Revival of local rice varieties

In order to increase the yield of rice to meet the needs of food in the country, high yield laboratory engineered rice varieties also called hybrid varieties have replaced the local varieties which yield less all over the country. Many areas like Punjab and Haryana in North India which were not rice growing areas have become the major rice growers. This though has helped the Green Evolution and commercialised the farming, has played havoc by excessive water drainage from the underground and contamination of water by heavy metals present in the fertilisers and insecticides which cause many diseases. But the white or polished rice that whole of our country people have become accustomed to have less beneficial nutrients and more starch which increases the risk of diseases like diabetes.

Some farmers in the rice growing West Bengal are trying to reverse this trend by resorting to grow the local varieties which despite being low yielding have nutritional value which more than compensate the low yield. One such farmer is Bhairav Saini who lives in Bankura, about 200 km from Kolkata.

For several years now,  he and many farmers are engaged in this task in many districts of West Bengal. Growing the rice by traditional methods without use of fertilisers and insecticides, in fact this also lowers the cost of growing the crops.

Saini, and several others in Hooghly, Dinajpur and 24 South Parganas, in West Bengal, have been engaged in reviving lost, indigenous paddy varieties of Bengal, simply because they’re cognizant of the health benefits of grains grown the traditional way. Burdwan, the rice bowl of Bengal now grows organic Gobindobhog rice in over 30,000 hectares of land. Besides Gobindobhog, other old varieties of scented rice like Radhatilak, Kalonunia, Kalojeera, Tulsimukun etc are also gaining popularity slowly. These have a high mineral and vitamin content along with other health benefits.

Unlike his peers in North India, Saini is not driven by profit making but due to his concern for the health issues of the people. As the times are changing and organic products are a buzz word, the rice they are now growing have started fetching higher prices. Some of the local varieties they are reviving have names like Kala Bhaat, Bohurupee, Leelabati, Durga bhog, Oli, Radhunipagol, Kalo nunia, Katari bhog, Radha tilak, Kalash and so on. Setting up the seed banks is also an important endeavour.

Inputs from an article published in the Economics Times of India.

Advertisements

Facing Floods in Assam….

I was posted in Cachar Project of ONGC during 1987 to 1991. Our company was desperately looking for oil and gas in this area. There were 5 rigs employed for these operations in different areas around the town of silchar which is located in the southern part of Assam adjoining agartala and near this town is another town called Badarpur which is a gateway to north eastern states like agartala, Manipur and Mizoram. This area where drilling operations were being conducted bordered Bangladesh. Two rivers namely Surma and Kushiara flow through this area which are actually two parts of Barak river coming to this area from Manipur. In fact, town of silchar is situated on barak river. These two parts again rejoin and enter Bangladesh where ultimately it joins mighty Brahmaputra river.

There was one site called Adamtilla where I used to go for duties on aan old Romanian rig. It was about 120 kilometers from our residence in silchar and a good 2 to 3 hours journey. Our company has hired maruti gypsy jeeps for this job.

There we did duties on 14 days on and off pattern. It means that for 14 days you will be there on the rig. Of this, first 7 days one officer did day duty from 6 am to 6 pm and other did the night duties. After 7 days pattern reverses and when 14 days are over, the employee shall go to his declared hometown and resume the duties again after 14 days. Mostly people did the off days at their hometowns from different stations throughout India.

But with me the case was different. I was well site chemist which is a supervisory duty but as my family had moved to my hometown in Chandigarh, my boss gave me 14 days chance in addition.

When the shift was off duty, the staff was put up in temporary accommodation at Patharkandi which was about 7 kilometers away. It was a good accommodation with Assam type houses for 2 people each. In addition, there was a mess for food and entertainment room with TV and VCR. There were no TV channels like these days. There was also a badminton court. But real pleasure was the flowering plants like marigolds and dahlias. All this was supervised by a gardener who hailed from orissa. In fact this residency was the first one created when the project commenced.

Buses took shifts to drill site and back. Although it was only 7 kilometers but road condition and ongoing construction of a bridge over the sunai river stretched the time to half an hour or so. Many a times the roads inside the tea gardens were blocked.

When the shift completed its tenure of 14 days, they were transported to airport about 170 kilometers away. It belonged to air force and flights operated only in the day time only. There were only two flights each day and operated between Kolkata, silchar, agartala and Manipur. Everyone was desperate to catch the flight amidst uncertainties like strikes, irregularities of flights and inundations due to floods.

