Salt-tolerant paddy makes a comeback in Sundarbans
Historical records mention six salt-tolerant paddy varieties that used to be cultivated in the Sundarbans prior to human settlement in the area.
Farmers from further north would sail down to the Sundarbans to broadcast these seeds and return to their native places and return later to harvest. Much of this harvest would be looted by pirates and thus the British administration established the first paddy trading centre at what is now known as Hingalganj in the 1790s.
With the expansion of human settlement in the Sundarbans, islands came to be embanked to keep brackish water at bay and paddy agriculture changed in character from broadcast to sowing-transplanting, and from brackish water agriculture to freshwater agriculture. The six salt-tolerant paddy varieties fell into disuse, more so with the advent of the green revolution.
Cyclone Alia in 2009 exposed the vulnerability of freshwater paddy agriculture in the Sundarbans. In response to the situation and to broaden the seed basket WWF-India made a concerted effort to locate Hamilton and Matla paddy varieties. The other four salt-tolerant paddy varieties had been reintroduced as part of Climate Change Adaptation projects in the region.
Salt-tolerate paddy varieties located
In July 2010, Hamilton paddy variety was located at the Agriculture Department of Calcutta University, and obtained from Professor MK Majumdar. The Department provided 25 grains but none of these germinated. Paddy seeds have a limited germination shelf life of two seasons.
In August 2010, the University provided six more grains and six seedlings from its farm at Baruipur. These were handed over to a conscious farmer in the north-eastern corner of Indian Sundarbans. The farmer, Umapati Sarkar planted the seedlings in pots, four of which survived. These four were subsequently transferred to the field at different elevations. The six grains also germinated and were transferred to the field. That year, Sarkar harvested 66 grams of paddy from the four seedlings and 21 grams from the germinated seeds.
Since then, the salt-tolerant paddy varieties have regained a toehold in the Sundarbans and farmers are autonomously cultivating these. Dhiren Mondal, another farmer residing in Mousuni Island on the western Sundarbans, made a small seed bed with 500 grams of seed of Hamilton. Mondal harvested 30 kilograms which he subsequently shared with four other farmers in the area.
Hamilton experiments with paddy farming
It is unclear whether the Hamilton seed was christened as such after Sir Daniel Mackinnon Hamilton (1860-1939), a Scottish businessman who set up the zamindari system in Gosaba. A visionary, Hamilton was instrumental in bringing about rural reconstructive programmes in the Sundarbans which coincided with the national movement.
Hamilton’s involvement with Gosaba stemmed from his yearning to ameliorating the living condition of the poor and marginalized sections of society in British India. Furthering his cause, Hamilton also introduced the cooperative system in Gosaba which then spread to the rest of the Sundarbans therefore educating the rural folk to partake of responsibility.
Interestingly, his initiative of establishing a cooperative society in the Sundarbans ran concurrently with the cooperative movement in India. It was then that Hamilton started a cooperative credit society in Gosaba with 15 members wherein he provided an initial capital of Rs 500.
He started a Consumers Cooperative Society in 1918. A year later, in 1919, a central model farm to experiment with paddy, vegetables and fruits was set up by him. Four years hence, a Cooperative Paddy Sales Society was established. He then set up the Gosaba Central Cooperative Bank in 1924, and thereafter the Jamini Rice Mill in 1927. The Rural Reconstruction Institute began operations in 1934, and two years later the issuance of one rupee notes in Gosaba was started by Hamilton.