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The promise of aromatic rice

Surinder Sud | September 23, 2003

Though Basmati has dominated the domestic and international market for aromatic rice, it is surely not the unchallenged king of fragrant rice. Many other indigenous varieties of scented rice excel equally as far as aroma and cooking qualities are concerned.

But, unfortunately, these have somehow not got the attention of rice scientists and traders, including exporters, to the extent that Basmati has. As a result, most of this valuable wealth has either already vanished or is on a decline.

The cultivation of non-Basmati scented rice (their number still runs into hundreds) is now confined to limited pockets where farmers grow them either for self-consumption or for special occasions. Only a few of these aromatic rice are traded domestically, leave alone the international market.

One of the factors that sets Basmati apart from other aromatic rice is its long grains. The other scented rice usually have medium to short grains. But then, the global market for long-grained scented rice is only a creation of promotional efforts and not of any natural preference for grain length.

The demand for medium- and short-grain rice is far more than that for long-grain ones. That is where lies the scope for pushing non-Basmati scented rice in the domestic as well as the global market.

Some of the outstanding examples of short-to-medium grain length indigenous aromatic rice are Kalanamak (popularly called, the "black pearl of eastern Uttar Pradesh"), Shakarchini and Hansraj of UP, Dubraj and Chinoor of Chhatisgarh, Kalajoha of north-east, Ambemohar of Maharashtra and Randhunipagal of Orissa and the West Bengal region.

Bindli, a small-grained aromatic rice grown under waterlogged conditions in UP is known to possess aroma and cooking qualities much superior to Basmati. It elongates more than 200 per cent on cooking, surpassing the Basmati in this respect. Similarly, Randhunipagal has such strong and intense aroma that people fear that over-exposure to it can render the cook insane (pagal in Hindi) -- and hence its name.

Though some of these scented rice have been grown for centuries, no attempt has yet been made to catalogue them. The first such bid has come from R K Singh, India's representative at the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, and U S Singh of Pantnagar agricultural university, in the form of a compendium called  "A treatise on the scented rice of India".

Singh had earlier made a similar effort in cataloguing the scented rice of some other countries as well. But the diversity of scented rice from India is the largest in the world, the noted rice expert points out.

Though even this treatise may not have captured the entire diversity, the document has great significance for it can save these rice from extinction. Otherwise, as indicated in this treatise, these rice might lose their identity and aroma through genetic pollution and admixing in the fields and market yards.

More importantly, the documentation can safeguard the country's sovereign rights over these highly valuable rice under the Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights regime of the World Trade Organisation.

Significantly, this treatise contains information on the quality traits of these rice, management practices for their cultivation, the effects of environmental and location-specific factors on the quality of these rice and the scientific work, if any, done on them.

Besides, it also contains several useful suggestions for future research and trade policies to gainfully exploit the commercial potential of Basmati as well as non-Basmati aromatic rice.

Indeed, the availability of the new state-of-the-art biotechnological tools can greatly facilitate purification and rehabilitation of scented rice as well as the use of their relevant genes in breeding better quality and more productive scented rice.

As pointed out by Singh, the science of genomics and DNA mapping can be of tremendous help in this venture. India is participating in the international project on rice genomics and has already mapped two of its chromosomes.

This work has further enhanced the capability of the Indian scientists to exploit this genetic wealth to the advantage of the Indian farmers and rice traders and exporters.

This apart, as suggested in this treatise, these scented rice are ideally suitable for organic cultivation to cater to the rapidly expanding niche market for such products.

This is because their nutritional requirement can easily be met through organic manures.

Besides, the pest and disease management aspects can also be taken care of through the environment-friendly integrated pest management technology. Thus, what is needed is that agricultural research bodies should take up projects on the conservation and improvement of local scented rice and organisations like APEDA should explore and promote market avenues for them.

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