In north Bihar, where floods devastate standing crops with increasing regularity in an era of climate change, a marginalised community is fighting all odds to protect an indigenous flood-resistant variety of rice
Sahorwa village is caught between the embankments of two major rivers in north Bihar. Between the Kosi river’s western embankment and Kamla Balan river’s eastern embankment, this village of 110 Musahar families remains flooded for seven to eight months in most years.
The Musahars are an impoverished and oppressed scheduled caste, still not allowed to live anywhere in Bihar except in hamlets earmarked exclusively for them, where they survive in unhygienic and conditions with very little food.
Till some four months ago, the only way to reach Sahorwa village, in Gonghepur panchayat of Saharsa district, was in a boat that would, with great effort, cut across the mesh of water hyacinth covering the waters around. The village has recently been connected with a cemented road, though there is no other sign of improvement.
In the middle of this misery, one fascinating feature of Sahorwa is the desariya dhan, an indigenous variety of flood-compatible rice that is cultivated by the residents.
“Desariya dhan is our local variety of rice that grows in five to six feet deep floodwater. As the water level rises, the stem of the plant grows, too. The rice grains are thick, coarse and slightly hard to eat,” resident Panna Lal Kumar told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “There are three types of desariya rice — white grain, black grain, and a mix of black-white grain. The latter is also known as cheeta or barogar dhan.”
Residents of Sahorwa grow all three varieties for personal consumption. “We grow it to feed our children as we cannot afford to buy rice from the market,” said Vibha Devi, who owns four bighas of land. (1.6 bighas equal one acre.)
Without this rice, the residents would starve. Besides Kosi and Kamla Balan, both of which swell and rise during the monsoon, a third river — Gheuma — flows along Sahorwa and adds to the flooding.
“The Gheuma river comes from the north and flows along Sahorwa and the neighbouring hamlets to drain into the Kamla Balan. Till 2012, the flooding in Sahorwa was limited to the four months of monsoon,” Kumod Kumar Das, programme officer, technical, with Megh Pyne Abhiyan (MPA), a non-profit working on water and sanitation issues in the north Bihar, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “But, post 2012 the eastern embankment of Kamla Balan got extended by seven kilometres and a sluice gate was recently installed in it, thereby blocking the natural flow of Gheuma into Kamla Balan.”
Sahorwa now remains inundated from May to December. Residents can see their farmlands only between January and April. “In the month of March-April, when our farmland is dry, we sow the seeds of desariya dhan in clayey soil. In seven days, the seedling appears, and in the next 15-20 days, the plant starts growing. Transplantation is not needed,” explained Vibha Devi. “Once the plant is five to six inches tall, the water starts coming and flooding begins from May. Slowly the flood water level keeps rising and so does the desariya dhan.”
By the end of August-September, the floodwater is four to five feet deep in the farms, with much of the desariya dhan floating on top. The tip of the plant must remain above water, else the plant dies. “The uniqueness of desariya dhan is that there is one root of the plant fixed to the soil, whereas the stem has several nodes from which more plants grow. So, one root may have 10-15 plants that float one-and-a-half feet above the water level,” explained Panna Lal. The crop is harvested in November when there is still about a foot of water covering the soil. Harvesting is done on boats.
Desariya dhan is an indigenous variety of rice, which is supposed to have evolved from the wild rice varieties grown in eastern Indo-Gangetic plains, particularly in the floodplains of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. It belongs to genus Oryza. Asian cultivated rice — Oryza sativa — is the world’s most important food crop and is the primary food source for more than one third of the world’s population.
Desariya dhan has three special adaptations. First, it has the ability to elongate with the rise of water levels. Second, it develops nodal tillers and roots from the upper nodes in the water. Last, the upward bending of the terminal part of the plant called kneeing keeps the reproductive parts above the water as the flood subsides. The nodal roots absorb nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients from floodwater.
