The last grain: Assam NGO cooks a perfect recipe to revive moynagiri ricehttps://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/assam/the-last-grain-assam-ngo-cooks-a-perfect-recipe-to-revive-moynagiri-rice/

The last grain: Assam NGO cooks a perfect recipe to revive moynagiri rice

Till the 1990s, moynagiri rice — an indigenous rice variety of lower Assam known for its exceptional taste and medicinal properties — was found abundantly, before it started disappearing. An organisation is now trying to get it back in business

Members of the Lotus Progressive Centre (LPC), a Nalbari-based NGO, which preserves and promotes indigenous rice varieties, are now studying moynagiri and trying to create awareness about it among farmers. (Representational Image)

In parts of Lower Assam, there goes a saying “moyna pori jua” to refer to anyone whose fallen ill or whose health is deteriorating, be it man, woman or livestock. For the ailing then, a regular recourse, till about two decades ago, was a special variety of paddy called “moynagiri”, or “the rice that helps you overcome a phase of ill health”. The name for this indigenous paddy — believed to magically strengthen the weak or the indisposed,  was inspired by the very phrase which denotes ill health.

Till the 1990s, moynagiri paddy was available in abundance in any local store in Assam. Today, however, very few even know about this special indigenous variety, which is available, if at all, only in specialised seed banks in Assam. 

Members of the Lotus Progressive Centre (LPC), a Nalbari-based NGO, which preserves and promotes indigenous rice varieties, are now studying moynagiri and trying to create awareness about it among farmers.

“At one point, the northeast had about 30,000 varieties of tholua (indigenous) paddy. Now, many have gone extinct,” says Hemanta Baishya of LPC, adding that the Green Revolution and the focus on the mono crop led contributed to the decline. “At the field level today there are about a hundred varieties in Assam such as tengre, samraj, bohdhan, phulgaaj etc. It’s usually few farmers cultivating them for their own consumption,” he says.

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While hybrid varieties that dominate the market may be more high-yielding, Baishya says, they come with a lot of drawbacks: “They require chemical fertilisers to survive and the seed ownership is never with the farmer. The big companies monopolise everything — and the farmer becomes dependent in the end, whether to buy seed or chemical fertilisers,” he says.

That is why since 1999, LPC has been focusing on bringing back indigenous rice varieties: by studying them scientifically, learning about their origins from older farmers, raising awareness about them among younger ones and even setting up a low cost seed bank roughly five years ago. “We also have a farmer producer cooperative society — the farmers can put their seeds in the seed bank. We then distribute it among interested farmers, who sell it among local consumers,” says Baishya.

Out of a hundred farmers, maybe three or four are cultivating moynagiri today. According to a scientific analysis done by the Assam Agricultural University, moynagiri has almost 74.4% starch, 7.5% protein and 124,65 ppm iron. It is these properties that make it especially nutritious and medicinal. 

“Usually we throw away the maar (starch water) that cooked rice produces. But the maar from moynagiri was considered as nutritious as milk, and would often be fed to children mixed with sugar or salt,” says Baishya, “Moreover the iron and protein content helped when dealing with womens’ illnesses.”

Another characteristic of moynagiri is that it is exceptionally tasty. “Often patients lack appetite but the fact that this rice is so delicious goads a sick person to eat,” says Baishya.

Information about its origins and earlier practices are often passed down from generation to generation. “All information we have now is through word of mouth. A big part of what we do is to ask farmers why the rice was special, what led to its name etc,” says Baishya.

The organisation is now studying the phenotypic characters of the moynagiri rice: where does it grow, when does it grow, what kind of land preparation one needs, the methods of cultivation etc. 

Earlier in the August, the NGO, with the help of Centre for Environment Education (CEE), Guwahati, was successful in its endeavour to acquire a GI tag for boka saul, or the magic rice that needs no cooking.