kari kantaka, Edi kuni, and Karekal Dadiga.

The most popular among these varieties is Nereguli, which has proved to be the best deepwater variety for years. It is liked for its vigour, taste and health quotient. This variety is organically grown using traditional methods and is highly nutritious and in great demand, in Kerala and Goa.

Manjunath M H, a young researcher says, “These crops are rare as they remain submerged in water for over a month. As part of my study on paddy varieties, I have collected over 11 unique varieties, and they have amazing characteristics.” He added that these are the only varieties that can stay submerged in water for weeks and probably months. The grass blades rot and what remains are the stalks, which sprout once the water level recedes, he said.

All these varieties are still being grown in this area, because the much hyped hybrid varieties do not survive the climatic conditions prevalent here. The hybrid paddy varieties being supplied by the government are of little use to the large number of farmers whose fields lie alongside the Varada river. High-yielding varieties have never been grown in these flooded fields.

Devendrappa, a farmer of Yelkundli says, “The seeds distributed by the government have failed to survive, but farmers cultivating these rare varieties are harvesting seven to nine quintals per acre. The surprising factor is that this year, there were three spells of floods and because the duration was long, we thought the crops would fail, but we had a record yield and these paddy varieties saved us.”

Extinction of indigenous varieties

Most of the germplasm that existed in this area has been lost and the collection of the unique flood-resistant rice varieties are declining. Yet the government and agriculture departments have failed to design programmes to support the indigenous rice varieties growing in this belt.

Government agencies continue to promote modern high-yielding varieties with subsidies; not only are these varieties unsuitable for the region, they also destroy native biodiversity.

Hardly any research and development has been done in the field of deepwater varieties of rice.

The scientists cannot claim to possess even a single deepwater rice variety suitable to the region.

“Deepwater varieties were extracted from nature and nurtured over generations in flooded conditions only through the efforts of farmers. These flood-resistant varieties have a significant place in the biodiversity of the area. Research has not been conducted on such varieties in Karnataka and despite the demand for local strains, the government continues to supply hybrid varieties that do not survive, further adding to farmers’ woes,” says G Krishna Prasad, Director, Sahaja Samrudha. He further adds that the agriculture department does not possess any native seeds that are useful to farmers in the region.

According to Shantha Kumar of ‘Save our Rice Campaign’, Nereguli is a significant variety because it remains submerged for long.

There are other varieties in Bangladesh and Andhra Pradesh that can withstand floods and grow tall, but will collapse once the water recedes, but Nereguli is quite the opposite. It is rooted and grows fast once the water recedes.

Floods and the river have become a part of the lives of farmers here. It is unfortunate that the government continues to supply only hybrid varieties through Raitha Samparka Kendras, but they don’t survive here.

Motivated by a concern for conservation of these nearly-extinct varieties, Sahaja Samrudha has developed farmer-breeding practices for multiplication of the varieties. Documentation of existing practices and the culture associated with them has also been undertaken.

On-farm participatory trials to characterise and evaluate rice varieties have been carried out in Yelkundli, Sagar taluk and Mogalli in Sirsi taluk.

Threat to deepwater rice

In the name of progress, new types of seeds, the HYVs (high yielding varieties) have been introduced. Cultivation practices have changed with the introduction of these, whilst they have not solved the problems of crop losses and famine. A new threat looms with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) developing a deepwater variety by introducing a gene called SUB1 through marker assisted selection (MAS) into some of the varieties already in use.

Karnataka has its own deep water rice varieties that have stood the test of time and survived for decades. The fury of the monsoons and the flooding of the fields on the banks of the rivers have not been able to destroy these varieties. But, in the face of mounting pressure from corporates, how long will farmers hold on to their heritage?

What can be done

Steps which could be taken to conserve the deepwater diversity of Varada basin:
*Declare the paddy fields along the Varada ‘Seed Heritage Zones’
*Document agricultural practices associated with it
*Set up community seed banks at the rural Panchayat level and encourage seed exchange among farmers
*Ensure Raitha Samparka Kendras possess good quality flood resistant varieties
*Provide value addition and market facilities for deepwater rice varieties
*Undertake reforestation programmes
*Plant native trees along the Varada to check soil erosion

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