Decline of desariya
In spite of such unique adaptation features, desariya dhan is in decline. “Just about a decade ago, several hamlets around our village used to grow desariya dhan. But, after the extension of Kamla Balan’s embankment and installation of the sluice gate, the majority of farmers have stopped growing it as flooding has increased manifold,” Narayan Bharti of Sahorwa told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Desariya dhan cannot withstand water level beyond six-seven feet. And, if the tip of the plant remains in water for a day or two, it dies.”
In the Rabi (winter) cropping season, Sahorwa residents grow maize, but that too is lost due to prolonged waterlogging or a sudden rush of floodwater. “Earlier floodwater used to drain by October and we used to grow green peas. Wheat was also cultivated in 40-50 acres. But now, our village is flooded till November-December,” lamented Panna Lal. The staple diet of Musahar families of Sahorwa is ghonga (snail), a local water plant called koka and its underground fruit, and karmi saag (water spinach).
Last December, MPA carried out a study to quantify the damage caused to Sahorwa residents by the extension of the embankment and the building of the sluice gate. In its report, Post Disaster Recovery: Assessment of Needs in Moderate Flood Conditions in Saharsa District, prepared for the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR), MPA has said that every year standing paddy in 55 acres land of Sahorwa is destroyed due to waterlogging, which amounts to a loss of INR 192,500 (USD 2,962) per year. Before 2012, per acre production of maize was 26.40 quintal, which has reduced to 17.60 quintal per acre since the construction of the embankment and sluice gate.
“The embankment and the sluice gates impede the flow. Hence, the floodwater starts accumulating in the region and later takes a form of a huge waterlogged area. The slow drainage of the water has extended the duration of floods, and thereby impacting the ecosystem,” Eklavya Prasad, managing trustee of MPA, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
Apart from excess flooding, water hyacinth is also responsible for the decline of desariya dhan cultivation in Sahorwa. “Kechali (water hyacinth) has spread everywhere and doesn’t let any other crop grow,” lamented another resident Bhikna Devi, who claimed that barely a few farmers in Sahorwa now managed to grow desariya dhan. The rest migrate in search of work.
According to a research paper, Managing Flood Prone Ecosystem for Rice Production in Bihar Plains, flood-prone rice (including desariya) area occupies nearly 2.25 million hectare (mha) in eastern India, of which 0.5 mha is in the floodplains of Bihar. But, there are several challenges to keeping desariya dhan alive.
A basic problem with desariya rice is low yield. Deepwater rice yields range from 0.4 to 0.5 tonnes per hectare (t/ha) in Uttar Pradesh, 0.5 to 1 t/ha in Bihar, 0.4 to 0.8 t/ha in Odisha, 1 to 1.2 t/ha in West Bengal. There is a need to increase the present yield six-fold to twelve-fold.
The indigenous rice also faces pest attacks such as stem borer, aquatic weeds and bacterial leaf blight. There are ways of reducing these attacks, such as burning rice stubble after harvesting when the field is dry. This kills several pathogens and adds potassium in field, but adds severely to the air pollution in the area. Sesbania species planted along farm boundaries has been found effective to check growth of water hyacinth. But most residents are unaware of these possibilities.
Researchers are increasingly recognising the importance of “wild species of rice (genus Oryza) that are reservoir of many useful genes but a vast majority of these genes remain untapped because it is often difficult to transfer these genes into cultivated rice. The wild rice species have many valuable traits such as disease and pest resistance, adaptable to floods, drought-resistant and so on.
Impact of climate change
By 2050, the world’s population will reach 9.1 billion and feeding such a large population will require food production to increase by 70%, says the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). But, in a changing climate with recurring droughts, floods and other extreme weather events, crops that are better able to maintain productivity under sub-optimal conditions are needed.
“Climate change is already impacting Bihar as extreme weather events are on the rise. The indigenous crop varieties are sturdy and should be protected and promoted,” Vyas Ji, vice-chairperson of Bihar State Disaster Management Authority (BSDMA), told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
According to him, as part of the Agriculture Roadmap of Bihar, research on indigenous crop varieties that are drought-resistant and flood-compatible should be taken up. “There are large numbers of ponds in Bihar and we should explore the possibility of growing desariya dhan in such areas.”