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In Rice We Trust!


A pilot project at Jammu’s Ranbir Singh Pura aspires to put the State on the international Basmati map. Jainifur goes to the sector bordering Pakistan and brings in the story of hope.
JAINIFUR | Issue Dated: November 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Basmati Rice | Ranbir Singh | Sudesh Kaul | Basmati 370 | Ranbir Basmati | Sanwal | Hybrid PHB71 |Pusa 2511 |

It is said that big things start from small initiatives. On that account, Jammu might have just started to dream it big.

If the project to turn the Basmati rice grown in the Ranbir Singh Pura region of Jammu into a fully organic product is successful, the sector bordering the International Border between India and Pakistan will come into limelight again. Only this time, it would not be for the cross-border firing, but for something truly special.

There’s a lot hanging on the success of this project. Not only is this a truly great chance to put the region on the export map, the initiative will also give enough reasons to the locals not to abandon the villages here. In the long run, if everything falls in place, then it might also start attracting youths back towards agriculture; something that is not very common these days.

This initiative is part of the agenda-for-alliance cobbled up by the state PDP-BJP government. It was decided that a model-Basmati-village, so to speak, shall be developed with the government’s help in the Jammu region. Suchetgarh, which borders the International Border, and Sialkot, which is on the other side of the fence in Pakistan, have ideal conditions for the growth of internationally sought after Basmati rice. Locals also believe that the Basmati grown in the RS Pura region is naturally organic. As in, there’s no additional effort put in to make the product organic, as is the norm these days. The soil here seems to somehow reject chemical fertilizers in whatever form.

Keeping in mind the favourable conditions, the State Government has started to implement the project here. However, it is at the best a chequered start. Lack of funds, inadequate irrigation facilities, inaccessible markets and illegal encroachments of agricultural lands are some of the teething challenges that the government has to overcome before the project can realise its full potential. 

As part of this project, three villages falling under Suchetgarh Assembly Constituency have been selected as of now. The total allocated fund is to the tune of Rs 12 crores. A total of 771.6 hectares of land belonging to as many as 519 families have been selected for the pilot project. The sowing was done in the ongoing season.

Out of the three selected villages. Suchetgarh has the lion’s share of 366.5 hectares of land from 231 families. It is followed by Korotana Khurd and Bidhipur Jattan with the comparative figures of 167.5 hectares from 177 families and 134.5 hectares from 111 families respectively.

As far as the process is concerned, the tilling, farrowing and sowing have all been done as per the organic methods prescribed by new researches in the field. From providing good quality seeds and compost manures to imparting cutting-edge technological know-how, everything has been done by the State Agriculture Department.

The Director of the Agriculture Department, Sudesh Kaul, says, “The goal of this initiative is to keep providing technical support to the farmers for three years, by which time, we are positive that they will become self-dependent in organic farming. We’ll provide health cards, PGS certifications, vermicomposting, agro-tools, godowns, mini-rice mills and other infrastructure support that the project will require to be successful in the long run.”   

“From preparing the harvest to packaging and marketing, every step in this process will be done by farmers themselves. One of the long term goals of this program is to make agriculture a more glamorous profession for the youth. If educated youngsters are drawn back towards agriculture, their migration from villages can be checked,” he adds to good measure.

While natural migration towards cities is one of the reasons why villages are being abandoned by youths, locals maintain that cross-border exchange of fire between India and Pakistan is another reason for abandonment.

Kaul, meanwhile, sounds very enthusiastic about the project. He maintains that the international sentiment is turning against the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides, and this has propelled organic products into the limelight once again. It is to tap on these sentiments that this project has been initiated.

However, benefits will not be immediate. It’s a gradual process. At least that is what RL Bhagat, nodal officer of this project, seems to believe. He says that only after three years of organic method of farming, and the subsequent tests to attest the produce, will international agencies declare the product truly organic. In the first step, farmers will do the prescribed tests themselves. Only when they are confident of passing that third-party international agencies will be brought into the picture.

“We are growing a special cultivar of aromatic Basmati, named Basmati 370 under this project.  Apart from turning the cultivation into an organic one, our other target is to increase the productivity from the current 27 quintals per hectare to 37 quintals per hectare,” Bhagat adds.

To decentralise the project, self-help groups consisting of 50 farmers each have been organised. Every such group will have one expert from the agriculture department attached with it. All these steps have been registered online. A web portal has also been brought into place to run this project with efficiency and transparency.

All the subsidies allotted to the farmers involved in this project will be directly remitted to their accounts. To add to this, a group named Basmati Interest Group will work closely with these self-help groups in order to safeguard their interests, as well as attracting the next generation of farmers towards the trade.

Locals, unsurprisingly, are very excited about the project. For example, Swarn Lal, the Sarpanch of Suchetgarh, can hardly hide his excitement while talking to TSI. “It was my dream to put the organic Basmati of Jammu on the international map. If this project is successful, it will attract our kids too towards agriculture,” he says, beaming hopefully.

