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Page last updated at 08:47 GMT, Wednesday, 5 August 2009 09:47 UK

India's 'drought-resistant rice'

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Hazaribag, Jharkhand

Farmer Gulab Mahato
Experts say Sahbhagi will survive even in little rainfall

A new variety of rice being tested in the fields of India's eastern Jharkhand state has the potential to change the face of Indian agriculture.

Sahbhagi dhan is drought-tolerant and can survive even if there are no rains for 12 days.

Rice is known to be a "thirsty crop" and a "water guzzler" and scientists have been working for years to develop a strain which will withstand a dry spell.

"A drought can occur anytime between 15 June and 15 September - the season in which rice is cultivated. Sometimes there can be gaps of five to 15 days between spells of rain," says Mukund Variar, agricultural scientist.

"If there's a dry spell when the seed is sown, or the flower is just emerging, even a five-day drought can be very dangerous for most varieties of rice. But Sahbhagi can tolerate a dry spell of 10 to 12 days."

'Positive'

Sahbhagi Dhan, which means rice developed through collaboration, is the result of 15 years of joint effort by scientists at the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Central Rainfed Upland Rice Research Station (CRURRS) in Hazaribag town.

Upland is a term used to define areas which are rain-deficient and nearly six million hectares of land in India falls in this category.

Farmer Baldev Kumar
Farmer Baldev Kumar is trying Sahbhagi for the first time

Agriculturists say the field trials of Sahbhagi, which began in 2006, have given positive results.

"We have already given it for testing to farmers in their fields. It's being tested in several villages and is proposed for release in the states of Jharkhand and Orissa. Hopefully it will be released in a couple of months," Mr Variar says.

In Singrawan village, farmer Bijay Kumar Singh shows me the patch of land where he is growing Sahbhagi. The seeds were planted a fortnight ago and little green shoots have sprung up everywhere.

"In this region, the most popular variety of rice so far has been Sadabahar. But last year I tried out Sahbhagi in a small patch of land. The yield was the best. The stem was the strongest. and it was good to eat too. It isn't the best, but it's better than the average in taste," he says.

Sadabahar gives excellent yield when the monsoon is good, but a dry spell results in total crop failure.

This year, on Mr Singh's recommendation seven farmers in his village are trying out the new variety.

'Little rain'

"I planted the seeds about a fortnight ago. The crop was good last year, the produce was good too. I've heard it's tasty as well. Next year, we'll grow it in a much larger area," farmer Baldev Kumar says.

But poor rainfall is making him worried: "The plant has not been able to come up to its full length because there has been little rain this year."

Farmers here grow maize, corn, lentils and mustard. But rice is the main staple in the state and almost all farmers grow paddy.

Mr Mukund Variar
Mr Variar says Sahbhagi can survive a dry spell for 12 days

Monsoons are at best erratic in Jharkhand, and the scanty rainfall this year has given rise to a drought-like situation in many parts of the state which is bad news for rice growers.

"It's a very challenging year. We're dependent on the monsoon completely. We've already lost 60 percent of our crop because of poor rainfall. If the rains come now, we would be able to take 30-35 percent of our paddy crop," says Mr Singh.

For farmers like him, Sahbhagi could be the answer to prayers.

Dr VD Shukla of CRURRS says Sahbhagi Dhan has "the capacity to take moisture from the deeper levels of soil. It is also tolerant to diseases and pests. Moreover, its stem is much more sturdy and doesn't bend, which means the farmer gets a better yield".

Adds Mr Variar: "Last year, the crop season was good with well distributed rainfall. But this year there are drought-like conditions so the farmer will be able to differentiate between the Sahbhagi and other varieties and find out which one is better."

The farmers agree.

Says Gulab Mahato of Lupung village, "There's no water even in the village pond this year. So how do we sow our crops? But with Sahbhagi, we can wait for another 15 days. Even if it rains a little bit, we will be able to get some rice."



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