For Dipen Baruah of Khanamukh Charingiya-gaon in Jorhat, upper Assam, growing rice began as a hobby and is now not just a profession but a passion that has seen him experiment with 60 varieties.
Baruah, 37, who describes himself as an “ordinary graduate”, and his three brothers own about five hectares of land. Of his 60 varieties of rice, a number are indigenous and rare, some even on the verge of extinction.
“We have been cultivating rice for several generations. My father was a farmer, and so was his father. My late father, Tankeswar Baruah, was considered a local expert in identifying which rice varieties were suitable for which soil conditions. I picked up this traditional knowledge from him and subsequently an interest grew in the wide range of rice varieties of Assam,” said Baruah, who was in Guwahati recently to take part in the first Assam International Agri-Horticultural Show.
Baruah has kept about 1.5 hectares for cultivating the popular Ranjit variety and another one hectare for joha, the typical Assamese aromatic rice. The rest is taken up by various other varieties including a tiny one called koni-dhan and another called kakowa-bao, the latter having whiskers that keep away monkeys and birds from wiping out the paddy while they get ripe.
“I have 20 varieties of sali, 10 varieties of bao, six varieties of joha, and five varieties each of lahi and chakowa, all these being commercial varieties and grown by farmers across Assam. I also grow some other varieties that are not grown by the common farmer because of the cost, but which are of immense socio-cultural value across communities,” Baruah said.
These varieties, he said, he has collected over the past 10 years from various districts of upper Assam. “I want to collect and conserve more varieties, especially those growing in lower and central Assam as also in the hill districts. But for that I have to acquire more land, which is not immediately possible.”
A couple of his varieties, for example, are part of rituals such as puberty, wedding and various pujas and festivals, while some are essential ingredients for preparing apong and saanj-pani – traditional rice beer – by different communities, said Rupam Buragohain, a scientist at the Krishi Vikash Kendra (at Kaliapani, not far from Baruah’s village. “A number communities use rice and paddy and products made from them in almost every ritual. Bihu for instance is incomplete without various kinds of pitha made from rice powder,” added Buragohain.
Baruah’s efforts have attracted wide attention and also earned him laurels. In 2012-13, he was adjudged the second best farmer of Assam by the state government. “While the recognition was one thing, the most important was that I was given a power tiller, which I am not only using myself but also letting my neighbours use,” Baruah smiled.
His farm has six indigenous varieties of rice that are suitable for flood-affected areas. “Farmers of flood-affected areas come to me to collect seeds of swarna-chab, prafulla, gitesh, panindra and jalshree varieties that can easily adapt to the flood-ravaged soil conditions. Likewise, farmers come from distant districts to collect seeds of bao varieties that grow even under two to three feet of floodwater,” Baruah said.
“It is indeed a very encouraging sign that a general graduate like Dipen Baruah has taken interest in conserving different indigenous varieties of rice,” said Dr Kishore Kumar Sharma, chief scientist at the Regional Agriculture Research Station in North Lakhimpur. Sharma said there are about 8,000 local and indigenous varieties of rice in Assam, of which about 4,000 varieties have already come under in situ conservation undertaken by the Assam Agricultural University.
While farmers have been gradually shifting from the low-yielding indigenous varieties to high-yielding ones , several traditional varieties are still popular because of their taste, adaptability to the vagaries of nature and immunity to certain diseases. “Farmers like Dipen Baruah must be appreciated for the fact that they have sacrificed quantity for quality, in the process contributing towards in situ conservation of so many varieties of rice,” said Sharma.
Scientists from RARS at Titabor (Jorhat) too keep visiting Dipen Baruah’s farm and help him in various ways. Baruah’s proudest moment was when a team of scientists from the International Rice Research Institute, Manila, visited his farm in November 2011. “I did not know I was doing something so important until scientists from Manila came and spent almost half a day in my fields,” Baruah said.