As Vasco da Gama was leaving Kozhikode for Lisbon, after his historic discovery of the sea route to India, he sought the Zamorin’s permission to carry with him saplings of pepper.
“Why not? Have as much you want,” the provincial monarch said. However, his court was shocked. His Prime Minister Mangattachan tried to explain to the king the consequences. “The whole of Europe is at your feet. How can you give away our black gold to these fortune seekers?” he had asked.
The Zamorin is said to have sported a sly smile and seemed to have said that the Portuguese can only take our pepper shoots. “They cannot take our Thiruvathira Njattuvela.” Indeed, they could not.
Five hundred years after this conversation had happened, amidst all urbanisation, the most auspicious time for commencing any farming effort evokes age-old memories. “Njattuvela refers to the position of the sun in relation to zodiac signs. The Thiruvathira Njattuvela is associated with farming and agriculture. The 13 days of the transit of the sun bring the best showers of the monsoon. It is said ‘Thiruvathira Njattuvela Thiramuriyathe’. That means it would rain without a break. And, it was also believed that anything put in the soil, even a dry shoot of a plant, would germinate and flourish during these days,” says astrologer Vasudevanunni Panicker.
No wonder, this year’s Thiruvathira Njattuvela has seen the beginning of many farming efforts. Many local bodies and residence associations have conducted fairs to promote organic farming. A host of city dwellers have started mini vegetable gardens in their courtyards and even on apartment balconies.
But the most ambitious has been the reviving Pokkali farming movement, which is capturing the alternate urban dreams of Kochi – a city nestled in acres of green paddy fields and laced by spotless lakes. The very thought of a city that coexists with sustainable farming communities may sound Utopian. However, the aspirations have triggered many projects.
In Ezhikara Panchayat, close to the city, Pokkali farming has begun across 130 hectares. “We are undertaking this effort to transform fallow land through a unique model. Padashekara (Farm) committees are formed and lands are acquired on lease for a period of six months. The different tasks in paddy farming, right from preparation of land, to harvesting, are executed by labourers under the NREGA scheme. Seeds are disbursed through the Panchayat and the Agricultural Department. Finally, one-fifth part of total harvested paddy goes to the labourers,” says Geetha Prathapan, President, Ezhikara Panchayat.
This Thiruvathira Njattuvela also saw the commencement of farming in the rice fields of the island of Kalluvachakadu, which had been lying fallow for years. The Tripunithura Municipality is spearheading the effort by bringing stakeholders together and facilitating the effort. “It is a dream come true. The small number of families living in this island would get a livelihood. Kalluvachakadu which can be accessed only by boats would revive its original beauty with the flourishing of the rice fields,” says Municipal Chairperson Chandrika Devi.
In fact, the District Administration has an ambitious target of extending Pokkali to over 1000 hectares this year and to another 1000 next year.
But what is Pokkali? The Pizhala Pokkali Tourist Farm is one ideal place to seek an understanding about this quintessential farming method of Kochi. Situated in the fringes of the Container Road that was laid few years back for connecting the Vallarpadam International Container Terminal, the farm can be reached easily from the city. Just that one has to take a very short crossing at the jhankar ferry to reach Pizhala from Moolampilly. But soon a bridge, which is under construction, would connect this island formed by the great flood of Periyar over seven centuries ago.
Pizhala with its sprawling wet lands had lived its solitude with the Pokkali farming and inland fishing efforts for many centuries like its sister islands of the Kadamakudy cluster.
Reaching the island in a morning ferry, I was greeted by a middle-aged farmer – E D Joseph – in his working dress of lungi, loose shirt and a soiled white cap with an elastic band. Freewheeling in his red scooter through the narrow field roads, he spoke in his eloquence.
“Pokkali is a gift of nature. You see, our low-lying fields lazing the downstream Vembanadu lake touching the Arabian sea experiences high-tide and low-tide twice every day. This oxygenates and enriches the water with sufficient minerals. This cycle also ensures saline water for six months and fresh water for the next half-year. We cultivate paddy during the fresh water phase by controlling water with the sluice gates. That is from June to early November. The rice plants grow unto 130 cm in the water-logged field and bend over as they mature with the panicles only standing upright. Only the panicles are cut and the rest is left to decay. After harvest, we open the sluice gates and prawn seedlings swim in from the lake and sea to feast on the leftovers of the crop. For the next six months, we farm the prawns for a good profit. In fact, the rice crop requires no fertilizer and draws nutrients from the prawns’ excrement and other remnants.”
This unique organic way of rice farming which also sustains fishing and vice-versa, seems to have a long history. “Up in the wild forests grew a special rice seed once upon a time. During the floods, the seeds floated down the river to the lake and settled in mounts by our coastal land. Laced with saline water, the plants grew. Through many seasons and cycles, they grew tall and gained salt resistance. As much as 700 years ago, our ancestors saw these plants, collected the seeds and with their intuition and innovation developed Pokkali farming.”
Joseph’s Biblical Flood-like story seems to somehow correspond with the Great Periyar flood of 1341 that destroyed the ancient city of Muziris and created Kochi.
When the flood waters receded, the debris had formed itself into many islands like Pizhala. And, these new found lands hosted this unique farming, which is now GI certified and amazes scientists and biodiversity enthusiasts.
Tottering through the bund road, we reached the centre of Joseph’s 50-acre farm. He has a ramshackle house with three bedrooms and a kitchen. The four sides open to rectangular blocks of fields filled with the monsoon water speckled with germinating rice saplings.
