No takers for organic Pokkali paddy
Pokkali paddy-cum-prawn farming is an age old practice in Ernakulam District, which is not getting the kind of encouragement it deserves. MINU ITTYIPE finds out that the paddy obtained thus is organic, but there are no takers.
ONE OF the most eco-friendly of all farming practices in the world is the Pokkali paddy cultivation-cum-prawn farming which is practised right here in the wetlands of Alappuzha, Thrissur and Ernakulam districts. This singular method, which has been passed down from generation to generation relies on the symbiotic nature of prawn and paddy.
After the harvest, the decaying stubbles of the paddy serve as food for the prawns and likewise the prawn excreta make the field fertile. What's really interesting here is that absolutely no pesticides or fertilizers are used in the fields, making it vastly different from the other prevalent farming practices.
In some areas of Kumbalangi, Udayamperoor, Cheranalloor, Chellanam, Eloor, Kadamkudi, Varapuzha, Edavanakaddu, Moolampally, Puthuvype etc. of Ernakulam District, vast areas are marshy and waterlogged. These marshy tracts lie near the mouth of the rivers and are close to the sea. Therefore, they are prone to flooding and salinity. The nature of the soil is also highly acidic and has elemental toxic content, making the area uncongenial for paddy cultivation. But the Pokkali paddy, which to an extent, is saline, flood and acid-resistant, is the wonder crop which is cultivated in these parts. In the international plant breeding labs, it is the gene of the Pokkali paddy which is used as the parent gene to culture saline and flood-resistant paddy.
In the Pokkali fields only one crop is cultivated during the monsoons (June to October), which is the low saline phase and subsequently during the high saline phase, the fields are used for prawn filtration (November-April). Even Pokkali cannot withstand very high salinity. In the months of April/May the waterlogged fields are prepared by making mounds and in June, with the onset of the monsoons the grains are sown on top of the mounds.
This traditional method has been proved by scientists as the best method to prepare the fields because of the larger surface area and it enhances the leaching of the toxic contents of the soil with rainwater. But curiously this method is the least practised and farmers resort to the easiest method of preparing the fields- bed formation.
Points out Dr.K.S.Shylaraj, Plant Breeder at the Rice Research Station, Vytilla, "Even if this traditional method has been recommended by us, most farmers just make the beds a little above the water to sow the seeds. Though Pokkali paddy cultivation is comparatively less labour intensive than other varieties of paddy, the farmers are disinterested in Pokkali and do it just for the sake of feeding the prawns, which is by far more lucrative. The white prawn P.indicus or the Tiger prawn Penaeus mondon are cultured in these fields. While the farmer may get 1.2 to 1.5 tonnes/hectare of Pokkali he will harvest about 400 to 500 kilos/ha of prawns during one season. The Pokkali will fetch about Rs.12 to Rs.13 in the market while a kilo of prawns, anywhere between Rs.450 to Rs 800, depending on the size and variety."
In October when the paddy is mature, only the panicles are cut off, leaving the stubbles in the field to decay and this forms the natural feed for the prawns. Adjacent to the paddy fields lie the prawn fields where the waters from the backwaters are regulated through the sluice gates. From November onwards, prawn seedlings gravitate towards the fields in search of food. The farmers take advantage of the situation and at night, place hurricane lamps near the sluice gates to attract the prawn. During the high tide the prawn seedlings are swept into the fields and they remain there. The farmers then place nets at the mouth of the sluice to prevent the seedlings from leaving the fields during low tide. During the high tide the net is removed to let in more prawn seedlings. The prawn seedlings gorge on the decaying stubbles. The prawns are periodically harvested 2-3 days before the new and full moons till the middle of April.
Says Dr.C.G.Rajendran, Associate Professor of Aqua culture at the Rice Research Station, Vytilla, "It is essential for the juvenile prawns to feed on the decaying Pokkali stubbles because this keeps the incidence of disease low. Without Pokkali, the entire area will be flooded, acidity will be more, and toxicity will be high and there will be less oxygen and more hydrogen sulphide, which can kill the prawn larvae. All this is effectively removed by the farming operation, which ensures good drainage. It is also cost effective because artificial feed is expensive and prawns are more prone to diseases. Whereas in the Pokkali fields, the natural feed need to be supplemented with artificial feed only in the last phase just before the prawns are harvested. The prawns require high protein feed, which costs approximately Rs.25 per kilo and the requirement is two kilos for one kilo of prawn. The constant movement of the prawn larvae aerate the field and keep it clear of weeds and the prawn excreta is a natural fertiliser."
Instead of filling up land and creating monstrosities in concrete, won't some agency encourage this kind of farming which is indeed healthier and sensible moneywise?
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