I faced one such flood. We were on the rig when the news of flooding due to overflowing of the sunai river and closing of road traffic trickled in. The river was in spate. It was decided to stop the work. There was a railway station on the line from agartala to badarpur. While all the staff was sent to station we 5 to 6 people stayed back to close all the engines. The drill string was pulled up to casing shoe and BOP was closed. The plan was that staff reaching earlier will try to somehow hold the train till we reach the station. But the work on rig is as difficult to close as it is to begin. So when rest of us reached the station, the train had already left. There was as such scarcely one train daily so there was no chance till next day evening.

We returned to drill site which was now pitch black. Somehow the generator was started and light was restored. There was no food. Nothing to lie back on. Mosquitoes attacked in hordes. Cicadas chirped with piercing sounds. Whole night passed like that. In the morning, flood had not receded. Only way to colony was walking along the railway track all the way 7 kilometres. It was raining incessantly. The going was slow. There were many small rivulets flowing full and the wooden slippers were of uneven thereby increasing the chances of slipping down. Had someone slipped, he would had sure fallen into the stream. After sometimes, as energy was sapped, walking became very tiring and we had to sit in the rain for sometime.

At last, after 3 hours we reached patharkandi colony. We got refreshments and were dead tired. We were held up there for 3 days before the shifts resumed again.

My Stay in Silchar

I have been to Assam earlier also when I was posted in Cachar in the Southern Assam. The area is bounded by Bangladesh and Tripura and North Cachar Hills separate it from the rest of Assam. We lived in a town called Silchar. Although it is in the Assam but most of the population is Bengalis. Muslims dominate the rural areas. The Barak river flows through it and splits into two rivers called Surma and Kushiara which again join together in Bangladesh.

This river is very famous for a variety of fish called illish. Although it has more bones than any other fish, it tastes great and the Bengali people whose weakness for the fish is well known are crazy for this variety.

During the days we were there, there were very few means of communications. All the flights coming into this area from Kolkata fly for most of their journey in the Bangladesh space. Traveling by train taken at least 12 hours to the capital city of Guwahati which is better connected with rest of India. The trains have to cross the North Cachar Hills through tunnels and on meter gauge. But then the whole region is sleepy and naturally gifted with great beauty.

During the monsoons the Barak river is in spate and many a times breaks the dykes and inundates the whole region. Houses are submerged, and crops are destroyed. There are tea gardens on all side and Surma valley tea is quite famous. During British times, the area produced petroleum in places like Badarpur. There were oil wells on the small hillock and crude oil flowed through channels specially made for the purpose to storage tanks on the banks of Barak river. From here the crude was transferred to the ships and sent away.

The boundary of India with Bangladesh was very near. The border was very porous at that time and people sneaked from one country to another easily. In fact many of them have relatives on both the sides. Like in Punjab many Hindus had to migrate as refugees to Silchar leaving behind their properties.

Travel travails in North East India:Part-III

Now this is the story not entirely due to North-East but it illustrates the problems faced by people working in that area during 1991. The story again pertains to Silchar where I was posted from 1987-1991. Nowadays, it is only 3 years stint and you are transferred to another place in India but at that time there was no such strict rule. So after spending 4 years there, I was transferred to Bombay which is the most important place because almost half of the crude oil is produced from the offshore of Bombay. Naturally I was very excited and nervous. Nervous because we had heard that there was a problem of finding good residence in the overcrowded megalopolis and everyday one has to spend many hours of the day in the journey to the office from home and back.

I and my wife decided that first of all shall proceed to my home at Chandigarh where family shall stay till I reach Bombay and find accommodation there. The household goods were to be transported by truck. From Silchar to Calcutta, company allowed us to travel by air to cut short the journey period. But from Calcutta to Delhi we had to catch Rajdhani train. There was no booking office in Silchar at that time to book berths for the train. We had to rely on our colleagues who did 14 days on and off pattern duty and were frequently using the train services. They had found one booking agent in Chitranjan Avenue in Calcutta who booked the tickets. Tickets were collected by them and given to the concerned colleagues. Sometimes, after alighting from the plane at Calcutta from Silchar, the tickets were collected from the agent en route.

All the flights to North-Eastern sector operated in the morning because there was no night landing facilities available. The airport was a wooden building and a strip maintained by Indian Air Force (IAF) because basically these were airbases for the Air force. We had booked air tickets and railway tickets were to be collected from the agent on our way to Howrah railway station from Netaji Subhash Chandra International Airport at Dumdum. We reached the airport in taxi and one of our friends’ who hailed from Silchar and who was a great help for people coming from rest of India on postings accompanied us. We had two small kids at that time.

