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The Disappearing Rice Bowl

By Kausthubha Yaratha

My memories of India are distinctly olfactory. Nothing can quite compare to the musky smell of the earth after a rain softens the hard, cracked dirt. The way that the air can be dry and sharp one second and, the next second, the breeze gets heavy as rain clouds roll in over the horizon. With the first crack of thunder and sheet of rain, you are surrounded by the smell of fresh earth. It’s an overwhelming experience, refreshing and cleansing.

The highlights of my trips to the motherland are the days spent roaming fields of rice paddy, peanut shrubs, and towering stalks of sunflowers. I was born in the state Andhra Pradesh on the southeastern coast of India. While the urban centers in the state are rapidly growing, agriculture remains the largest industry and main source of income for citizens. Over sixty percent of the population is involved in the agriculture industry, and my family is no exception. My grandparents continue to farm our ancestral lands.  Recently, cycles of severe droughts and unpredictable monsoons have been pushing my family towards less water-intensive crops, like groundnuts and sunflowers, but we used to primarily cultivate rice.

This is not a surprise in a state that is widely known as the “Rice Bowl of India” In 2009, Andhra Pradesh produced 14.24 million tons of rice! Rice requires a high humidity and high temperature climate and well-irrigated fields with plenty of water. The most popular method of rice farming is called rice transplanting, which is the technique that my family uses in their rice fields. To start, rice is randomly and densely planted in a ‘nursery field’ that is separate from the main field, or the paddy. After 20-30 days, the rice seedlings are pulled, portioned into bundles, and planted uniformly in neat rows in the paddy. Over the next three to four months, the rice plants grow to maturity. While this method is incredibly labor intensive, it tends to yield a strong crop.

My family has been moving away from rice cultivation because we do not have enough water to sustain the crops. Rain and moisture are essential to growing rice. The seasons are getting drier and the occasional and unpredictable rainstorms are not replenishing lakes and groundwater. Even worse, sometimes it rains so hard all at once that they are eroding soil!  These droughts are bad for many reasons, but it is especially unfortunate because rice is a staple of the Indian diet and a cornerstone of the Indian culture.

We are just one family farm, but if the drought conditions worsen, more and more farmers will struggle to grow rice. For a subcontinent that relies on rice to feed a population of 1.3 billion people, this could be devastating. India needs to address this potentially catastrophic situation before things get out of hand. Our neighbors in Bangladesh are breeding rice strains that are more resistant to the changing climate. This is one possible direction that the region can explore.

As my state experiences devastating droughts year after year, I worry that the Rice Bowl might be disappearing. Along with the economic impact, I worry that this might mean the end of a way of life for my family, and many other families in Andhra Pradesh. Finally, I worry that the smells of my childhood will fade from my memory and from the land where I was born. I only recently learnt that the sweet, earthy smell that blossoms from the ground after a rain has a name, petrichor. The rains, the rice, and the petrichor: these are all a part of who I am, and I hope that they are available to future generations of young Indians.

Kausthubha is a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. She is working as a clinical research assistant, investigating the use of nuclear imaging like CT and PET in understanding how the body works. Outside the lab, she is an amateur chef and a self-proclaimed foodie.

Photos courtesy Kausthubha Yaratha


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