Taj Hazarika, a farmer from Upper Assam’s Golaghat district, discovered black rice on the internet in 2017. Many people had commented on how the rice was being cultivated in Assam and its health benefits. Hazarika set off to Assam Agricultural University (AAU) in the neighbouring district of Jorhat and got two kilogrammes of seeds.
The first year, he produced five kg of rice. He shared some and cooked the rest at home. This year, he is preparing to grow the rice on two hectares of his 12-hectare farm.
Hundreds of farmers of Assam are taking up cultivation of black rice, attracted by its beneficial properties and higher profit margins.
The variety, with its high nutritional value, has become a popular superfood. Black rice is also better than other varieties at withstanding floods and droughts. This means it could help rice farmers adapt to more erratic weather in Assam, the Himalayan state highly vulnerable to climate change impacts.
But farmers complain that lack of support from the Indian government means they can’t exploit the potential market opportunities of this exotic rice.
What is black rice?
Prized globally for its high level of antioxidants, black rice was known as “forbidden rice” in ancient China. It was reserved for the emperor and given in tributes.
The rice contains anthocyanin, an antioxidant that gives it its colour. It grows in various parts of Asia.
In Assam, farmers grow more than 300 varieties of rice, nourished by the Brahmaputra and Barak river systems. Rupankar Bhagwati, the principal scientist at the Regional Rainfed Lowland Rice Research Station (RRLRRS) in Gerua near the city of Guwahati, said the black rice varieties grown in Assam came from Southeast Asia via the state of Manipur.
Sanjay Chetia, principal scientist at AAU, agreed.
“There are several black rice, or cha-khao, variants in Manipur,” said Chetia. Cha-khao, which means “delicious rice” in the language Meitei Lon, is a key ingredient in puddings and community feasts. Recently, it has also been used in the preparation of other snacks including doughnuts.
There are many types of black rice in Assam, but a cha-khao variety now referred to as Upen is most popular. It is this variety that has made its way to Goalpara, the western Assam town now known for black rice. The thick grain has a distinct aroma perfect for porridge and puddings.
The rice is a slow-growing, traditional variety with a relatively lower yield. It is a tall plant, which makes it resilient to moderate flooding. But this has its drawbacks. “The plant is susceptible to falling due to its weight closer to the harvest time, decreasing the yield,” said Surendra Ghritlahre, a scientist who used to work at RRLRRS.
Assam’s black rice journey
Upen Rabha is a farmer in Amguripara, a village in the Goalpara district. In 2011, he received one kg of black rice seeds from a scientist. “One grain germinated and I sowed it in my paddy field,” said Rabha. The following year, he had 150 gm of seeds from this plant.
As his black rice produce grew, Rabha gathered other farmers together and formed the Amguripara Black Rice Producers Society (ABRPS). It now has 50 members. “Another 500 farmers across the state have an understanding with us [that] they have to sell paddy or rice to ABRPS,” Rabha said.
S Bishnu, a member of the Bodo tribe in Baksa district on the Bhutan border, is one of these farmers. He got seeds from Rabha in 2016. “Every year I sell the paddy to Rabha. I get INR 1,200 [USD 16] for every 40 kg,” he said.
In 2019, Rabha procured 2,000 tonnes of black rice paddy.
“Depending on the quality, [farmers sell] 40 kg of paddy for INR 1,300,” Rabha said. One kg of rice could fetch around INR 100 in the market. Rabha said that other local varieties would fetch only half this.
Rabha grows black rice on half of his farm. He gets a yield of around 2.3 tonnes per hectare, compared with 3.75-6 tonnes per hectare for other rice varieties. The higher market price makes up for the smaller yield.
“It is a medicinal rice. The demand is mostly from outside Assam. The five-star hotels buy it,” said Rabha. “I still cultivate the other varieties because we don’t eat black rice every day.”
Small profits, big lure
The society makes a small profit by selling the rice.
This goes towards buying equipment or helping farmers learn new techniques. “We have bought a tractor and a power tiller and constructed a small godown [warehouse],” Rabha said.
This year, farmers connected to Rabha plan to grow black rice in 270 hectares. Government schemes are promoting the crop. “750 quintals [about 75 tonnes] of black rice seeds are being given to farmers in four districts of Cachar, Goalpara, Golaghat and Kamrup. We are promoting traditional varieties this year,” said S.N. Talukdar, a sub-divisional officer at the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana scheme to develop the agricultural sector.
Officials at Assam’s agriculture department have no concrete figures, but said hundreds of farmers are taking up cultivation. “Black rice has picked up in the past three to four years,” said Tiranga Bharti, the district agriculture officer of Dhemaji in eastern Assam.
Chetia said that the AUU estimates that black rice is grown on about 1,000 hectares in Assam.
Hazarika and Bishnu confirmed other farmers in Golaghat and Baksa are also experimenting. “In my village, two or three farmers have started to grow black rice recently for their own consumption,” Hazarika said.
Black rice has become part of Assamese festivals. “We eat it on Bihu. We make pitha [rice cake] with it,” Hazarika said.
He started growing black rice because he liked the taste. “Now, I am making more money by selling it,” he said. But now he is worried. His black rice seeds are lying in fields that have been flooded in the monsoon. “I am not sure if they will survive the flood to be fit for sowing,” he said.
No marketing support from government
Lack of marketing support from the government is hampering the potential benefits of the crop.
“There is no initiative from the government to motivate the farmers,” Bishnu said as he rued the limited market options.
“People still go for traditional varieties because they can find a buyer as soon as they step out of their house,” he said. “For a poor farmer, timely money is more important than big profits.”
Hazarika had a similar complaint. “There is no help from the government to market the rice,” he said.
Last season, he produced one tonne of paddy, which he sold locally. This year he hasn’t grown more because of market uncertainties.
Rabha is worried too. Because of the lockdown, big buyers like the Taj Hotels group haven’t placed any orders this year. Usually they approach him or come through middlemen in Guwahati. “The government hasn’t helped much in marketing,” Rabha said.
“Farmers and NGOs are marketing black rice themselves,” said Prafulla Mahanta, a deputy director in Assam’s agriculture department.
Manoj Das, managing director of the North Eastern Regional Agricultural Marketing Corporation, said that government intervention is not needed because the production of black rice is limited. “Black rice has a good market. The current channels are good enough. They get a better price that way,” Das said.
But the lack of marketing prevents farmers from reaching consumers, including those close to home.
Keyaa Das Choudhury, a baker in Guwahati, has never bought black rice from Assam. She makes black rice cakes and cookies using the Manipuri variety. “I have only heard that black rice grows in Assam,” she said.
Promise of better varieties
The World Bank’s Assam Agribusiness and Rural Transformation Project (APART) may improve the crop’s prospects.
“This year, we are looking at black and red rice to study how to improve their productivity and marketability,” said Laya Madduri, project director of Assam Rural Infrastructure and Agricultural Services, APART’s implementing agency.
“Developing climate-resistant varieties is also our focus,” she said.
Farmers could soon have improved varieties of black rice. The AAU’s Regional Agricultural Research Station is close to releasing high-yielding varieties of the traditional black rice. “Twelve high-yielding black rice lines have already been developed and evaluation is going on. The lines will reach farmers within a year or two,” Chetia said.
Back in Amguripara, Rabha said that black rice has changed his fortunes. “From two oxen, I have come far. Now, I am farming with a tractor,” he said.
Sadiq Naqvi is an independent journalist @datelinedelhi