Genetic Erosion and Economic Vulnerability
09 / 1997
The coastal belt of Maharashtra, divided into 4 districts, is known as the Konkan region. Two of these districts, Thane and Raigad, have a fairly large tribal population. The typical lateritic soils are poor, and agriculture is largely rainfed (only 5 to 7% of the Konkan region is irrigated). Forests of semi-deciduous and evergreen trees have florished in many parts, but the forest cover is now fast dimishing, precipitating soil erosion. This only goes to reflect the general trend of deforestation in India.
Oilseeds and pulses were the most common native crops of the Konkan region, until rice and wheat cultivation began more widespread in the 1960’s.
Tribal people have always lived on the margins of the State. Their livehood has consistently been under threat because of the pressure exerted on their land by development schemes of all sorts. These so-called ’backward’ areas have received little attention, and although the authorities perhaps wished to include them in what they saw as a ’development process’, tribal people have by and large not partaken. Agricultural policies have only had a minimal impact in certain tribal areas. Because modern ’high yielding varieties’ have not made very strong incursions in these regions, genetic diversity has remained surprisingly high in some tribal areas (in the state of Madhya Pradesh for instance). That is not to say that biodiversity is intact in these regions. At best, the erosion of agricultural diversity has been less radical than in other places.
In Thane district, for instance, the process of replacement of native with modern varieties was gradual. Genetic diversity was not wiped out as quickly as in other districts. The erosion took place over a period of 15 to 20 years, because for a long time, farmers continued to cultivate traditional varieties on a small portion of their land.
The situation is quite different in the Karjat Taluka (a largely tribal block between Pune and Bombay), where Dr. R. H. Richharia conducted a survey in 1987 on the status of rice cultivation.
The survey revealed that most indigenous varieties were given up following the introduction of Ratna and Jaya, two high responsive varieties (’high response’ has been proposed as a more accurate phrase to design ’high yielding’ varieties). In 1970, some 18 varieties had been recorded in the same area. A very sudden erosion of diversity had therefore taken place between 1975 and 1980. It could be easily traced to the agricultural government policy favoring the ’green revolution’ strategy. Seeds, fertilizers, peticides, motorpumps, bullocks and wells all fell under a policy of heavy subsidies. The introduction of this ’modern’ form of agriculture was so pervasive that farmers saw the diversity they traditionally relied on vanish.
The high response varieties have not led to spectacular yield increases in this region. The majority of farmers - and especially tribal farmers - being resource-poor, they can not afford to buy fertilizers despite the subsidies. And without adequate doses of fertilizers, the high yielding character of HYV’s remains unactivated, particularly in poor soils.
Moreover, pest attack became more of an issue than it had ever been for many farmers. In the early 1970’s, in order to fight the Yellow Stem Borer, a pest for rice, pesticides were spread by airplane on entire districts. The unforseen side effect was that the natural predators of the YSB were also killed. Within a few years, the YSB multiplied. The disruption in the ecological balance had left its growth as a species unchecked. A number of indigenous rice varieties turned out to have virtually no built-in resistance to this pest, which until then had never been a major rice pest. Numerous farmers had long been growing 3 or 4 local varieties widely appreciated for their good yield potential. But when they saw 70% of their crop ruined because of the YSB, they turned to HYV’s. The latter could withstand the pest attack better, and losses incured only reached 30% of the crop. As a result, more traditional varieties - and among the better performing ones at that - fell into oblivion.
This account is a further example of the trend and extent of genetic erosion of rice in India. The proliferation of pests and diseases is a critical issue in the Konkan region, issue which can only be resolved through increased pesticide use. The cost of external outputs having made rice cultivation economically unviable, a number of small farmers are expressing an interest in growing indigenous varieties again.
Account based on informal exchange with Rajeev Khedkar, Academy of Development Science, Karjat.
Personal study on biodiversity in India. A book is on the point to be published in India. For further information, please contact the author (see address)or Fph.