There won’t be a decline in the demand for rice and crops


At a time, when rice is in the news for issues associated with diabetes and weight gain, here's good news for rice eaters. Social entrepreneur Sheela Balaji has been instrumental in bringing heritage rice — almost seven varieties that were regularly consumed till a few decades ago — back into the market. Having set up a 40-acre farm in Manjakkudi, in Tiruvarur district, she grows these ancient grains — each of which comes with its own distinct flavour when cooked, and interesting names and stories related to it.

Sheela throws more light on these non-hybrid varieties. "Annam is so important in our tradition. Starting from when one is just born, to when they give rice kanji to old people, to being used in weddings for blessing the couple, till you die, rice plays an important part in all stages of our life. It is only lately that rice has been getting a bad rap for containing carbs, etc. Fact is, rice is the oldest grain one can remember, and people are still eating rice," says Sheela.

While there have been numerous varieties, the knowledge surrounding it is less among people. "Most of them only know about raw, boiled and Basmati rice. Today, most of us consume only polished rice from which all vitamins and nutrients have been washed away, leaving only starch and sugar," says Sheela.

Food traveller and musician Rakesh Raghunathan, who has been associated with Sheela in this, adds, "Earlier, they used to treat ailments using food. And rice, has several medicinal properties. There is a popular saying, 'unnave marundhu, marundhe unnavu'. But unfortunately, people have very less knowledge about it." And the sad part is, he says, "Most of these speciality rice varieties are not available in your regular mandis."

And this is one of the reasons why Sheela decided to throw more light on the ancient grains. There is illuppai poo champa, kaatuyaanam (a crop that grows eight feet in height, where even an elephant can hide), mappillai champa (a tradition in Tirunelveli, where the newly married groom will be served a meal using this rice), karuppu kavuni (black rice), kalajeera (rice from Orissa), thooyamalli (resembles jasmine buds) and kichili champa (small grain rice).

"People have several issues when it comes to food. They can't visualise any other colour apart from white. But karuppu kavuni has so many health benefits. Initially, people were used to eating white bread, but now, they have brown bread. So, I hope there will be a change," says Sheela, adding, "Each of these has varied health benefits. The kind of manure which is being used is natural. I visit the farm every month to see the progress of these crops."

But when there's so much unrest revolving around farmers' issues and Tamil Nadu under a near-drought situation, how does she see the future for such crops?

"It's been years since the government checked on the canals and dams. Other states have been upgrading it, but here, there has been a slow growth. Things can be better with regular cleaning and proper use of rain water harvesting. We need a proper political will to sort this issue," she notes. Having said that, Sheela avers there won't be a decline in the demand for crops or rice among farmers.


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