On verge of extinction, the hill state's Red Rice has got a new lease of life after it became the first crop variety of Himachal Pradesh to be registered under the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Right Act, 2001, in May this year.
This has raised the hopes of experts and conservationists, who had worked extensively to save the variety, that farmers will now return to cultivation of this traditional crop.
Grown in abundance in Chohara and Ransar valley of Rohru subdivision in Shimla valley till mid 90s, the area under Red Rice locally knows as 'Chhohartu' started shrinking with the variety reaching brink of extinction in 21st century due to farmers' inclination towards cash crops and high-yielding variety.
Nehar Singh Thakur, former MLA from Rohru who has worked extensively to conserve traditional crops, including red rice, says both social and economic factors led to the decline in the cultivated area under the variety.
“Firstly, the cultivation of red rice was not economical while cash crops mainly apple became synonym to prosperity bringing more wealth to the region in the past two decades,” Thakur said, adding that the royal variety of apple that can grow in low altitudes ate into the cultivation area of red rice.
The red rice grows at altitudes between 1,500 and 2,000 m above sea level. Thakur, who also received national award for preservation of region-specific traditional variety and certificate for registration of red rice from the central government, said secondly disintegration in the social structure was also witnessed during this span of time as people from joint family divided into nuclear families.
“This disintegration in society resulted into educed tract of farm land and shortage of manpower that is needed in cultivation of this crop,” Thakur said, adding that 40% of the area under red rice cultivation in the valley was converted into apple orchard or cultivation for other cash crops like pear, peas and potato. The current area under red rice variety is around 1,500 to 2,000 hectares.
Thakur said people shifted to the apple crop cultivation and to meet their food crop needs they started growing high yielding spur variety of rice with low nutritional values.
The spur variety needs less manpower for cultivation. “The registration has raised my hopes that people will return to the red rice cultivation as it would fetch them better price than apple now,” said Thakur.
Thakur, who made farmers aware about the benefit of red rice farming, said the apple economy was not sustainable and could crash any time and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) had added to the risk as now the competition is with the countries having advanced post harvest technology and better variety production.
“The only option is now the red rice that has got legal protection,” said Thakur. Senior scientist at Rice and Wheat Research Centre of CSK-Himachal Pradesh Agricultural University (HPAU), Dr J Shekhar said the price of red rice would go up by double and would hopefully promote its export.
High iron content and low in sugar content are the specifications of red rice, besides many other medicinal values.