When Krishnakumar Tomar, one of the first to grow basmati in this fertile belt, harvested his crop 14 years back, he had no idea where to sell it. With no local takers for the aromatic paddy, the 40-year-old from Badi, which falls in Raisen district, was told he could get a good price for it at Delhi’s Narela mandi or Kota in Rajasthan, both many hundred kilometers away.
“I wondered whether it was worth the trouble going all the way there”, recalls Tomar. The long road journey to Narela may only have further sowed seeds of doubt over his decision to switch from growing regular high-yielding paddy.
But today, “basmati is my main crop”, declares this science graduate, who grows Pusa Basmati-1 (PB-1), a variety bred by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi, on his entire 35-acres farmland. He devotes more resources and attention to it than even wheat, which is cultivated during the rabi winter season and sold to government agencies at the official minimum support price (MSP).
Tomar used to previously cultivate paddy varieties such as ‘Mahamaya’ and ‘Kranti’, which gave yields of up to 30 quintals per acre. PB-1 yields are lower at 18-22 per acre. The difference, however, is in prices.
“Ten years ago, ordinary paddy sold at Rs 600 per quintal. Even today, the government’s MSP is only Rs 1,470. In basmati, prices rose as high as Rs 3,900 per quintal in 2013. They have fallen since to Rs 2,000, but are still more than that of non-basmati”, he points out.
Tomar is among the many farmers in this area – having assured irrigation, thanks to the Barna Dam completed in the late 1970s – who have stopped planting regular paddy or soyabean in the kharif season. They have prospered by switching to a crop that is now a bone of contention between Madhya Pradesh (MP) and the northern states led by Punjab and Haryana.
All the three are, incidentally, ruled by the BJP either by itself or in alliance.
At the heart of the dispute is MP staking claim for inclusion of 13 of its districts – from Morena, Bhind, Sheopur, Gwalior, Datia, Shivpuri and Guna in the north to Vidisha, Raisen, Sehore, Hoshangabad, Narsinghpur and Jabalpur in the central-south – in the Geographical Indication (GI) area officially demarcated for basmati cultivation.
As of now, only seven states in the Indo-Gangetic plains on the foothills of the Himalayas – Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Uttarakhand, West Uttar Pradesh and two districts of Jammu & Kashmir – have been granted GI certification rights for growing basmati.
The states that have been issued the GI tag – mainly millers and farmers in Punjab and Haryana – are vociferously opposed to extending the same to MP. Their contention is that the state neither has a history nor the specific agro-climatic conditions suitable for basmati cultivation.
But for farmers here, basmati is what has brought them prosperity that was non-existent till a decade ago. Tomar may have, then, struggled to dispose of his crop. But that changed with the entry of millers, who sensed an opportunity to procure basmati from MP at rates lower than what it cost in the traditional northern belt.
LT Foods Limited was the first mover. The company, which sells basmati rice under the well-known Daawat brand, went on to establish a state-of-the-art plant in 2006 at Mandideep, about 20 km from Bhopal. In no time, many others also moved in. They included S.S.A International and Narmada Cereals Pvt. Ltd, which have also set up milling facilities at Mandideep, technically in Raisen district.
“There is no dearth of buyers for basmati, unlike wheat, where we are entirely dependent on the government. Nor do we have to go to any procurement centre to sell, as the company agents come to us directly to purchase from our doorstep. And the basmati crop does not fail from less or more rains, which is not so with soyabean”, notes Sunil Sharma.
This 40-acre farmer, also from Badi, took to basmati after seeing Punjabi Jat Sikh farmers settled in the region growing it.
The Class XI-pass Sharma owns a Mahindra Bolero SUV, while his friend and fellow-farmer Mukesh Chouhan drives a Scorpio.
“Many people in these parts have purchased four-wheelers and even property 100 km away in Bhopal. It is all only due to basmati. Yes, prices had shot up to Rs 4,000/quintal three years ago and are now half of that. But things are still better than 10 years ago, when we did not even have our own tractors”, he points out.
These farmers are equally clear that they cannot be denied the right to cultivate basmati, in the name of GI protection. “We did not oppose their getting the GI, why should they oppose ours, then? Punjab is, no doubt, the leader in agriculture, but we are trying to catch up. What’s wrong in that?” retorts Sharma.
