A crusader for revival of Jammu Basmati

Sharda Lal
The name of Choudhary Dev Raj of village Baspur Bangla of tehsil Ranbir Singh Pura (R.S. Pura), stands out as a doyen amongst the progressive farmers of Jammu and Kashmir. Till his last breath, Choudhury Dev Raj championed the cause of his professional fraternity – the farmers and remained stuck to the roots in knowledge based farming. His ever-indomitable spirit for active living to improve the self, the people and the country reflected the other aspect of the cherished values of awakened persons to lay down their lives for honour and integrity of the country.
The speeches of Ch. Dev Raj commanded respect amongst listeners always as these were always stoked with anecdotes from rural culture of Jammu. The authorities would never ignore his unique personality and ever-smiling face. He remained draped in characteristically white attire graced with white short turban which captivated and impressed all. Even when annoyed, Ch. Dev Raj would make his point with dignity, grace and conviction.
Choudhary Dev Raj, the founder President of R.S. Pura Basmati Rice Growers Association (RBGA), was a bitter critique of the agricultural policies of earlier state governments. Up to the year 2004 there was a ban on the export of ‘traditional Basmati rice of R.S.Pura’. He was convinced that the ban had adversely impacted economic prosperity of farmers of Jammu, Samba and Kathua districts, particularly of those living in R.S. Pura area and along the international border with Pakistan. Basmati rice, the main source of livelihood didn’t fetch these farmers the genuine returns because of restrictions in marketing. “In fact, the profitability and survival of the profession, which dealt with the prized crop of Jammu, was at stake” he had confessed once.
The ban was lifted in the year 2004 by the State government after a long struggle by the farmers, but soon it was re-imposed in the year 2006 on the plea of controlling its price in the State. Ch. Dev Raj therefore sensed a nexus which had put Basmati growers of Jammu at the mercy of the traders and rice-mill owners. Their upper hand in deciding the procurement price of Basmati rice was disadvantageous to the growers and therefore, the RBGA intensified its struggle to break this alleged nexus.
Meanwhile, Ch. Dev Raj had developed the ability to rightly feel the pulse of local farmers as well as the government. He never failed to remind that Basmati rice was cultivated by more than seventy thousand to one lakh farming families in three districts of Jammu, Samba and Kathua and it was more because of the characteristic quality (aroma) and sentiments of farmers attached with the traditional rice variety ‘Basmati – 370′ rather than the remunerations to growers. He would never fail to make a mention of the difficult conditions under which the Basmati growers work. He would press the point that more than 90 per cent of the Basmati growers had land along the 198-km long International Border which traversed through Jammu, Samba and Kathua districts and remained vulnerable to the enemy’s fire.
Quite recently he had explained that total area under Basmati rice had increased consistently from around 18.50 thousand hectares in the year 1997-98 to about 31.99 thousand hectares in 2007-08 with corresponding production level increase from 37.25 thousand tons to around 86.79 thousand metric tons, but according to Ch. Dev Raj it was to boost the economy of scale and quantum of trade. The latest estimated area under different basmati varieties like Basmati – 370, Sugandha, Sanwal, Ranbir basmati, RR-564, Pusa no.1 and Pusa basmati 1121 was somewhere between 50,000 to 62000 hectares and for this increase he shared credit with the extension efforts of SKUAST-J and Agriculture Directorate Jammu too.
Ch. Dev Raj never forgot to appreciate the efforts of Basmati Export Development Foundation (BEDF), Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) and All India Rice Exporters’ Association (AIREA) who had made the Basmati rice growers and related stake-holders aware about the quality standards for exportable Basmati rice as well as about its production and post harvest technology in collaboration with the RBGA, SKUAST Jammu, and the State Agriculture Department.
Credit goes to Ch. Dev Raj, RBGA and other prominent farmers of the times who had played a catalytic role in the chain of events preceding approval to the exportability of Basmati – 370 variety of Jammu rice outside the country by Ministry of Commerce, Govt. of India during the year 2010-11. On their request the then State government had proposed to relax the norms regarding permissible length of uncooked Basmati rice to 6.61 mm against the 7 mm that was specified earlier.
Although the ban on export of basmati rice was finally lifted during the year 2009-10, but the septuagenarian Dev Raj Choudhary wasn’t fully satisfied with the efforts of successive governments to promote Basmati – 370 as a national and international brand. He wanted immediate formulation and implementation of an appropriate market intervention scheme to prevent exploitation of Basmati cultivators at the hands of monopolistic millers. His argument was that an estimated 30,000 metric tones of Basmati rice was procured by outside buyers, but in the absence of government intervention, these traders continued to exercise their sole competence to decide the price of the ‘prized produce of Jammu farmers’. Toeing the line of Ch. Dev Raj, many other prominent farmers have joined the clamour for market intervention by the government on the pattern announced for apples of Kashmir during the year 2019.
Choudhary Dev Raj as President of the RBGA played a very active role during the year 2014-15 when heavy rains and flash floods had extensively damaged wheat as well as rice crops. He complemented the voice of affected farmers of Pargwal, Marh, Suchetgarh, R.S. Pura, Arnia, Vijaypur and Hiranagar blocks at various forums and demanded compensation since Basmati crop had suffered an estimated 30% to 75% loss due to flash floods. He had vigorously raised the issue of loss to human and animal life including damage to about 75% tube wells. Simultaneously, he had brought to the attention of the State and Central governments the inability of farmers to look after their crops along the international border due to floods and heavy Pakistani shelling.
The continued persuasion by RBGA headed by Mr Choudhary led to the formulation and implementation of Suchetgarh Basmati Rice Cluster Project (Organic) and RS Pura Basmati Rice Cluster Project by Department of Agriculture Jammu in 2014 in consultation with SKUAST-J. Under these Projects, assistance is being provided to respective farmers for purchase and establishment of mini-rice shellers, improved seeds, latest machinery, bio-fertilizers, bio-pesticides and vermi-composting units etc. Formation of farmer producer organizations (FPO), brand popularization and proper marketing of the organic produce of traditional Basmati are the main aims of the Projects to enable higher returns to farmers with reduced chain of middlemen.
A recent publication by SKUAST Jammu has duly acknowledged the contribution of Choudhary Dev Raj in agriculture by noting, “due to the farmer organizations, competency could see among the farmers. RBGA, Sarpanch Association Block R.S Pura and Baba Deep Singh Kissan Bhalai Kendra, R.S. Pura had taken up the farmers ‘ issues and problems to the higher authorities, scientists and the related officials to find out immediate solutions.”
Choudhary Dev Raj’s latest wish was for enforcement of a complete ban on conversion of agricultural land for commercial and construction purposes to save Basmati growing areas. On 17th of May, 2020, Ch. Dev Raj while expressing his concern regarding relief package for farmers announced by the Union Government to mitigate the impact of Covid – 19, had told to a newspaper of eminence, “There is no mention of basmati growers of J&K in this package. This is quite unfortunate. Farmers were hoping some drastic measures to take them out of the prevailing losses”.
Though only in his early seventies, Mr Choudhary was having an ailing kidney compounded with a fracture in the leg he passed away on June the 1st 2020, leaving a big void in the farming sector.