The variety gets its name as it is suited to be cultivated in alkaline soil (called ‘Kalar Nilam’ in Tamil). The drought-resistant, pest-resistant variety that produces nutrient rich brown rice has gradually gone into oblivion. However, this variety is being raised in abundance in this village of Nagappadi. Activists and experts concerned about biodiversity and traditional seeds have been surprised that farmers here cultivate this crop on a huge area.
P.T. Rajendran, district secretary of Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, who stays active in the protection of traditional seeds, said, “Kalarpalai, once a favoured rice variety of alkaline soil, gradually disappeared and is in the brink of extinction. I visited the Nagappadi and was surprised to see that they cultivate Kalarpalai on about 100 acres. Disappearance of the variety elsewhere resulted in vast tracts of fields with alkaline soil lie fallow.”
Subashini Sridhar, Project Director, Centre for Indian Knowledge system (CIKS), an expert in traditional seeds, now based in Sirkali, said, “Kalarpalai is the only rice variety that is successful in alkaline/saline soils. Two hybrid varieties created by Tamil Nadu Agricultrual University, viz. Tiruchy-1 and Tiruchy-2, for these soil types, failed. Hence, we can say lands with alkaline/saline soil earlier cultivated with kalarpalai became fallow.”
In Nagappadi, this reporter found kalarpalai being cultivated on large tracts of land using the direct seeding method rather than re-plantation method.
Arunachalam, a farmer, said fields located on the rear side of the village irrigation tank are alkaline in nature, where this variety is cultivated the most. “I have one hectare of land in this all-alkaline pocket and always prefer Kalarpalai. I tried to cultivate the fine rice variety, ‘Ponni,’ sugarcane and oleander flowers on and off, but failed. ”
P. Arumugam, another farmer, said kalarpalai requires less water and withstands drought. “Even if an adjacent field where other variety is cultivated is pest affected, it doesn’t affect my crop. Kalarpalai does not require fertilizers too. If you apply fertilizers, it overgrows and leads to loss. As I extract seeds from my own produce, I don’t have to buy seeds as in the case of hybrid varieties. As direct seeding is enough for this variety, I don’t need to form a seed bed and replant saplings. Growth of weed is comparatively less as well. These factors help farmers to minimise input costs when compared to hybrid varieties planted in normal soil,” he said.
“Irrigating the crop once in 10 days is enough. Even if it wilts owing to lack of water, it will recover once it gets water. But, hybrid varieties do not recover in such a manner. I feel safe when cultivating kalarpalai though its yield is less. It yields 10 to 15 bags per acre. Though hybrid varieties fetch 25 to 30 bags per acre, input cost and risk are higher. That apart, they always fail in our soil,” he said.
But farmers deplore the low price offered for this variety in the market. They get only Rs.500 to 600 per bag of 75 kg. Ms. Sridhar said that kalarpalai is as an important variety and deserves conservation. “CIKS has formed self-help groups in Sirkali and is encouraging farmers to cultivate traditional rice varieties. As they are mostly raised through organic farming, we help them in value addition and marketing. As far as we know, only 50 to 60 farmers spread over four districts cultivate kalarpalai. As costal salinity is extending to newer areas due to borewells, kalarpalai could be vital in maintaining productivity of those lands. But, availability of seeds is a problem as it is rarely cultivated. Since this is not a notified variety, seeds will not be available in government depots. Hence, a village like Nagappadi conserving the variety is good news,” she added.