Our luggage was sent for loading and we were given boarding passes. The sky was deep blue and there was not a speck of clouds. It was a perfect weather. Now everyone was waiting anxiously for the arrival of the plane. It was a hopping flight from Calcutta. Its first stoppage was at Silchar and then it used to go to Imphal from there back to Silchar on its way back to Calcutta. The expected time of arrival was approaching fast but there was no sign of plane. Wait of minutes turned to hours. Anxiety of missing the train at Calcutta due to late arrival began building in our minds. At one stage we decided to take back our luggage and return to Silchar. But the people at Indian Airlines which was the sole travelling agency at that time told us that tickets shall be cancelled to rescheduled in any case the flight did not arrive. He further helped us and brought the luggage and allowed us to take it with us in the cabin so that we did not have to wait and loose precious time waiting for its arrival at Calcutta airport.

There was a great anxiety about missing the train at Calcutta and stranded at the big city. At last the plane appeared on the horizon. It was delayed at Imphal where one of its tyres burst during landing. The time of its take off to Calcutta was such that anything could happen. We did not have the railway tickets with us and to add to the troubles we only had the address of the agent but had never visited him. It was with luck that we had a co passenger who had seen the booking shop and he himself had to collect his ticket.

At last plane landed and we had only an hour with us in which to collect the tickets and board the train. Thankfully the day was Sunday and there was not much traffic on the road. We told taxi to wait on the road because the agent’s shop was in a side alley. I and my friend ran to the shop and after reaching there found the shop which was located on the 2nd floor of an ancient building closed due to Sunday. Our hearts stopped. Time was slipping like sand from our hands. Someone told that the fellow lived very near to the shop. We knocked and he came out and went to his office telling us stay on the ground. He tied the tickets with a thread and lowered it so that we could catch the tickets. In turn we tied the money and he pulled it up. Running we again boarded the taxi. It was quite hot and kids were thirsty and restless.

We prodded the driver to drive very fast. He understood and we arrived at the Howrah railway station barely 10 minutes before the train was to leave. Running with kids and luggage in our hands we managed to board in our bogey. We were perspiring but felt as if we had won a great victory. Children were given cold drinks and settled down. Our panting heartbeat slowed down and returned to normal as the train left for Delhi.

Assam Tea

I first went to Silchar,  a border district of Assam in 1987. It is in the Barak valley and very poorly connected to rest of India. Most of the people who go there are Defense personnel, Government employee and tea garden managers who are entitled to air fare from Kolkata and reduce the tiring circuitous journey by train through upper Assam which shall not take any less than 2 days. Air journey takes about 1 hour and plane flies most of the time of its journey over Bangladesh.
I boarded the similar flight which was the sole flight in a day. The airports in Assam are make shift structures built at the time of world war by the British for sending the military personnel and arms to the front to confront the Japanese forces. There is no facility for night landing and in the foggy days during winter.
Anyway the plane landed safely after circling over paddy fields and lush green bamboo groves and tea gardens. The airport is about 28 kilometers from the Silchar. I took a taxi which soon was running on the sinuous road amidst the hilly slopes. It was a beautiful sight to behold. All around were tea bushes on the slopes of hillocks. There were teak trees interspersed in the gardens. The womenfolk were picking up the selected leaves and putting them into the baskets hanging on there shoulders. We north Indians have only heard about these things but this was before my eyes as I was amidst this.
This was my first encounter with the tea gardens. During my 4 years sojourn there, it was almost a daily routine to go to far off oil rigs and roads ran almost throughout the lush green paddy fields, along the river on which there were boats in which fishermen caught the iconic Eelish fish which is considered as the most delicious fish and Bengali folks are crazy for it and never ending tea plantations. In fact our oil rig was located in the tea gardens itself.
So these were the plants whose leaves are sent all over the world. Most people in the world drink tea. My second encounter with tea gardens was in the upper Assam. Again there were tea gardens running along the roads and never seem to be coming to an end. the area where we were located was called Sibsagar which, once upon a time was the capital of Ahom Kings who reached the valley from the south eastern side, most probably from Thailand. On the way to Jorhat from Sibsagar one encountered the Tea Research Institute at a place called Toklai. It is learnt that experiments are on to create a tea variety which will combine famed aroma teas of Darjeeling and rich brew teas of Assam.
British knew the potential of area for growing teas. As such the wild tea plants in Assam, India, do not produce a palatable brew. The credit goes to the British whose commercial interests led to the identification of local bushes which tasted like Chinese tea and the local people were drinking it although they did not know the present name. It all changed in the 19th century when the cultivation of tea began in the planned manner. Sir Joseph Banks was among observers of tea plants growing wild in the hills of Nepal in 1788.
In 1815 it was noticed that the people of Assam drank a tea from locally growing plants, but identification of these as tea plants proved inconclusive. In 1823, a Major Robert Bruce had also learnt of the existence of tea in Assam and sent samples to the East India Company’s Botanic Gardens at Calcutta, who declined to confirm that the samples were tea. Lieutenant Charlton, who was on service in Assam in 1831, sent plants to the Agricultural and Horticultural Society in Calcutta with the observation that the leaves were drunk as an infusion in Assam, and that they tasted of Chinese tea when dried. Charlton’s plants were also denied official recognition.