The primary argument of the northern millers and farmers – supported by the scientific community and bodies like APEDA (Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority) – is that MP never had any tradition of basmati cultivation, a prerequisite for grant of GI. “They started growing basmati only from the start of this century. All this pressure to include MP is for just helping one company”, said a Delhi-based miller, while alluding to LT Foods.
The company, however, denies the charge of the MP government fighting a proxy war on its behalf. “We buy less than 15 per cent of the state’s total basmati paddy production. The rest is bought by many others, including millers and traders in North India”, says Rajinder Wadhawan, Director (Operations) at LT Foods.
MP’s farmers are the ones who would be affected the most, in the event of the state government losing the GI battle, he adds.
According to Rajesh Rajora, Principal Secretary (Agriculture) in the MP government, the state has submitted evidence, including documents and publications dating back to the British era, to prove that basmati was being cultivated in the relevant districts long enough to warrant a GI tag.
That evidence was, however, not accepted by the Intellectual Property Appellate Board, which, in an order on February 5, directed the MP government to file additional evidence. The latter has since challenged the order and the matter is currently before the Madras High Court.
All this wrangling comes even as basmati exports from India have shown a decline in the last couple of years, after posting a more than ten-fold jump to over Rs 29,000 crore between 2006-07 and 2013-14.
Punjab’s farmers, millers on warpath over MP’s Basmati GI claims
Kulwinder Singh’s family in Kohali, a village in Amritsar district’s Chogawan block barely 20 km from the India-Pakistan border, has been growing basmati paddy right from the time of Partition. Kohali, like all other villages in Punjab, falls under the Geographical Indication (GI) area, where paddy bearing the appellation ‘basmati’ can be exclusively cultivated as of now.
“It is our heritage. How can we allow any adulteration or dilution in that?” is Singh’s instant reply, when asked about adding Madhya Pradesh (MP) to the list of states eligible to be issued the GI tag for basmati cultivation.
Singh grows basmati on his entire 60-acre holding. That includes 55 acres under Pusa-1121 and the balance 5 acres under Basmati-386, a traditional tall cultivar yielding only 8-10 quintals per acre, as against 18-20 quintals for the former improved variety bred by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi.
Kohali village itself has over 10,000 acres of farmland, much of it planted to basmati during the kharif season. “We do the transplanting between mid-June and mid-July and the crop is harvested from mid-October to mid-November, just before the onset of winter. The cool weather at this time, specific to the agro-climatic conditions of our area, is what contributes to basmati’s unique aroma. It is a God’s Gift that nobody can take away from us”, avers Singh.
For farmers like him, the primary concern is basmati losing its premium tag that could lead to a beating down of prices. Last year, Singh was able to realise only Rs 2,000-2,200 per quintal for Pusa-1121 and Rs 2,500-2,600 for the Basmati-386 paddy that he sold, compared to their respective rates of Rs 3,600-4,000 and up to Rs 5,000/quintal fetched during 2013-14.
Lower prices have also been a reason for the basmati area in Punjab registering a decline to 4.94 lakh hectares (lh) this time, from 7.63 lh in 2015. This has happened despite overall sowing of paddy – which includes non-basmati parmal varieties, mostly procured by state agencies – rising from 29.75 lh to 30.10 lh.
Punjab’s basmati-growing belt is concentrated in about two-dozen agricultural blocks – each covering 40-80 villages – of Tarn Taran, Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Pathankot. These four districts along the Indo-Pak border produce over half of the state’s basmati, with Hoshiarpur, which lies in the foothills of the Shivalik range, being the other major grower. Punjab is estimated to account for roughly 50 per cent of India’s annual basmati rice exports of four million tonnes.
Farmers in the main basmati belt of Punjab have not significantly reduced basmati acreage, in spite of falling realisations. Amritsar district, for instance, has a total agricultural area of 1.80 lh, of which 1.35 lh was planted to basmati in 2015. That figure has only marginally come down to 1.15 lh this year.
“We don’t know about any crop other than basmati”, states Manwinder Singh, an MSc in horticulture, who grows only Pusa-1121 on his 15 acres land in Lopoke. This village, in the same Chogawan block of Amritsar and just 8 km from the border, has over 80 per cent area dedicated to basmati. “It used to be 100 per cent two years ago. But this time, some farmers have planted parmal in some portions because of lower price risk and assured government procurement for such paddy”, he adds.
Pavitar Pal Singh Pangli, president of the Borlaug Farmers Association for South Asia, claims that undivided Punjab – which, apart from the province in today’s Pakistan, also covered Haryana and Himachal Pradesh – was from where basmati originated.
