Kochi: It’s 15 months since India got its first patents for rice—for Kerala’s Palakkadan matta and the medicinal njavara. The farmers can’t tell the difference.
The bold red Palakkadan matta earned its geographical indication (GI) status in November 2007 for the sweet taste it gets from Palakkad’s red soil.
The GI status, a kind of patent, is a global recognition for the distinctive qualities a product acquires from the place of its origin. Champagne wines and Darjeeling tea are examples. Key benefits—the exclusivity gives a patent-like protection and helps create a wider international market for the brand.
Nothing’s changed:K.A. Joseph has been growing pokkali (a rice variety) on his 15 acres for nearly half a century. Ajayan / Mint
But M.A. Majeed, a matta farmer for the past 35 years, doesn’t even know that the rice he grows on his 3.5 acres at Vadakkencherry in Palakkad district, a rice hub, now has a premium tag. He barely earns enough and struggles to find labour for sowing and harvesting.
All he knows, Majeed says, is that the rice is popular in Kerala. About 30,000 farmers grow 100,000 tonnes of the rice in two seasons, from May to August and from October to January.
Palakkadan matta fetches a profit of about Rs12,000 per acre, enough to scrape a living, says R.N. Ramakrishnan, another matta farmer in Vadakkencherry. As for finding a market, the state government helps by procuring the rice at Rs11 a kg—the minimum support price fixed by the government for any rice variety.
“The patent has not given us an extra rupee,” Ramakrishnan said, speaking in Malayalam. “Worse, there is little awareness about the GI status and its benefits.” It wasn’t what the farmers—at least those who had campaigned for the status—had hoped for.
In an entry on his official website, Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan, boasts, “Yet another effort of the state government to protect farmers from the evils of globalization has thus borne fruit. Palakkadan matta is an export variety which is preferred by Malayalees all over the world, njavara variety is of medicinal quality and it is highly valued.”
Since then, though, it has done little. “A mere conferring of GI status will not work wonders for the farmers,” P. Narayanan Unni, chairman of a farmers association, Palakkadan Matta Farmers Producer Co. Ltd, said in his native Malayalam. “There is a market for this rice abroad, though limited to the Keralite population in West Asia, Europe and the US. The GI status we earned after years of work has not added any flavour to the lives of farmers as we expected.”
The association ran a three-year campaign for securing GI status to protect their rice and hoped to boost its worth through the recognition. Instead, there is pressure now on matta farmers to cultivate other crops such as banana or groundnut that would fetch more money, says Unni.
GI teas and spices have government trade promotion bodies, the tea board and the spices board to promote them, but there’s no such agency for rice farmers to build brands around GI varieties. India’s other GI rice varieties, the navara and pokkali, have not benefited either.
Njavara, grown in Palakkad, got its GI status along with the Palakkadan matta, for its medicinal value. Ayurveda physicians use njavara in treating neuromuscular disorders, skin diseases and rheumatism. About 1,000 tonnes of the rice is grown every year.
The state administration blames the Union government’s export ban on non-basmati rice, for failure to boost local supplies. But, matta and njavara accounted for a fraction of the 1.5 million tonnes of India’s annual exports.
Kerala agriculture minister Mullakkara Ratnakaran said last week that the state government will write to the Centre asking it to lift the ban, at least for GI varieties. “Once this happens, there will be a bigger market and the government can then put in place a mechanism for procurement,” he said.
As for pokkali, which got its GI status in November for its traditional cultivation methods, expectations are tempered. About 4,000 farmers grow 15,000 tonnes of rice in coastal Ernakulam, Thrissur and Alappuzha districts. These fields remain submerged in saline water for most of the year, until the monsoon rains wash away the salinity.
K.A. Joseph, a 71-year-old former schoolteacher who has been growing pokkali on his 15 acres for nearly half a century, said he has been running annual losses of about Rs3,000 per acre the past few years because of high labour costs.
“I can’t afford to spend money again to make losses,” said K.B. Haridas, another pokkali farmer who has been growing the rice for about 20 years on his 1-acre field. At this rate, say Joseph and Haridas, farmers might just stop growing the rice.