Kolkata: Cyclone Aila of 2009 had triggered a wave of migration from the Sundarbans region, after the storm surges associated with the cyclone inundated thousands of acres of land with saline water from the rivers and the seas and left them uncultivable for years to come. It took a few years for the land to get back to normal yielding capacity.
Now, with two cyclonic storms hitting the region in back-to-back years – Cyclone Yaas of May 2021 after Cyclone Amphan of May 2020 – and flooding large swathes of farmland, will the Sunderbans see another wave of migration once the situation over the COVID-19 pandemic improves?
That possibility cannot be ruled out because the prospect of losses in the agriculture sector in the coming years looms large and there is no visible solution to this as of now.
The rice varieties that have a high yield and fetch a good price in the market will not grow on the high-salinity soil, and the salt-tolerant rice varieties that can grow on these lands usually produce lower yields and hardly fetch a price in the market. Most of the salt-tolerant varieties produce thick grains.
“There will be no crops on thousands of acres of land for two years straight,” said Sunderban development minister Bankim Hazra, an MLA from Sagar, one of the areas worst hit by the storm surges.
“The impact of Yaas has been ten times higher than that of Amphan. In Amphan, tree and electric poles fell, houses were razed. But here, thousands of acres of land and ponds have been inundated in saline water. Agriculture, pisciculture and horticulture will be severely hurt,” he added.
According to Hazra, considering that the normal high-yielding rice varieties, referred to as HYVs, can no longer be grown in the land for a few seasons, chief minister Mamata Banerjee has asked the department to distribute seeds of salt-tolerant rice varieties. The government had been working on salt-tolerant varieties for the past few years and the project has taken shape from last year, Hazra added.
However, the rice variety that the government will distribute in highest quantities is called Nona Swarna, which is unlikely to fetch a good price in the market even though farmers can grow it for their own consumption. It can help in food safety but not in earning a livelihood. Also, a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Researches categorised this variety as having “minimum tolerance” to soil salinity, which means it will not grow in areas where the salinity level has increased a lot.
Jayanta Naskar, the MLA from Gosaba, another badly-hit area in the Sunderbans region, echoed Hazra’s concerns. “The first priority is to repair the embankments, clear the logged water and help people return home. The next priority is to help reduce salinity levels and grow salt-tolerant rice varieties,” said Naskar.
“There is no scope for normal HYVs to grow in the coming few seasons,” he added.
Experts also spoke of a prevailing reluctance among local farmers in growing salt-tolerant varieties, as these varieties do not yield as much as the HYVs and the market price does not compensate the grower.
They pointed out that several indigenous salt-tolerant varieties used to be cultivated in the Sundarbans region before the Green Revolution of the 1960s, after which the HYV varieties gradually replaced the indigenous varieties.
Writers of a 2020 research paper titled ‘Diversity Analysis of Selected Rice Landraces from West Bengal and Their Linked Molecular Markers for Salinity Tolerance‘ said that “replacing the salt-tolerant local cultivars with modern high yielding varieties is the high-priced mistake as these modern cultivars will not sustain in harsh environmental changes”.
Since the first decade of the 21st century, scientists have been pointing out the increasing frequency and intensity of cyclonic storms and storm surges in the Sundarbans region, a UNESCO world heritage site. With this, saline water flooding is anticipated to be a more regular phenomenon, affecting agriculture, pisciculture and horticulture. This is why a section of scientists and researchers have been batting for developing a comprehensive, long-term plan for the ecologically sensitive region.
Cyclone Aila of 2009 had brought people’s attention back to salt-tolerant varieties but they had become rarely available in the Sunderbans region by that time.
A 2017 research project by Visva-Bharati university noted that many such local varieties of rice, which historically used to be grown in these agro-climatic conditions, had actually survived in small quantities in some corners of the remote islands.