“It is unfortunate that Punjab’s monopoly over basmati – having to do with grain aroma and size traits linked to the soil and climatic characteristics specific to the foothills of the Himalayas in the Indo-Gangetic plains – is being challenged within our own country. If MP is going to get the GI tag, the time will not be far off for Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to also be issued the same”, says this farmer, who grows basmati in 10 out of his 45-acre holding in Panglian village of Ludhiana district/block.
Pangli warns that the ultimate beneficiary from all this would be Pakistan: “The fact that the quality of grain from MP or the southern states is not of the best quality may cause reputational damage to our product in the international market. Pakistan will, then, lay claim to being the sole producer of authentic basmati”.
His views are also shared by scientists and basmati miller-exporters in Punjab. “It is in the national interest to protect our monopoly over basmati, by ensuring that rice grown outside a clearly delineated GI area is not sold as basmati. Once the GI tag is given to more regions, you are basically opening the flood-gates, which will effectively end that monopoly,” notes GS Mangat, senior rice breeder at the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana.
The loser here will, of course, be the Punjab farmer. “A repeat of last year’s low prices, even with shrinkage in planted area this time, will be a real disaster”, points out MS Sidhu, a senior agro-economist at PAU.
According to Sumit Mahant of Mahant Overseas, an Amritsar-based exporter, Punjab and Haryana have huge stakes in both cultivation as well as processing of basmati. “To extend GI tag to areas that traditionally never grew basmati would spell doom for India’s basmati exports, as we will simply lose consumers in discerning markets such as Europe, England, US or Canada. And what will happen to all the investments the industry has made here?” he asks.
Basmati cultivation: The limits of fragrance
The spread of basmati cultivation, beyond its traditional confines of undivided pre-Partition Punjab, Jammu, West Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, can be put down to a single phenomenon: Advances in crop breeding.
The traditional tall basmati varieties like Taraori, Type-3 (Dehradooni), Basmati-386 and Basmati-370 were “photoperiod-sensitive”. They needed a short day length for flowering; the plants would simply not produce flowers until the sunshine hours fell to 12 or less.
That condition was available from end-September — when the kharif paddy crop should normally commence flowering – only in the north/northwest parts of the subcontinent on either side of the Indus River. In central and southern India, the day length was 14 hours or more through October. These areas couldn’t, therefore, grow or at least had no recorded history of farming basmati in contiguous stretches.
This changed, though, with the release of improved basmati varieties from the late 1980s. These strains — especially Pusa Basmati-1, Pusa-1121 and Pusa-1509, bred by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) – were not just high-yielding, but also relatively less sensitive to photoperiod or day length variations, giving more planting time flexibility. Since they could flower even when sunshine hours were long, farmers in states like Madhya Pradesh could now grow them.
But as AK Singh, head of the Division of Genetics at IARI, points out, the grains from the basmati paddy cultivated in the non-traditional belts have quality issues. Basmati rice’s most distinctive trait – apart from long kernel length, linear elongation on cooking, and fluffiness – lies in its aroma, which, in turn, derives from a compound called 2-Acetyl-1-Pyrroline. The accumulation of this highly volatile compound in the grain, contributing to basmati’s characteristic fragrance, is largely a function of environmental conditions.
The retention of aroma, courtesy 2-Acetyl-1-Pyrroline, is best when the flowering and grain-filling phase coincides with a cool climate, with temperatures below 30 degree Celsius during daytime and just over 20 degrees at night. These conditions are, again, obtained during October only in the traditional basmati belt.
Moreover, it isn’t aroma alone. Higher temperatures during the roughly one-month period from flowering to maturity can also affect the texture and milling quality of the grain. “When temperatures are high at the time of grain-filling, the packing of the starch granules in the rice tends to be loose. So, you get grains with more chalkiness (opaque areas caused by incomplete filling) and resulting in higher percentage of broken rice during milling”, explains Singh.
What all this means is that Pusa-1121 basmati can well be grown in MP or Maharashtra. But the aroma, appearance and milling quality of the grain produced from there cannot really match what one would get from the basmati grown in Amritsar, Karnal, Kathua, Kangra or Dehradun. The cooler climate during the critical crop maturity and grain-filling period in those parts cannot possibly be replicated elsewhere. And there’s little even plant breeding science can do about it.
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