A forgotten document on low cost, eco-friendly and community based approach to rice cultivation could hold the key for improving the grain’s yield across the country

About three decades back, when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister’s Office had asked India’s senior most rice scientist Dr. R.H. Richharia to prepare a plan for improving rice production in the country. Dr. Richharia had earlier been the Director of the Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack. 

Braving poor health and advanced age, Dr. Richharia prepared an invaluable document titled ‘A Specific Plan of Action for Increase in Production of Rice’, which still remains highly relevant. However, following the sudden death of Mrs. Gandhi, all interest in the plan appears to have been lost in subsequent years. Subsequently when Dr. Richharia expired, there was no one left to pursue the matter with the PMO and the government. This plan document needs to be revived as it offers a great potential for rice cultivation on a sustainable basis with the involvement of rice farmers.

In fact, one of the outstanding features of Dr. Richharia’s career was that he worked in close cooperation with farmers, including tribal farmers of remote villages in Bastar. His plan gives full credit to the wisdom of farmers and involves them in a bottom-up approach. This is very different from the centralised approach often seen in agricultural development and research in India.

A basic feature of rice cultivation is that it is grown in very different conditions almost all-over India (conditions differ from field to field in a single village) and it is for this reason that over the years a great diversity of indigenous varieties have evolved, each variety being suitable for different conditions, with different qualities. Dr. Richharia’s plan is based on respecting this basic feature of rice cultivation. In other words, his plan is based on the rich diversity of indigenous varieties.

He wrote: “If we were to think of a single characteristic feature of the rice crop which yields food for millions, it cannot be anything else unless it is its variability in the form of thousands of its cultivars, spread in India and in other rice growing belts of the world. This is because of the rice plant’s flexible genetic make-up and mutational power to adoption. This means the concept of wider adaptability does not work in rice. Again, rice farmers usually stick to their own varieties, as they possess deep knowledge to harvest a crop even under the most stressful situations and they also possess high yielding varieties of their own which are generally not included in extension programmes, which is a major lapse.” For example, in a survey carried out in Madhya Pradesh during 1971-74, eight per cent of the indigenous rice types were observed to fall under the category of high yielding types, fixing the minimum limit of 3705 kg/Ha.

Before outlining his plan, Dr. Richharia had identified some weaknesses of the existing official approach. He wrote, “The main constraint has been the hurried introduction of the undesirable new rice material, the HYVs (dwarfs) on which we based our strategy, replacing even the reputed high yielding varieties of the locality, forgetting at the same time unexpected drought situations, under which the HYVs lowered the yields. In addition, under heavy fertilisation and irrigation, the HYVs proved susceptible to diseases and pests which cannot be controlled easily, thus again pointing towards reduction of yield.

When the base is, in itself, weak (meaning the new rice material), a mansion built on it, must collapse. In planning, too, stress was not laid on improving the inexpensive local resources which matter in agriculture. The stress has been more on making Indian agriculture ‘factory-oriented’. Organic and ecological farming with which the farmers are familiar and which they prefer, finds little place in our research and planning process after 1965…The agro-ecological balance has been disturbed in the environment in respect of the existing rice germplasm which has been built up in course of time for centuries by the natural process of breeding and selection by farmers.”

To correct past mistakes and to improve rice production on sustainable basis, Dr. Richharia proposed a three-point plan of action. It was suggested that rural adaptive rice centres (to be known as farmers’ rice centres or Kisani Dhan Kendra) may be established, as many as possible, all over the country, with about one hectare of land for each centre.

“The adaptive rice centres will be the custodians of all local rice cultivars in respective localities, assembled immediately, supplemented, if necessary, by the already available materials of the locality at different research centres. They will be maintained under their natural habitat to safeguard the future. They will be known as local treasuries of rice germplasm, a term suggested by Dr. Frankel of Australia. In course of time, those farmers' centres may be further expanded to embrace varieties of other crops of the surrounding locality with a similar programme, (also to serve as a local gene bank).”

The functions of the centres would be: (a) to maintain the evolved rice genetic material for future studies and use, as it is practically impossible to retain it in its original form at a central place in India or abroad. It can be maintained in its original condition at its natural habitat only seeking help of the rice growers themselves, (b) to educate the young farmers to appreciate the value and importance of their own material, adding new ones as their hobby, (c) the rice growers in general stick to cultivate their own indigenous rice varieties. If the improved seeds of their own varieties by simple selection method (to be done by the trained worker and the nearby local research centres may also do) are offered to them, under their original names, they would gladly accept them. Indigenous seeds would be distributed from the centres in small quantities and the farmers would be explained how to multiply them rapidly by clonal propagation method which would be demonstrated to them at the centre.

“It may be asked, “will the rice cultivators absorb and follow up these methods which apparently seem complex?” The answer is that during our extensive surveys of the rice regions of India, we observed that the rice farmers have been following more complicated systems to keep their rice culture vigorous and maintaining their thousands of rice varieties from times immemorial,” Dr. Richharia observed.

The plan recommended by Dr. Richharia is highly eco-friendly as it emphases the existence of indigenous seed varieties which can give high production without any chemical fertilisers and pesticides.