When Cyclone Amphan struck West Bengal’s coastal region of Sunderbans in May 2020, inrushing seawaters washed away vast tracts of paddy fields.
Refusing to be ruined, a few local farmers turned to Kerala for salvation — and found it in its salt-resistant Pokkali variety of paddy.
The farmers had heard of the variety from members of a science club working among the local community in the Sunderbans, who were also liaising with scientists in Kerala.
Two years later, reports say, the Pokkali rice is doing well in the Sunderbans.
Back in Kerala, researchers hope, the success in Bengal will boost its prospects in the original home of Pokkali.
Interestingly, in Kerala, the recognition for it is less than it deserves despite getting a GI (Geographical Indication) tag in 2008, thanks to efforts by the government-run government-run Pokkali Land Development Agency (PLDA).
“We have seen only a marginal increase in Pokkali farming compared to last year in Ezhikkara. There is not adequate support from the government,” says Aswathy an official with the Palliyakal Cooperative Service Bank (PCSB), a pillar of support to Pokkali farmers.
Ezhikkara, in Ernakulam district, is an area where the crop is actively cultivated, with support from the PCSB.
What is Pokkali?
One of the earliest crops to be cultivated by organic farming methods in the state, Pokkali is Kerala’s own rice variety.
In Malayalam, the word “pokkam” means height and “aali” means plant, or in other words, Pokkali is a plant that stands tall — all of around six feet in height.
Today, it is known not only for its nutritional value but also for the role it plays in curbing environmental degradation: It helps cut carbon emission and prevent soil erosion.
Another advantage is that it requires no fertilisers.
From hills to coast
The origins of Pokkali in Kerala can be traced to the migration of communities to the state. According to a website on Pokkali hosted by PCSB: “Konkani-speaking Kudumbi community could have brought the grain with them when they moved from present day Goa to Kerala. It is also interesting to note here that Pokkali is grown in Sri Lanka. It could have reached Sri Lanka via the Buddhist missionaries or vice versa.”
Pokkali is believed to have grown originally in only what is today Idukki district in Kerala, and later brought by the floods to the coastal areas of Ernakulam, Alappuzha, and Thrissur.
It is now predominantly cultivated in these three districts, besides Palakkad.
Pokkali is traditionally grown from June to early November, when the salinity in the water is low, while from mid-November to mid-April, when the salinity rises, the fields are used for cultivating prawns.
The system survived, because it was a win-win situation: The prawns’ excreta became natural manure for the paddy later, while the residual paddy stocks post-harvesting served as food for the prawns.
But the interest in Pokkali was kindled afresh after successive years of floods in 2018 and 2019, which wreaked havoc on farmers, save for those who cultivated Pokkali.
The true worth of Pokkali’s saline tolerance was then realised — and is being enjoyed by farmers in coastal Bengal.
Challenges in Kerala
Despite the attention that it has attracted of late, Pokkali rice has not quite managed to catch on in Kerala’s farming community. There are two reasons for this, say those associated with popularising this rice variety in the state.
First, a serious lack of farmhands, and second, harvesting the crop itself poses challenges to farmers for want of modern technologies.
“There are very few labourers, which has pushed up labour costs,” says MP Shajan, a project coordinator of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, engaged in the coordination and equipping of Pokkali farmers for scientific methods of farming.
“Elderly men have been doing all the work for decades and the next generation has not stepped in to replace them,” he told South First.
Despite being the state with highest wages for manual labour in the country, the lack of knowledge of the traditional ways of Pokkali farming and the labour intensiveness of the cultivation, compared to other work, keeps people away from Pokkali farming.
“All those who work here are elderly people. If you bring in skilled labour, then you require machinery; without developing machinery I don’t see a future for Pokkali farming,” says Shajan.
Also, unlike other paddy varieties where the harvest is done when the fields are dry, Pokkali is harvested in inundated fields. The loam soil makes it difficult for traditional harvesting machines to function in the fields.
Need for government intervention
“We don’t know for how long we can continue Pokkali farming with the manpower that we have. This year, as there were not enough labourers to spread the seeds, we received numerous complaints from traditional farmers here. As we don’t have proper models for mechanisation, we are unable to adopt them,” PCSB’s Aswathy told South First.
She also says that, earlier, state government agencies like the PLDA, set up in 1996 by the state government, used to provide support to farmers; this no more the case.
Referring to farm protests in places like Ezhikkara and Vypin demanding mechanisation in farming, Shajan says: “Our governments or the Kerala Agricultural University have not given any importance to this issue.”
“It takes great effort to plough the land. As heavy machines sink in the loam soil, we cannot use them. Currently, there are certain groups in Kumbalangi who use garden tillers for the harvest, that has seen limited success. However, in our area, due to relatively higher water in the fields, we are not able to use them.” he added.
The PCSB’s role
The PCSB has been working to support Pokkali farming for a couple of decades now.
“We began working on Pokkali farming in 2002. What we were trying to do is to organise those interested in Pokkali farming into Self Help Groups (SHGs). We help these SHGs in everything from getting seeds to selling the rice in the market,” says MP Vijayan, a former secretary of PCSB.
In the early 2000s, the crop did not have any takers, apart from a few households, Vijayan told South First. But with the local authorities setting a condition that prawn farming could only be done if the farmers cultivated Pokkali during the monsoon, the cultivation of the crop gradually spread.
According to Vijayan, 7,000 ha of Pokkali fields that are left unused in the three districts of the state, of which 5,000 ha are in Ernakulam district. As Pokkali is grown in farmlands with high water salinity, the traditional rice crop cannot be cultivated on the land.
Other challenges to the cultivation include the monoculture farming implemented in the areas as the prawn farming gets higher returns.
Also, the development projects have hindered the flow of tidal waters into the Pokkali fields, severely impacted the traditional way of prawn farming.