Official recognition

It was not until Christmas Eve of 1834, when Charles Alexander Bruce, Robert Bruce’s brother, sent samples to Calcutta, that the true identity of the plant was finally confirmed to be tea, or more accurately, Assam tea. It is now known botanically as Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Subsequently there was huge controversy between Charlton and Charles Alexander Bruce as to which of them was the first to ‘discover’ tea in India.

It was found that a tea could be manufactured from Assam tea which was in some ways superior to China tea. Tea planting became popular and there was great demand for land and seed. Thus seed gardens were established with whatever seed was available in many cases. Some were pure China, some pure Assam and some were deliberately inter-planted with both types. Thus Indian hybrid tea was formed, which has great variability and vigour. This was undoubtedly the most important event in the evolution of the commercial tea plant.

Tea is good for health as contains many anti oxidant molecules.The latest research into how we live our modern lives often shows how things like pollution or too much sun can be harmful to us. Intermediates that arise naturally during chemical process, called free radicals, can challenge our normal healthy state. Free radical damage has been implicated in diseases such as heart disease, stroke and cancers.

It is thought that by regularly consuming foods and drinks that are rich in substances called antioxidants that act to ‘soak up’ these free radicals we can help ensure we have sufficient resources. As well as fruit and vegetables that are  good sources of these substances, you can help increase your daily antioxidant intake by drinking tea. That’s because tea is widely known to be rich in a particular group of antioxidants called flavonoids.

For example, there is about eight times the amount of ‘anti-oxidant power’ in three cups of tea than there is in one apple, and every time you brew up in a cup or a pot for upto one minute you about get 140mg of flavonoids. Who’d have thought something that tastes that good can help maintain your health!

In some districts of West Bengal, India, arsenic is found in the unacceptable levels making the water unfit for drinking. It has been shown that both black and green tea reduced the elevated levels of lipid peroxides and protein carbonyl seen with arsenite poisoning. Both teas showed protection against the decline in antioxidants, including catalase, glutathiones, and superoxide dismutase (SOD), as well as against genotoxicity (Sinha D et al, Antioxidant potential of tea reduces arsenite induced oxidative stress in Swiss albino mice, Food Chem Toxicol, January 2010). For full article click here.

Sundarbans:Bhatir Desh

Sunderbans, the very name sends the imagination reeling about a amphibian land in the south of Kolkata spread over the maze work of islands created by Ganga, Brahmputra and Meghna rivers. These rivers which seem to abandon their discipline and break up like a fan in this land. It is labyrinth of channels encircling the islands which contain the most fertile soil in their upper crust.

The name seems to be associated with the conspicuous sundari trees which are called Heritiera macrophylla by the botanists. But Mughals, as narrated by Amitav Ghosh in his beautiful novel The Hungry Tide“, called it Bhati  Desh which means Ebb tide country. This became Bhatir Desh over time.

It is the land which is so surreal that there is no line of demarcation between reality and imagination. There are eighteen islands which is why it is also called “Atharo Bhatir Desh”, the land of eighteen lands. There are tigers which can swim miles and miles after their quarries. Crocodiles and dolphins abound here.

There is one chapter in the famous book “Midnights Children” by Salman Rushdie in which three young soldiers of West Pakistan who were sent to East Pakistan and committed heinous crimes like their army, after getting lost, land up in a boat in this Jungle. Rushdie then go on to weave a superb web about the description of the place. He tells that in rainy season, the Jungle seems to grow literally before the eyes. The fruits from the Nipa Palms fall and crack on the ground. In no time the ants swoop on the fruit juice. Since the light never reaches inside many parts, there live snakes which are transparent. Jungle begins to take a complete control of your mind and you forget about the time dimension. Clearly it is the work of great creative imagination of the writer but the author builds these things making base as some real stories.