However, not everything is hunky-dory with the project. As mentioned earlier, lack of funds is proving to be a major hurdle in the implementation of this project. While the harvest season is approaching for the first lot of crops grown using the organic method, the government is yet to release the requisite funds. The Agriculture Department is withdrawing funds from other heads to meet the demands as a stop-gap arrangement. But this is affecting the infrastructure development. Not to mention, this is not a long term solution.

Farmers like Swarn Lal are worried that unless modern tools for harvesting and processing, and mini rice mills too, are in place, the project will suffer. According to local farmers, there’s an imminent need for tools and machinery.

Jammu & Kashmir is among the five states that grow Basmati in substantial amounts. Apart from Jammu & Kashmir, the adjoining regions of Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh are other states producing Basmati in large amount.

This highly flavoured variety of superfine paddy is grown in subtropical areas of the state namely RS Pura, Bishnah, Akhnoor, Samba and Kathua districts. In Jammu & Kashmir, presently five varieties of Basmati rice are being cultivated. These are Basmati 370, Ranbir Basmati, Sanwal, Hybrid PHB71 and Pusa 2511. Apart from these varieties, Pusa 1121 has also proved to be suitable to be grown, especially in Kathua area.

According to data provided by the Agriculture Department, rice is sown in as many as 45,000 hectares of the Jammu district, out of which 34,000 hectares are utilised for sowing Basmati. The total production is to the tune of 88,000 tonnes. However, farmers maintain that a range of factors have made the production economically unviable. This includes irregular declaration of Minimum Support Price, lack of markets and also monopoly of a few firms that procure Basmati rice. These firms and middlemen are the ones who reap the maximum benefits.

Chaudhary Dev Raj, President of Basmati Rice Growers Association, explains, “The input cost as of now is anywhere between Rs 75,000 to Rs 80,000 per hectare. The average production per hectare is around 30 quintals. The farmer is being paid only Rs 1800 per quintal, which brings the total payment to around an average of Rs 54,000 per hectare. There is a net loss of Rs 26,000 per hectare here.”  

Vice President of Farmer Development Advisory Board, Daljit Singh Chib says, “The lack of permanent Mandis in Jammu area has adversely affected the farmers here. I have raised the issue with the Chief Minister, who is also the president of our board. We have been assured that as many as four Mandis will be in place by the end of this year.”

Chib further adds that the government had opened as many as 16 procurement centres last year for the purchase of Basmati rice. It had also set the MSP at Rs 1410-1450 per quintal last year. In comparison, millers had put the price at Rs 750-800 per quintal.

The lack of proper irrigation facilities is also hampering the productivity. Swarn Lal reminisces that during the reign of Maharaja Hari Singh, a canal was dug all the way from Akhnoor to bring the water of Chenab to RS Pura. However, he adds, the water was misused in between. From sundry men to brick kiln owners, everyone sucked the canal dry through water pumps. “This needs to be stopped with immediate effect,” he adds rather angrily.

Chaudhary Dev Raj further adds that separate transformers are required for pumping-sets. “We need 18 hours of power supply at the time of harvesting. We are getting anything between 5-6 hours maximum as of now,” he explains. 

Both Chaudhary Dev Raj and Swarn Lal are in favour of solar pumps as an alternative. Other demands include subsidised availability of irrigation equipment, bio-gas plants and mini rice mills.  

Satpal Chadhak, member of PDP’s Farmer cell maintains that there’s a sort of monopoly as far as procurement is concerned and this is turning the trade lopsided. He advocates the introduction of more firms in this trade for the same to become robust.

And that is not all. A large part of agriculture lands in the state has been affected due to illegal construction. Although there is a law in place to stop this but it is hardly enforced. Chaudhary Dev Raj says that in spite of the ban being enforced by the courts, the lands are being used for banquet halls, construction of houses and for sundry commercial purposes. Locals allege that this is being done with the tacit understanding of the Revenue Department, and that this would only end in a doomsday for agriculture. A PIL filed at J&K High Court last year detailed the gargantuan amount of land that has been occupied for such purposes. If this particular Basmati initiative is successful, this may also put a stop on such encroachment.

Other new initiatives are also making the environment conducive for exports. The State Government lifted the ban on export of Basmati in the year 2009. Later, the Commerce Ministry relaxed the criterion for the export of Basmati rice in order to provide J&K farmers some benefit for it. It is noteworthy that the average size of Basmati grain from the State is around 6.61 mm, whereas the Ministry had earlier the set the prescribed length for export at 7 mm. It has now been changed to 6.60 mm to benefit the farmers from the state.

According to the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority, 40 lac metric tonnes of Basmati rice with the amount of 3477 million dollars was exported from India during the financial year 2015-16.According to the figures of Agrinet, 240.77 thousand tonnes of Basmati was exported from J&K in the year 2014.

Data also suggests that there was a minor fall in the export figure for the financial year 2014-2015 compared to the previous year. Saudi Arabia is the biggest importer of Indian Basmati rice followed closely by Iran and Iraq.

If this project is successful, these numbers will see marked increment in the years to come. Although this might sound like a small project, but many a hope is dependent on this to succeed.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017