A Life of Science: Identity and Environmental Politics in Rainfed India, by Carly Nichols

Identity and Environmental Politics in Rainfed India

By Carly Nichols

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A Life of Science: A Series by New Scientists

As a researcher visiting India to study agriculture and food security, I never thought I’d find myself running around eastern Madhya Pradesh eagerly asking the same question to every farmer I met: Do you eat moti chawal or patli chawal? The first translates to “fat or coarse-grain rice;” the second to “skinny or fine-grain rice.”

Frequently, the answer I heard was an embarrassed laugh followed by, Didi, hum kisan toh hai isliye mote chawal hamko pasand hai. Translation: Sister, we are farmers, therefore we like coarse-grain rice.”

Rice paddy fields
Paddy fields in Jharkhand, India. The paddy (rice) in the far field is an indigenous variety (known locally as bare dhan or “big paddy”). The nearer field is improved high-yielding variety, swarna, which has been promoted by the government for the last two decades. Swarna is a dwarf variety and though the grain yield is much higher, it grows to be much shorter than traditional varieties. People commonly complained that this presented a problem since the paddy stalks are valuable material, fed to cows, oxen, and buffalo.
Photo by Carly Nichols.

The responses told me a lot not only about crops but also about culture. I quickly learned that rice, while ubiquitous, is not homogenous and that the type of rice people grow and eat is important not just to their environment and health, but also to their very identify. To be clear, the difference in these rice varieties is quite nuanced. To my untrained tongue there is no difference in taste. I had to ask which variety of rice I was eating.

Yet for the people who grew up with these varieties, the difference is stark. People would often tell me they can eat mote chawal in the morning and do hard work all day without feeling hunger pains. They said this rice made their bodies strong and healthy. You could eat a huge amount of patli chawal, they claimed, and no matter how much you ate, within a few hours you felt hungry.

Kodo millet
Kodo millet (Paspalum scrobiculatum) is a traditional grain that people grow in upland soils. Very drought resistant, it is also highly nutritious and increasingly being packaged and found in health stores across Indian metropolitan areas. In rural areas it is being abandoned, as households that are occupied in paddy production complain they do not have the time to cultivate it.
Photo by Carly Nichols.

Moti and patli chawal differ in other ways, as well. Moti chawal comes from indigenous varieties of paddy (or desi dhan), while patle chawal usually refers to the new, improved varieties that are often provided by the government at heavily subsidized rates (earning this paddy the title sarkari or government dhan). Not only do these plants produce different sized grains, but they also look considerably different in the fields. Desi dhan towers over the improved Green Revolution dwarf varieties. While the shorter plant size means more energy goes towards grain production (and thus higher yield), it also results in far less straw which is a problem to households dependent on this bio “waste” to feed their cattle, buffalo, and oxen.

Desi dhan is grown here using traditional methods. After cleaning their fields, farmers broadcast (or throw) seeds into the fields, using oxen to plow the fields, and then apply gobar (or cow/buffalo manure) to the field. It is a laborious process, requiring women to carry huge baskets of manure on their heads and march sometimes great distances to broadcast in their fields.

Sathiya paddy rice
Sathiya paddy is known locally as kala dhan, or black paddy, since the grains have a black husk. When it is sent to the mill and made into rice the rice grains have a reddish tint to them. Young people often shied away from eating this lal chawal (red rice) saying they wanted white rice, and that Sathiya and other coarse-grain indigenous varieties were for poor people.
Photo by Carly Nichols.

While this is by no means easy work, in many respects sarkari dhan is even more laborious, as the common practice requires farmers to transplant these varieties using resource-intensive line-sowing methods. These varieties also require more water than desi dhan, and in years of poor monsoon require irrigation. Wealthier farmers who have access to irrigation (either through a personal well or via a lift-irrigation system that taps into groundwater) will have good yields, whereas the poorer farmers often face total crop failure.

For many of the farmers, rice-growing is high-stakes gambling, and their family’s food security lies on the betting table. While sarkari dhan is the riskier and more resource-intensive effort, the payoff can be greater, allowing them to sell to the market. Famers who have more land or financial resources are often willing to take this risk.

