The Raipur collection

Print edition : January 31, 2003

CHHATTISGARH, was known as the rice bowl of Madhya Pradesh. Now a separate State, it is one of the centres of origin of the popular Indica variety of rice. The region boasts of an impressive range of rice varieties from flavoured, fine and coarse to high-protein, scented and varieties with medicinal properties that can be harvested between 60 and 150 days. The unique varieties, developed by local farmers over centuries, include the smallest (Jag Phool; 4 mm long), the longest (Dokra Dokri; 14 mm long), and the boldest (Hathi Panjara; having two grains in one floret).

Realising the potential of the area and the wealth of knowledge of the local farmers, renowned rice researcher Dr. R.H. Richharia, a former Director of the Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack, began an effort in 1971 at `adaptive rice research', in order to evaluate and document all local rice varieties. The implicit agreement was that the farmers would hand over the varieties and knowledge to the Madhya Pradesh Rice Research Institute (MPRRI), which would improve them with the consent of the farmers to suit the local conditions. and give them back for cultivation.

Dr. Richharia's repository, called the `Raipur collection', now stored in the rice germplasm bank at the Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwavidyalaya (IGKV) near Raipur, is the second largest such collection in the world.

All rice varieties and relevant information were collected from every corner of Madhya Pradesh, particularly the Chhattisgarh region. Between 1971 and 1976, Dr. Richharia accessed over 19,000 varieties under the aegis of the MPRRI. The varieties were grown at the Baronda agricultural farm near Raipur and their qualities were ascertained scientifically and documented.

Subsequently, the documented varieties were tested with low input conditions the way farmers would grow them. The seeds that performed better were then chosen and documented as `pure-line selection', to be distributed among the farmers. Since 1971, all the rice varieties from the germplasm bank have been grown on seven-acre plots at the university and their seeds sorted, packed and stored. The original samples, collected 30 years ago by Dr. Richharia, cannot germinate now but are retained for comparison with those grown every year.

Dr. Richharia wanted his `adaptive rice research' model to be implemented in a decentralised manner for the conservation and development of rice varieties that would both act as a repository of public knowledge and help enhance local farming. All of this may have come to nought had Syngenta got access to the repository.

This is not the first time that the rice repository has been targeted. In the 1980s, it was at the centre of a controversy when a part of the germplasm collection was alleged to have been sent to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Manila. Dr. Richharia objected to this as he felt the IRRI would not serve the interests of Indian farmers. To compound matters, later it was reported that the collection had been transferred to the United States' Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Fort Collins. USDA collections are outside the purview of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), which treats plant germplasm as a national sovereign property.

According to farm scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) had deposited some germplasms from the `Raipur Collection' with the IRRI. But India also got a number of strains from the IRRI for research and development. It was a norm then to share germplasms for research. The IRRI is one of the centres that act as a custodian of germplasms, he said.

There are only two repositories of germplasms in the world where seeds from all over the world are banked. One is at Fort Collins, and the other is located under sea in Norway. Some rice strains might have been sent to Fort Collins from the IRRI. But that was the norm at that time when Intellectual Property Rights was not a major issue, Dr. Swaminathan said.

While the IGKV refused to comment on this at that time, Dr. Richharia said in a paper presented at a conference in Malaysia in 1986 that pressure was put on him by the World Bank to close down the activities of the MPRRI and transfer the entire germplasm collection to the IRRI for a substantial financial assistance. Of course, he did not yield.

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