From 157 farming households that had been interviewed by the researchers, as many as 32 such varieties were identified which were cultivated in the monsoon of 2015. However, the report observed that the distribution of such farmers was thin across different islands without much communication among themselves and therefore, “except a few commercially successful such varieties, other varieties are found to be locally concentrated in practice”.
The seeds of such varieties are not commercially available in the market. They are preserved and continued across family lines or neighbourhoods, the report said.
The report said that the Dudhersar variety, which is of medium salt tolerance quality, was grown in many parts of the Sundarbans delta because it fetches a premium price in the market and thus growers get compensated despite low yields. However, highly salt-tolerant varieties like Darsal, Nona Bokra and Talmugur, even though found to be cultivated in patches of the Sundarbans, are not popular because they cannot fetch a good price in the market.
Conservationist Debal Deb, founder of the rice seed banks Vrihi and Basudha, said that his initiatives to promote salt-tolerant rice varieties in the Sunderbans was unpleasant.
“After Cyclone Aila, I went to those distant places where soil salinity had ruined cultivation and distributed salt-tolerant rice varieties for free to 40 famers. They used it for one year or two and reported to me that the rice grew even on land with high levels of salinity. But in just about two years, they threw away all those seeds and went back to the so-called high yielding varieties,” he said.
Deb also questions the logic behind comparing the grain output of the indigenous salt-tolerant or flood-tolerant rice varieties to the so-called high yielding varieties, arguing that the actual yield of all the HYVs is zero in marginal farm conditions.
“The varieties that yield highly in Hooghly, Burdwan or Midnapore would yield nothing in the high-salinity lands in the Sundarban deltas, after seawater incursion, and Sundarban farmers are witnesses to this fact. In contrast, the indigenous salt-tolerant varieties yield enough for the farmers to subsist on. Should we not consider the yield of these local varieties as the highest possible yield in the context of Sundarban?” he asked.
“Nevertheless, driven for higher yields, a majority of farmers have abandoned the folk varieties with amazing properties, such as flood tolerance, salt tolerance and pest and disease resistance,” said Deb.
According to public representatives like Naskar, farmers can be encouraged to grow the salt-tolerant varieties only when they could also get a high yield or a good market price.
“Scientists need to develop salt-tolerant varieties that would fetch a good price in the market to compensate the cultivators. If not financially viable, farmers would return to the HYVs once the soil salinity reduces,” Naskar said.
One problem with growing HYVs in the Sundarbans region is the requirement of chemical fertilisers, which in turn increases soil salinity, said Amalesh Mishra, a retired zoologist from the Zoological Survey of India who heads an NGO named Paribesh Unnayan Parishad that has been researching varieties required for this region.
“The so-called HYVs and chemical fertilisers are not fit for the Sundarbans where the soil has excessive salinity,” said Mishra, adding that it was only a combination of salt tolerance and high-price-fetching qualities in rice that can bring a long-term solution to Sundarban’s problems with food security and income.
Sudipta Tripathi, an agriculture scientist associated with Calcutta University, said that since Dudhersar was the only existing variety that could tolerate low levels of salinity and also fetch a price in the market to act as a remunerative crop, the only option Sundarban farmers had now was to reduce soil salinity.
“Apart from continuing with Dudhersar, there is only one way at present – drain out rainwater as early as possible and with every rain before the sowing and use organic manure as much as possible,” Tripathi said.
Pradip Mazumdar, the chief minister’s advisor on agriculture, however, said that farmers did not need to continue with salt-tolerant varieties even when soil salinity reduces. These varieties could be used in times of increased salinity – mostly in the aftermath of inundation by saline water, he said.
“We have given the process of distributing salt-tolerant varieties shape from last year. This time, too, we will be distributing these seeds, depending on the salinity level of a particular land, for free. However, most of these varieties do not see demand in the market. Naturally, farmers would switch back to the HYVs once the salinity level reduces and I do not see any harm in that practice,” Mazumdar said.
However, there was no foreseeable way for the farmers to earn from their crops in the coming one year or two.
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an independent journalist and author based in Kolkata.