By: Syed Haroon Haider Gilani

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A few days ago, a government laboratory in Iran reportedly detected traces of arsenic, cadmium and lead in the rice imported from India. Following a ban by Iran on imported 1121 variety of Indian Basmati rice, the Iranian parliament has urged the government to closely examine the case. Also, The Standard Institute of Industrial Research of Tehran had previously disclosed that Indian rice was contaminated with chemicals and lacked nutrient value.

The research proved the arsenic level in imported Indian rice was 9.7 times higher than the standard level. Standard level of arsenic in rice is defined 0.00 – 0.10 PPM (part per million). The heavy metal of Cadmium is designate to be around 0.2 PPM. The research suggests the imported Indian rice contained more than 0.4 PPM. The Majlis Agriculture Committee of Iran has called on the health and agricultural ministries to determine the level of contamination of the imported rice through a variety of tests.

Over the last couple of years, Iran, along with neighbor Iraq, has emerged prime favorite with Indian basmati exporters. Iran almost buys half of Indian basmati rice since then and hence the basmati rice is grown in India and price is set in Iran. Iranians buy large quantities of parboiled Pusa 1121. With its own farming in doldrums, Iran is increasingly dependent on the world market to supply it long grain aromatic rice. With India at its doorstep willing to export 3 mn tonnes basmati, Iran has shifted its custom to India.

Iran pays top-notch prices beyond India’s wildest dreams. Whoever imagined that the variety Pusa 1121, which entered the basmati family with the skin of its teeth, will be the most expensive one, fetching $1500/t or Rs 70/kg in Isfahan. But it does. Chiefly because Iranians are used to paying over-the-top prices for their local aromatic Domsiah rice in chronic short supply, and since rice is not a staple, it doesn’t bother anyone too much to pay exorbitantly for Pusa 1121 that comes closest to Domsiah. This has led to a scramble among Indian companies and farmers to produce and export more and more quantities of only this variety. Haryana is rapidly hurtling towards virtually a monoculture of Pusa 1121.

The Indian farmers had increased the area under Basmati cultivation from 3.75 lakh hectares to 6.5 lakh hectares this year (2009) consequent to good price availed for the crop in the previous year. “We got a good price for 1121 variety last year. So, we doubled the area in which we sow the crop. Last year we had sown Basmati on five acres of land but this year we did sow in 10 acres of land. But now Iran has refused to procure Basmati. “So we are now worried as our crop will remain in the wholesale market. We request government to find a solution for this problem,” said Jaypal Singh, a farmer. Now the farmers fear that their crop will remain in the granaries of Mandi with no buyers. The prices of 1121 Basmati have been most affected, in which unwanted metal content was said to be quite high. The price for a kilogram has come down from 110 to 85 rupees. The price of Sela rice has fallen from 75 to 60 rupees. Basmati rice is being traded at rupees 45 per kilogram in the ‘Satta’ market. A senior official at Punjab Agriculture University said in such a situation, farmers got exploited at the hands of middlemen. The negative sentiments that the export demand has dwindled could help the middlemen book supernormal profits. There are about 300 rice mills in the country exporting 1 million tonnes to 1.2 million tonnes of basmati rice to Iran through certified rice exporters. Punjab Young Farmers Association general secretary Bhagwan Dass Gupta said steps should be taken to clear the air as other countries could also stop taking Indian basmati. He said traders and farmers would meet on September 30 at Rakhra near Patiala to discuss the issue.

Indian Basmati soils are contaminated, the real reason

Meanwhile experts said the depleting ground water and the intermixing of water pools due to over-exploitation could be responsible for the present situation. Ground water quality in Ferozepur belt in Punjab as well as Tohana, Ghanaur and Sonepat areas in Haryana is questionable. Authorities have asked farmers not to sow Basmati in areas that have high constituents of heavy metals. “There are many areas in Punjab where water and soil has concentration of heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and lead. If we grow a crop there, the plants will have some constituents of them. So, farmers should try not to sow crop in such areas,” said Dr. B L Bhardwaj, Director, Centre of Advanced Studies, Agriculture Department, Punjab.

A senior scientist from the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) said that the probability of presence of heavy metals in basmati rice grown in the Indo-Gangetic belt (Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh) was bleak as this could be found in the areas irrigated by the tail-end of the river. Since these parts fall in the middle course of the river, the contamination does not happen. Moreover, water content in the cereals is about 10-12 per cent which makes the crop more resistant to heavy metals.


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