Minimal Genetic Diversity in an Irrigated Environment
09 / 1997
The Southern belt of West Bengal is one of the most favorable rice growing areas due to the wide availibility of irrigation facilities. Bajitpur is located in this region, in the district of North 24-Parganas, only a few kilometers from the Bangladeshi border.
In Bajitpur, the majority of land-owning farmers possess between two and five bighas, which approximately amounts to between 0. 3 and O. 7 hectare. Out of every ten farmers, about three own between ten and fifteen bighas, or between 1.4 and 2.1 hectares. They are considered to be the large farmers of the village. The small and marginal farmers have little choice but to grow foodgrain for their consumption. Land being scarce, they do their best to optimize productivity.
Hence, high yielding varieties of rice, introduced some ten to fifteen years ago, are very attractive to most farmers. From a harvest of 5 to 8 bags of paddy per bigha (one bag = 60 kgs)for the traditional rice varieties grown in aman season, the farmers can get 9 or 10 bags per bigha in aman, and 10 to 13 bags in boro season with a HYV.
The latter require agricultural inputs, which represent a significant expenditure. Transplanting being a delicate task in the case of HYV’s, labour must be hired for any landholding greater than two bighas. Some farmers take loans or credits to bear all these costs, and the burden to repay their debts leaves them no alternatives but to earn some cash. The greater yields afforded by HYV’s enable farmers to sell whatever they do not consume on the market.
The HYV’s coverage is high in the area, reaching 100% for boro rice, and approximately 70% for the aman season. Consequently, the past couple of decades have seen the disappearance of numerous indigenous varieties that have ceased to be grown. Practically every farmer over fourty years old can name seven or eight varieties that are no longer found in the area right off the bat. In Bajitpur, these include Latishal - known for its resistance to wind, Tilukoshori - grown in water-logged areas, Khalandi and Dhulabinshi. In the next village, Matshrana, Mashori and Meghi are added to the list. The farmers usually know whether these varieties still exist in an adjacent region or district, or whether they have fallen into oblivion in the surrounding areas as well.
Unlike in the case of dry or saline environments, modern varieties thrive in the irrigated ecosystem, and hardly no farmer is compelled to cultivate indigenous varieties for agronomic reasons. However, some farmers have been noticing a decline in the yield of the new varieties, despite equal or higher levels of fertilizer apllications.
One of the medium size farmers even expressed a doubt with regards to the profitability of HYV’s, and he said he would devote a larger portion of his fields to indigenous rice varieties in the next season, favoring the most popular ones on the market. He added that small farmers relying on a marginal land area could not operate such a shift because a decline in productivity -even small or temporary- could jeopardize their food security.
The indigenous varieties that do remain in use tend to have special characteristics, either with regards to their yield, which comes close to that of high yielding varieties, or with regards to a quality in the rice. Patnai and Hamai, for instance, are still in used, the first one being a glutinous rice and the second serving to make ’moori’, the popular Bengali puffed rice. These ’special’ rices often fetch a higher price in the market. They can be sold at around Rs. 12 per kilo instead of Rs. 8 or 9 per kilo.
Yet for the most part, the logic of economic returns plays against indigenous rice varieties.
Commentaire : In irrigated areas like that of Bajitpur, high yielding varieties grow relatively well, and they are widely cultivated. While some marginal farmers strive to be under less pressure to meet the family demand in rice, others are compelled to earn money in order to repay their debts, and a minority of better-off farmers is seeking new sources of income to invest in the cultivation of cash crops. Hence, aximizing production is the road followed by all social classes. Preserving the local landraces is a concept devoid of sense for the great majority of farmers who would not think of using them again. Moreover, for the rare farmer who has been disappointed with high yielding varieties, there always seems to exist a remote possibility of getting an indigenous variety from a nearby village. A question arises : will this possibility not become more and more remote with time?
Calculations of area based on :1 bigha = 0. 33 acre in this part of North 24-Parganas.
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