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The next billion-dollar basmati?

New Delhi, Jan. 5: 

A decade after the release of Pusa-1121, a rice variety that accounts for roughly three-fourths of India’s $4 billion-plus annual basmati exports, farm scientists hope to replicate its success through yet another blockbuster.

Pusa-1509, a new high-yielding basmati developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), was planted in around 5,000 hectares in the 2013 kharif season. “I expect it to reach one million hectares (mh) in the coming season, replacing a large part of the 1.4 mh now covered under Pusa-1121,” says Ashok K. Singh, Project Leader (Rice) at IARI and the main breeder of Pusa-1509.

Shorter maturity

According to Singh, who was also involved in developing Pusa-1121, the main advantage of the new variety is its maturing — in just 115-120 days from the time of sowing in the nursery bed to harvesting the grain.

“Both Pusa-1121 and Pusa Basmati-1 (an older improved basmati) take 140-145 days. Thirty days less time means farmers needn’t transplant the seedlings in the peak mid-June summer.

“They can do it in mid-July with the onset of the monsoon rains, saving 5-6 irrigations,” he pointed out.

Alternatively, they could raise an additional crop — say, a 60-day moong or green gram — between harvesting of wheat in mid-April and transplanting Pusa-1509 in mid-July.

Higher yields

Moreover, the average paddy yields in Pusa-1509, at 25 quintals an acre, are more than the 20 quintals for Pusa-1121. The main reason: a lower plant height of 80 cm as against 120 cm for Pusa-1121.

“Lower height enables more fertiliser application. You can apply 2-3 bags of urea in Pusa-1509 for the entire season.

“Pusa-1121 cannot tolerate more than one bag. The plant will simply lodge and the grains, too, may shatter or drop from the panicles,” Singh explained.

Preetam Singh, a farmer from Urlana Khurd in Haryana’s Panipat district, said that the 30-day early maturity and 25 per cent extra yield made Pusa-1509 an attractive proposition.

Also, since there is no lodging or grain-shattering, the entire crop can be harvested using combines.

“This time, I planted 28 acres of Pusa-1509 and 11 acres under Pusa-1121. From next season, I will stop Pusa-1121,” he told Business Line.

What about grain quality? “Pusa-1509 scores over Pusa-1121 in aroma, but probably not as much as in fluffiness and linear elongation on cooking.

“The percentage of brokens on milling is also higher in Pusa-1509 for the raw white rice, though not for the par-boiled rice that India predominantly exports,” said Anil Kumar Mittal, CMD of the Rs 2,100-crore KRBL Ltd.

But these minute quality parameter differences may not matter vis-à-vis the vastly superior returns for farmers from growing Pusa-1509. “Pusa-1121 may still survive, but Pusa-1509 will definitely be the farmer’s first choice,” he added.

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