“I did my graduation in hospitality, and worked in a hotel for two months. But my mind was in farming. So, way back in1986, I leased a farm and started prawn cultivation. Soon, I got into Pokkali with the help of an agricultural loan. However, there were many challenges. It was difficult to market the rice. Modern rice mills deal with high volumes. They ask us for over 90 sacks, which is difficult for us to manage. But the most critical challenge is the lack of labour. Once there were around 200 women labourers in the area. With the city growing rapidly in the vicinity, they go for casual jobs in the flats and apartments. The new generation do not want to work in the sun and rain. We are incurring heavy losses. The conventional harvesting machines are not compatible for Pokkali fields. Some years ago, I even tried a grass cutter but found it to be of no good.”
But Joseph finds hope in the organic farming movement. “Pokkali is very good for health and fully organic. In olden times, doctors used to ask patients to take Pokkalikanji (porridge made of Pokkali rice). The fishermen take this gruel when they go to sea. They keep on having it during the work. It is said that the secret of the strength and endurance of Kochi fishermen is Pokkalikkanji. We are making a few attempts to make good use of the organic segment. Some in retail had failed. Certain cooperative societies are coming to the forefront. Hope they would succeed.”
Joseph has also set his heels in the farm tourism bandwagon. His farm hosts tourists who would like to stay in the bare necessities of life enjoying the richness of the open fields and the fresh lake. Day time visitors can have a taste of a rice field lacing the lake and meditate with the fishing rod or take a round in the country boat. The farm is of course a work in progress and Joseph is committed to develop it further.
“We get many foreign scientists, agriculture students and nature enthusiasts. During special days like harvests and Njattuvelas many city dwellers also make a trip. During Thiruvathira Njattuvela, we sow the seeds and start the rice cycle of the year. This time, I am growing seeds for the State Agriculture Department. Pokkali is being revived, but we do not have enough seeds for the ambitious plan.”
The pillars to the bridge, which would lead the city to the island, are ready. Soon the city would invade the island with a vengeance. Thanks to the progressive legislations such as the Paddy Conservation Act and Coastal Regulatory Zone and farmers like Joseph, Kochi’s Pokkali fields may survive the vagaries of urbanization and set itself as a sustainable city model.
My next destination is to a Pokkali field that still survives right in the centre of the city. Nestled around high apartments and residential colonies, it is the Rice Research Station at Vyttila. An institution under Kerala Agricultural University, the centre has been carrying out world-class research on rice for the past sixty years. Naturally, its thrust area has been the Pokkali farming.
The centre has developed many varieties of Pokkali seeds as Vtl 6, Vtl 7, Vtl 8 and Vtl 9, named after the hub of Kochi Vyttila. Dr K S Shyla Raj, the centre head, has spent the best of her career exploring the secrets of Kochi’s own rice. “It is unique for its tolerance towards salinity. A long time ago, people have seen this rice that grow on the sea shore and developed it. It is the gene called Soltol that gives Pokkali its ability to grow in saline water. Pokkali farmers had always dreamt of having short, non-lodging variety of rice. To cater to their need we developed the Vtl 6 variety through hybridisation and selection. This was made possible by crossing the local Pokkali genotype Cheruviruppu. This combined their properties – such as high yield of IR 5, and the tolerance to salinity, acidity and flooding of Cheruviruppu. This was again crossed with the high yielding variety of Jaya, which can adapt to adverse conditions,” says Dr Shylaraj.
The variety was launched in 2005. That was just the beginning. Many more varieties came through. However, she feels that Pokkali did not flourish to the extent expected. “Of course, the urbanization and labour issues were the prime reasons. More than that, Pokkali farmers are not conventional farmers. They are naturally keen about the fishing part since that fetches good profit. For a good Pokkali harvest, many labour-intensive jobs as mount-making and removal of toxicity have to be carried out diligently. This requires a lot of pain and hardship, which seem difficult in our times.”
Dr Shylaraj has also studied the medicinal value of Pokkali rice. “It has a high anti-oxidant level, which makes the variety superior,” she says.
All through my conversations with Dr Shylaraj, one thought was occurring again and again. How is that we have a Rice Research Station right in the hub of the city? How has it come to be right near to the National Highway bypass? Finally with little hesitance, I raised my doubt.
The senior agricultural research scholar seemed a little irritated. “See, this whole area was all Pokkali fields only. The NH bypass was built on the Pokkali fields. On either side of the bypass, there were rice fields. That is why in 1958, a Research Station dedicated to this type of farming was set up on a typical Pokkali land itself. Years back, when I joined, many a time during rainy days we had to go back home and apply for leave since the centre was water-logged and was not accessible.”
So, in fact, it wasn’t the Pokkali farm that came up in this odd place. It was the city that came invading the sanctity of the four edges of the Rice Station and its rice fields at Vyttila.
The rice saplings were sparkling in the Thiruvathira Njattuvela drizzle. On the background of the rising apartments, the green patch seemed to represent the ‘last post’ of a lost war.
Pokkali also seemed to represent the ethos of Kochi. A city that has always kept its gates open to the seas of influence and yet stood steadfast on its own identity through tolerance and consolidation. The mixing of cycles that ensures the sustainability of Pokkali seems to be engrained in the ever assimilating cultural values of Kochi.