The divide between improved and traditional varieties of seed is not one that resides only within India, nor one that is limited solely to rice. It pervades every country and crop in the world. For the last 50 years, agricultural research and development institutions have primarily focused on breeding seeds that have higher yield capabilities. While this is certainly advantageous to improving the quantity of food produced people are only now realizing this approach might have negative ramifications for the composition of the food crop and its nutritional and taste qualities. Just as this singular production focus has unintended effects on the quality of the food we eat, the massive agro-ecological wipeout of indigenous species is likewise of significant concern as we head into an era of greater climactic uncertainty and variability. Finally, traditional varieties are almost always hardier and more drought-tolerant than their “improved” counterparts, as well.

Farmer with rice in hands.
A tribal farmer holds an indigenous variety of rice called raibhuta, with the unhusked paddy shown in the background. This is desi dhan and many farmers who do not have reliable water resources or fields suitable for growing higher-yielding sarkari paddy grow this variety. Raibhuta is broadcast or direct sowed, which can result in a labor shortage for the farmer. However, it requires little or no fertilizer. Many farmers contend that raibhuta is digested more slowly than its sarkari counterpart, and therefore keeps them stronger throughout the day.
Photo by Carly Nichols.

In this region of Madhya Pradesh, the people are pretty squarely divided between sarkari and desi dhan cultivation. Lamiya, a farmer and mother of three, explained why she chose not to grow sarkari dhan. The labor required to transplant was not something her family could provide. They also don’t want to spend the money to hire labor to help with the planting and harvesting. More importantly, she says, she doesn’t want to use the chemical fertilizers, predominantly diammonium phosphate (known as DAP) and urea, required for sarkari dhan. She says that once DAP and urea are used, production does increase, but the land becomes “habituated to it.” If the fertilizers are not used regularly after that, the paddies become fallow. ”We like moti chawal and it makes us feel strong,” she concludes, smiling slyly and flexing her arm muscles. ”Why would we stop growing it and begin growing the patli kind?”

Even though Lamiya’s responses are logical, she seems defensive. That response, too, is logical, given decades-old agricultural emphases in the region. Government agricultural programs have tirelessly promoted new seeds and techniques, calling the traditional methods inefficient and wasteful. While a number of farmers who have adopted new practices have seen increases in yield and improved their standard of living, not all farmers find value in such a transition. The result, however, is that traditional farmers like Lamiya are now ashamed to talk about their agricultural practices and food habits.

Jharkand, India, home.
A residence in Jharkand, India, in November, when farmers have begun cutting paddy and are beginning the process of making rice.
Photo by Carly Nichols.

Fortunately, the stigma is changing. More and more government and non-government programs are admitting the value of indigenous varieties and encouraging farmers to grow whichever seeds they prefer using simple, improved techniques. In some cases, this transition has resulted in local markets where indigenous varieties are even starting to fetch a higher price.

As India embarks on a plan to improve agricultural productivity in rainfed regions, additional measures and marketing should recognize the cultural heritage and ingenuity of traditional farmers who have bred drought-resistant, early maturing crop varieties. Recognizing these small contributions to global food security and improving them through agricultural research that celebrates environmental and cultural heritage rather than condemns it—while also introducing new and more sustainable farming methodologies—can bring about an essential paradigm shift for improving agricultural development in India and around the world.


The Carson Scholars program at the University of Arizona is dedicated to training the next generation of environmental researchers in the art of public communication, from writing to speaking. Partnering with Terrain.org, the program will present essays and other writing from students and alumni of the Carson Scholars Program — A Life of Science — with hopes of inspiring readers to understand not only research findings but the textures of the lives of scientists and others engaged in the crucial work of helping the planet along in an age of unprecedented change.


Carly NicholsCarly Nichols is a human geographer and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona’s School of Geography and Development. She has over seven years experience researching agriculture development and food system change in India using feminist methods and gender analysis. In her free time she experiments with cooking new foods and enjoys spending time outside.

Header photo by Carly Nichols: A farmer in Madhya Pradesh with traditional, drought-tolerant, and early maturing Sathiya rice. Villagers often reported that Sathiya was the most nutritious variety of paddy they grew although it was quickly being abandoned in favor of high-yielding varieties promoted by the government. Many roadside villages more exposed to markets were not even able to recognize the rice variety anymore.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.