The Jungle is so dense that if one goes inside, he will forget about the concept of time. The jungle has the power to stop the time. The land is famous for the mangroves which grow copiously and sometimes discard so much dead leaves and wood that they seem to be doing harakiri or suicide, if it were not for the crabs who live there and work as scavengers. They are the janitors who see to it that everything is spic and span or tickety-boo.

The people who live there have adapted themselves to the treacheries of the jungle. They invoke the Goddess “Bonbibi” before going to jungle to gather the honey and wax. The jungle is lorded by Dekkan rai, who stalks in the form of tiger. The legend is that Dekkan rai ruled over the entire Bhatir Desh but he became obsessed with human flesh. According to story, he accosted a convoy of boats which had come there for gathering valuables from jungle, he promised them to give the untold gifts of honey and wax in liu of one human flesh. As planned by the convoy, they left one person behind and when Dekkan rai came to eat him in the garb of tiger, he prayed to Banbibi, who then with the help of her brother fought and defeated Dekkan rai. In the end it was decided that Dekkan rai will rule only the dense jungle.

That is why, whenever inhabitants cross over to jungle, they worship not only Banbibi but also the Dekkan rai, the tiger. It is the place where the womenfolk wear the white saris like widows when there menfolks go to jungle for hunting and gathering honey and wax.

The rivers which have spawned these islands bring with them so much fertile soil from Himalayas that they seem to be playing a game of erecting and erasing the islands at will. Many islands are said to have been buried and no longer exist now. New ones can be born anytime.

There exist so many biomes which harbour myriad kinds of flora and fauna. Storms break where minutes before it was so still that everything looked like a still picture.

It is not far away from Kolkata and yet it is entirely a different world, breathtaking and beautiful and at the same time extremely harsh and unforgiving to the inhabitants.

Last Days in Assam

Peculiar things happened with me as I made preparations for leaving Sibsagar on my transfer back to Mumbai.
A few days prior to my planned departure, the weather became very hot and humid as it becomes there during summer days. But on the day of my journey to airport at Dibrugarh, it began to rain and rained so much that it became a deluge. Without any respite, the rain was falling in solid sheets. Visibility became very poor. My flight was canceled on the scheduled day despite the fact that our luggage was boarded and boarding passes were issued. Such a thing never happened to me in my three years sojourn in Assam. My flight never got canceled and I made it to airport even on the days of ULFA bandh. It seemed that there were some scores remaining unsettled, as if I owed something to others and others to me, as if someone was waiting for me to see me and fulfill the unfulfilled desires. My colleagues advised me to stay put at some hotel for next day journey but I returned back. Luckily, one of my colleagues brought back the key of the house which I had surrendered that very day. I changed my flight altogether for next day.
Next day flight again arrived one hour late and I began to have doubts again. At last it took off for Guwahati on its way to Kolkata. On my adjacent seats-I was on window seat-were sitting two very pretty young girls who incidentally happened to belong to same place I was coming from and their parents worked in same company as I. They were going to Chennai, but worried about missing their connecting flight from Kolkata to Chennai due to delay in this flight. It turned out that they were having non-refundable tickets of different airlines. If everything went on time from Kolkata not only would they miss the flight but also lose the money. I tried to help them and luckily at Kolkata when they were waiting for luggage, inquiry at help counter of the airlines revealed that the flight as usual was delayed for one hour.

But I made to Kolkata with no hurry as my connecting flight to Mumbai was late in the evening with enough time remaining. Flight to Mumbai also was delayed and reached at midnight. My real nightmare started when I hired a taxi from outside. There is a great racket going on at Mumbai airport. Some taxi driver and accompanying person will board the taxi with you and take a just outside the airport where number of taxis are waiting. He will charge money from you as they pretend it be prepaid taxi and will ask you to shift to some waiting taxi and will give the driver very vague instructions about the destination and give him some share. After traveling about half the distance, the driver will ask for the spot where the passenger will drop but he will give the name of place nearby. As you will protest that I have to go to where I have to, he will say that the fellow who transferred you in my cab told me to drop you elsewhere and for going further he will again demand some more money. Really, Mumbai is going to dogs, it will go bust. It is the city whose cycle of decline has really well started. It has become a old vamp. Name any kind of maladies-physical as well as mental- you will find them in Mumbai.
Best of luck for this dying city. My lungs choked on pollution as I sucked so many pollutants in two hours as I have done in Assam in 3 years.