Paddy in Bihar’s Tharuhat
Paddy in Bihar’s Tharuhat
With rice production in the Bihari Tarai facing stiff competition from sugarcane, the traditional reliance of the Tharus on paddy as food and currency is changing rapidly.
S K sinha
|Sugarcane loads ready for market|
When the Tharus of Rajasthan migrated to the Himalayan foothills some 400 years ago as it is said, they left behind more than just the desert sands. From a diet based on wheat and millet, they switched over almost completely to rice, to such an extent that many in the Tharu community now believe that wheat and millet are fit only for poor people. Nowadays, wheat flour is not widely available in Tharuhat – the term for the region where the Tharus live – and wheat-based foods are never served to guests. Rice paddy became a lifeline for the community; a common sight in the Tarai is now that of Tharu farmers ploughing the land and singing traditional birhani songs, praying for good rains and the plentiful production of their paddy.
The Tharu as a community is today scattered across the Himalayan foothills of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand as well as in Bihar. Tharus are also found across the belt of the Nepali Tarai. In Bihar, the community is concentrated in West Champaran District, with its largest settlements in the area also popularly known as Tharuhat – a flat stretch of about 45 square kilometres, surrounded by the Dun and Someshwar hills. There are over 25 Tharu-dominated villages in Bihar’s Tharuhat.
Due to sufficient irrigation and productive land suitable for paddy cultivation, the communities of the Tharuhat depend on rice not only as their staple, but also as their security and medium for transactions. Mahendra Mahto, the head of Naurangia village, says that in this area, paddy is still the preferred form of wage among agricultural labourers. Even barbers and blacksmiths are paid in measures of paddy, for services rendered to the community throughout the year. Here, paddy can be exchanged for anything, says Mahto – from turmeric, chillies and cumin, to silver and gold. Though the dowry system is not prevalent in Tharu society, before going to her in-laws house for the first time after marriage, a daughter is presented with paddy in beautiful handmade baskets of munj and khar grass.
Paddy is not only an individual family’s asset, but also serves to increase community cohesion and social responsibility among the Tharus. Perhaps the most important element of a Tharu village is the community granary, the dharam bakhar, a paddy reserve that is created by contributions from the villagers, according to the size of landholding and harvest. Villagers can borrow rice from the dharam bakhar for any purpose, except direct marketing for monetary benefits. The borrower simply has to convince the granary management committee, generally headed by the gumasta, or village head, and has to return the quantity by an agreed-upon date. In Mahto’s village, five percent interest per month is charged for the paddy lending, if the payment is delayed. It is because of the dharam bakhar that no family in Bihar’s Tharuhat goes hungry, it is said.
S K sinha
|A Tharu elder|
Losing taste and ground
Rice production in India has increased by nearly four and a half times over the past half-century, from 20.6 million tonnes in 1950 to more than 91 million tonnes during 2001-02. This can largely be attributed to the advent of hybrid varieties of paddy. Like other areas, Bihar’s Tharuhat has begun to lose its indigenous strains of paddy. “We have already lost some good varieties, like kala mansuri, kanak jeera and gurdi,” says Ambika Mahto of Gobarahia village. Soon other varieties will also vanish, he warns, including basmati and anandi. As with other lost varieties, these last two are Agahani – ‘late’ species, which take almost four months to ripen, unlike the hybrids, which are ready for harvest in just three months.
While basmati is now only being grown by farmers with a significant amount of land available, anandi is, for the moment, continuing to survive relatively well, due to its importance in Tharu culture. Roasted anandi is commonly served to guests with curd, milk and pickles. “If a guest is not served with the roasted anandi, the hospitality is considered wanting,” says Chandar Diswah, of Naurangia. Anandi is neither sold nor exchanged among the Tharu community. Instead, it is cultivated only by certain affluent farmers, and is provided to other community members as a gift.
“The hybrids give us more produce in less time, but the native varieties we have lost were tastier, and more suitable to the local soil and climatic conditions,” says Ambika. High-yielding ‘dwarf’ varieties grow quickly and consume less water, and hence have quickly become preferred among Tharu cultivators. This change has not only caused the loss of an indigenous gene pool, but has also reduced the fertility of soil. “Two decades ago, we did not use synthetic fertilisers for the paddy crop,” recalls Ambika. “But now, we can’t expect a good harvest without using them.”
Urea and di-ammonium phosphate fertilisers are extensively used to supplement soil nutrients in the Tharuhat. For the past five years, on the advice of agriculture experts, villagers have also begun adding zinc. “When we were growing the old paddy varieties, only two crops were possible in a year, providing enough time to rejuvenate the soil,” says Chandar. “While hybrid paddy allows three crops in a year, it leaves no time for the soil to get replenished.” While synthetic fertilisers nourish the soil in the short term, he continues, with extended use they deplete the soil and pollute the groundwater. One youth in Naurangia village blames the current situation on the agricultural practices and lifestyles of his ancestors. “Pulses are not an integral part of our diet,” he says, pointing out the reason for not growing pulses that act as natural nitrogen fixers and thus nourish the soil.
Food v cash
Besides the challenge of hybrids and environmental dislocation, Tharuhat’s paddy culture is facing other obstacles. To begin with, rice production in West Champaran is not particularly high. According to the Directorate of Rice Development in Patna, the 1863 kg of rice produced per hectare here makes it a medium-to-low producing district. But paddy is being increasingly displaced by sugarcane, whose acreage has doubled in the last half-century in India as a whole. In Tharuhat, about a quarter of paddy cropland has been converted to sugarcane fields in the last 20 years.
Compared to rice, sugarcane requires less labour over the course of its three-year cycle, needing care only during its first year. While local mills in West Champaran are the main sugarcane purchasers, the crushing capacity of these mills is poor. As such, they are unable to consume the entire crop of a particular area. In addition, exploitative mill owners do not pay the farmers for two or three years in a row, a situation that has spawned regular agitation by the farmers.
Taking advantage of the current imbalance between supply and demand, illegal sugarcane-crushing units have sprouted in many Tharu villages in recent years. But these small-scale units, heedless of government regulations, often produce inferior quality jaggery, which has less market value and poor consumption potential. Instead, it is mainly used for preparation of local liquor. Furthermore, these village-based crushers exploit local farmers by paying very low prices. “The purchase rate of sugarcane by the sugar mills is about 110 rupees per quintal, but the local sugarcane crushers give them only 75-80 rupees for the same quantity,” says one Naurangia villager.
While Tharuhat villagers replace paddy with sugarcane to earn more from their land, many small-scale landholders are now faced with food crises. Many have become dependent on either the government or the village granaries. “In Tharuhat, the villagers are used to good rice, and the quality of the rice provided by the public-distribution system is inferior to their own product,” complains Mahendra Mahto. While previously the dharam bakhar was used mainly for special occasions, now more and more villagers are forced to take loans from the community granary simply to meet their everyday food requirements. “The time has come for our community to reverse the trend in our farming system,” says Mahendra. “Not just only to save our rice-based culture, but also to get healthier food.”
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