Pokkali rice: Plans afoot to restore the past glory
Though agriculture was part of the culture of our state once, not many are interested in it these days. The new generation doesn't even know about the traditional seeds and crops. One of such forgotten crops is Pokkali rice. Unaware of its qualities, many Keralites seem to have ignored it for long.
Pokkali is the first Asian rice variety that obtained a geographical indication (GI) tag. It is the only paddy variety in Kerala that grows in waterlogged fields. It is cultivated in purely organic method.
Pokkali is mainly cultivated in the wetlands in Ernakulam, Thrissur and Alappuzha districts of Kerala. However, it is accepted in many parts of the world and has high demand. Apart from these districts, Pokkali is also grown in places with similar climatic and geographical conditions. Recently, it was successfully cultivated in Sundarbans and gained huge media attention.
Due to the impact of climate change, the sea water is rising beyond the normal level and causes high salinity in the water bodies and fields. When other crops struggle to survive in this condition, Pokkali plants flourish by resisting salinity and high acidity in soil. So, this rice can be the ideal option for the farmers in coastal regions.By cultivating Pokkali, wetlands can be conserved. Construction in different places increased waterlogging. Wetland can help recede flood water. It is essential to sustain pokkali lands.
It is learnt that Pokkali rice is nearly 3000 years old and it originated in the wild in the Western ghats. The seeds reached the coastal areas by floating in the flood water and gradually it became a farm crop. It is believed to be the oldest paddy variety in Asia.
Since the plant grows to a height of 5-6 feet in the field filled with saline water, it was named ‘Pokkali’ that means ‘standing tall’ in Malayalam. As it grows in waterlogged fields, only half of the plant is visible above the surface.
The Pokkali rice contains high quantities of antioxidants, iron, zync, manganese, selenium and fiber. Therefore, it is good to treat cancer, arthritis, heart diseases and similar diseases and improves health of the nervous system and metabolism.
As the plant grows in saline water, it is nutrient-rich and has medicinal properties as well. The bran of Pokkali rice is the most medicinal part of the grain. It takes more time to digest Pokkali rice compared to other varieties. So, it is ideal for diabetic patients since its glycemic index is very low.
As Pokkali is cultivated in a completely organic manner, it helps ensure soil health and also boosts fish farming. Pokkali is cultivated in a cyclic manner in which the paddy and fish are farmed in alternate seasons.
Once the paddy harvest is over by November, fish farming commences in the fields. Fish harvest ends by April. Then the land is drained, dried and tilled. The farmers will wait till the monsoon rain washes away salinity in the soil, then sow the Pokkali seed. As the fish waste nourishes the soil, it serves as a fertiliser for the crop.
Within 100 days, the plant grows to a height of about 6 feet. The paddy will be ready to harvest within 25 days. While reaping the paddy, only the tip of the plant is cut. Rest of the stem is abandoned in the water so that planktons develop from it. Later, when fish farming starts, the hatchlings of fish feed on this and this improves fish productivity.
Normally, no fertiliser or agrochemicals are used while cultivating Pokkali rice. During fish farming, fish feed made out of fishmeal and natural ingredients is given to the hatchlings, as paddy is not cultivated in adequate quantities these days. No other artificial products or supplements are used in any phase of farming.
Nowadays, organic farming practices are given more prominence. But it is difficult to confirm whether they are completely organic and safe for consumption, as many people apply agrochemicals while claiming the produce to be organic. Being a genuine brand with a GI tag, Pokkali does not require certification to prove its standard.
SEED for Pokkali
The Society for Economic and Environmental Development (SEED) is an NGO that actively promotes Pokkali cultivation along with other activities. They help the farmers to get funds by presenting projects on behalf of them. Dilraj, one of the directors of SEED, said that Pokkali can be considered as a cereal that has the potential to survive the climate change, conserve biodiversity and ensure food security. So, it can be called the rice of the future, he opined.
SEED members have been part of the Pokkali farming initiative in Kadamakkudy island village for the last 5 years. They have been interacting with the farmers for years as part of this.
The experts and professionals in SEED guide the farmers in effectively implementing farming technologies and help prepare and present the projects on behalf of them. The central government is planning to invest hugely on farming ventures. However, this involves a lot of paperwork for submission of projects. NGOs like SEED will help fulfill these requirements through teamwork.
There are over 60 members in SEED including aquaculture scientist Dr KK Philipose, architect Mahesh Gopalakrishnan, Regional Agricultural Research Station director Dr Rajendran among other experts and farmers. It functions as an umbrella bringing together all the elements that help farmers. Cooperative banks and societies also join hands with them to financially support the mission.
