Kerala’s Pokkali farmers need support to grow this indigenous rice that weathers floods, is salt tolerant and offsets ground water salinity.
The pandemic and a delayed monsoon managed to push Kerala’s pokkali rice sowing season to late June this year. The farmers who grow this indigenous rice variety, however, know that its grit and resilience will see them through: after all, pokkali is hailed as a climate adaptive food.
PK Hormis Tharakan was a late entrant to the tribe of pokkali growers. The retired police officer began farming this variety in 2016 in his ancestral land in Thaikkattussery, on the eastern side of Lake Vembanad. He learned of its virtues after his crop weathered the 2018 floods, even when the bund broke and drowned the field. That year, the crop survived huge winds in Kadamakkudy until the grain was harvested.
There is further proof of its hardiness: a 2018 documentary Njan Pokkali by environmental consultant Ranjith Rajendran, traces the history of the rice. Washed away by flood-waters in the Western Ghats, the seed survives a long and tumultuous journey to finally germinate in Kerala’s salty coastal waters. The plant grew to a height of five feet defying the low tidal waves. Slowly, it became part of the State’s heritage and lore, and rituals attached themselves to its cultivation.
Over time, however, this traditional rice lost its place to more lucrative agricultural produce and was reduced to small pockets. This caused the loss of an entire social and ecological ecosystem.
However, the tide is now turning in its favour. Since pokkali cultivation does not use either pesticides or fertilizers, it has been popular as an organic variety for around a decade. Ecologically, its significance lies in its ability to resist sea erosion. After 2018, it is being seen as a potential climate change-resistant food and a responsible tourism farming produce.
In 2011, Gopinath Parayil, a Responsible Tourism pioneer, began to associate with the pokkali cause. He has been popularising farming tours in Ezhikkara and Kadamkkudy panchayats.
“Here is an amazing wild nutritious indigenous rice that survived the floods but its growers are struggling. It is labour-intensive and does not fetch a good market rate. We need to retail it strategically for its unique properties.” Gopi tried to market the rice to “conscious consumers” in Kerala initially and also link it with tourism by taking the story of this rice to 17 hotels and creating a demand. He even introduced the rice to students of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.
Last year, as part of Sampoorna Pokkali, a re-generation programme by Paliyakkal Service Cooperative Bank, Ranjith began pushing pokkali as food security produce and streamlining its collection and marketing from 34 panchayats. “We are also doing value-addition products with almost 12 derivatives from pokkali, like tooth powder from its husk,” he says.
KG Padmakumar, Director, International Research and Training Center for Below Sea Level Farming (IRTCBSF) Kuttanad, points out that the world is looking at saline-resistant crop varieties, now that sea levels are rising. Pokkali received GI status in 2008, but is farmed only in 1,500 hectares now. The area was 20,000 hectares 30 years ago.
It grows well in the tidal wetlands of Ernakulam, Thrissur, and Alapuzha. The farming season is April to October and fields are given over to prawn and shrimp cultivation for the rest of the year. Padmakumar points out the symbiotic aspect: decayed pokkali stems feeds prawns, while prawn shell waste nourishes the paddy.
Padmakumar also explains that prawn farming is lucrative whereas pokkali rice productivity is low. “Many farmers opt to shift to prawn farming completely but this poses the danger of turning the soil entirely saline.”
Tharakan remarks that ADAK (Agency For Development of Aquaculture), a project of NABARD, offers 80% subsidy to pokkali farmers. “After the Paris Agreement on climate change, reviving pokkali cultivation gained impetus. These drew me to its cultivation.” Marketing remains a problem, he admits, but the demand for its seeds is vibrant.
First line of defence
Padmakumar feels pokkali cultivation should be encouraged for its ecological benefit. He explains that paddy draws fresh water, while the crop itself prevents the entry of seawater. The fields are used for rainwater harvesting. This, he says, is significant in times of climate change. “Pokkali is the first line of defence against seawater entry. This ecological angle is not being taken seriously,” he laments.
Francis Kalathungal, a farmer from Chellanam who formed ‘Samrakshana Samithi’ to protect this, says, “Cropping in pokkali fields performs the vital function of letting rainwater percolate into the subsoil. This fresh water offsets salinity pressure on the water table. The benefits are innumerable and palpable. Often, development planners judge paddy cropping only on the basis of productivity. True, the per-acreage yield of pokkali is low, but its benefit to ecology is deep and long.”
Pokkali farming is also reduced because its harvesting is labour intensive. Getting labourers is a problem as most pokkali farms are near cities and people are drawn to more lucrative jobs. Ranjith, however, is optimistic. Post the pandemic, he is ready with plans to promote the rice, emphasising its potential for food security and combating climate change. “We have guided tours and souvenirs,” he says, hoping that farmers will benefit from this reinterpretation of the heritage rice.