Kadamakkudy island village is a key example for the successful implementation of Pokkali farming. SEED members made a master plan for developing farm tourism here. The state government approved it and allotted Rs 5 crore in the previous budget for the initial works. This is a major achievement that encourages more farmers to come forward.
However, only a very limited number of people are aware of Pokkali rice and its benefits. So, it goes through a struggling period due to labour shortage and financial crisis. More investment is required to start farming and expand to more areas.
Farm tourism is a value addition for cultivation. Also the attention of outsiders can be attracted through this. Kadamakkudy was included in the list of emergeing tourism destinations in Kerala last year as a result of their continuous efforts.
If the tourists develop interest in Pokkali rice, then they can also invest in the project. NGOs like SEED are important because the government agencies cannot meet all the requirements. Out of the 50 projects of NFDB, we could bring around 3 worth 10-15 crore to Kadamakkudy recently.
Kadamakkudy panchayat is ruled by the LDF while Congress is ruling Varappuzha. Former MLA of Vypeen S Sharma initiated the project to promote Pokkali farming. Varappuzha is part of the constituency of Opposition leader VD Satheesan. So, he also backed the mission in all ways he could.
Ernakulam MP Hibi Eden inaugurated the harvest event this time. MLA K N Unnikrishnan also extended all support to the venture. BJP's farming organisation also cooperates with the activities. As everyone cooperates, there is no politics involved in this. It is a collective effort, Dilraj said.
Recently, the central government has allocated huge funds to provide financial aid through different boards and institutions such as the National Fisheries Development Board (NFDB). Rs 8000 crore has been earmarked for next 5 years through NFDB. Agriculture Infrastructure Fund (AIF) also has been allotted a huge amount.
In order to overcome the challenges posed by climate change, more technology needs to be applied in the agriculture sector. In the traditional method of aquaponics in which both paddy and fish are cultivated, the issues are identified only when the crop perishes or the fish dies.
However, when technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) are applied, we can monitor the level of nutrients in the soil and water, predict changes and rectify them at the right time. Expert members in SEED are contributing to the application of technology in the farming sector.
Reducing carbon footprint is important in the time of climate emergency. This is more important in developing countries like India. We cannot totally avoid developmental activities in order to reduce carbon emission. We can achieve the target by managing both. We have a think tank to contribute to this mission, the director said.
In Varappuzha, one paddy variety and one fish variety were cultivated in a 30-acre land on an experimental basis with the cooperation of NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development), panchayat authorities, Agency for Development of Aquaculture Kerala (ADAK) and Krishi Bhavan. It was very successful and the farmers got a stunning yield which was the best in about 15 years.
SEED organises harvest festivals so that the public can watch and experience the farming process. SEED is also planning to arrange a finale of the programme by November second week, when the weather and the situation are favourable. Through the festival, SEED aims to introduce Pokkali rice to the world and also honour the farmers for their contributions and efforts.
As a result of the consistent effort of the team, the price of Pokkali has touched Rs 160 per kilogram and the seed costs upto Rs 120 per kilogram. Though the price seems high, many people are ready to pay for it. The major intention of the festival is to encourage more people to support farmers. Apart from farming activities, the festival also includes several cultural events, food fest and exhibitions.
Different food items made of Pokkali rice will be introduced at the festival. The rice harvested in the previous season is used for preparing the items. But in the finale to be held in November, the rice collected during this harvest season will be used to prepare food items. The authorities of Kerala Tourism, DTPC (District Tourism Promotion Council) and district collector also are interested in this.
Since many people apply for government subsidies and other projects, not everyone can be included in them. But the central funds will be disbursed directly and are easily sanctioned in comparison to other sources. As farmers usually have low credit scores, it will be difficult for them to get bank loans.
Though the government offers financial aids for the farming initiatives, they are insufficient. In order to attract central funds. Though SEED provides help for the same, there are limitations. Rs 5 crore allotted in the budget was the outcome of their 5 years long effort. Also the chief minister took special interest in it. After the project was presented in the chief minister’s development seminar, it was sanctioned immediately and the fund was allotted soon after the new government came into power.
Beside other features like climate resistance and medicinal values, the economic relevance of Pokkali also is noteworthy. If fish and Pokkali cultivation are expanded to more areas, many industries can be associated with it such as tourism, value added products, food processing etc. Youngsters have huge opportunities in the agriculture sector. The coastal areas and wetlands in Kerala can be utilised well and the economy can be revived. The contribution and support from the people also are essential for this, Dilraj added.