The Great Basmati Success Story: How India's Exports Grew From $200 Million To Nearly $5 Billion
Over the past three decades, there has been a remarkable evolution in India's basmati rice exports.
Historically, annual exports were relatively modest, hovering around 0.3-0.35 million tonnes and valued at approximately $200-$250 million.
However, in recent times, these numbers have skyrocketed, with exports reaching an impressive 4.5-4.6 million tonnes and commanding a staggering worth of $4.7-4.8 billion.
This extraordinary success narrative owes much of its credit to the unwavering dedication of the scientists at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi.
Before the late 1980s, Indian farmers predominantly cultivated traditional basmati rice varieties known for their towering plants, standing at a height of 150-160 cm. These plants were prone to lodging, and their yield was rather modest, averaging about 10 quintals of paddy per acre. Some of the traditional varieties included Taraori and Dehraduni.
The turning point in the basmati rice industry arrived in 1989 with the introduction of Pusa Basmati-1 (PB-1), an improved variety that emerged from the diligent efforts of a team of scientists at IARI, led by E A Siddiq.
PB-1 was developed by crossbreeding Karnal Local with Pusa-150, a high-yielding non-basmati line. The results were striking, with PB-1 featuring a more manageable plant height of 100-105 cm, resistance to lodging, a yield of 25-26 quintals of grain per acre, and a shorter maturation period of 135-140 days.
The journey towards this breakthrough had commenced in the late 1960s when IARI scientists, under the visionary leadership of M S Swaminathan, embarked on a mission to marry the unique grain attributes of traditional basmati rice (notably aroma and non-stickiness) with the high-yield characteristics of modern dwarf varieties.
PB-1, while possessing a mild aroma, surpassed Taraori in terms of average milled rice kernel length and its ability to elongate upon cooking.
By the turn of the century, India was exporting 0.6-0.7 million metric tonnes of basmati rice annually, generating revenue in the range of $400-$450 million. Remarkably, PB-1 alone accounted for nearly 60 per cent of this export volume.
Nonetheless, the true game-changer emerged in 2003 with the introduction of Pusa Basmati-1121 (PB-1121). Though it exhibited a lower yield and a longer maturation period, PB-1121 stood out with its exceptional grain quality.
The average kernel length measured an impressive 8 mm, and when cooked, it elongated a remarkable 2.7 times to approximately 21.5 mm. This unique trait swiftly captured the attention of overseas buyers, leading to companies like KRBL Ltd recognising its immense potential. They began exporting it under the 'India Gate Classic' brand.
The profound impact of PB-1121 is evident when one examines the export figures. From 2001-02 to 2013-14, India's basmati rice exports surged from 0.7 million tonnes to 3.7 million tonnes, accompanied by a significant rise in value, from $390 million to an impressive $4.9 billion. PB-1121 contributed significantly to this growth, accounting for over 70 per cent of these exports.
In 2013, under the leadership of Ashok Kumar Singh, IARI released Pusa Basmati-1509 (PB-1509). This variety shared certain similarities with PB-1 and PB-1121 but possessed a shorter seed-to-grain duration, spanning just 115-120 days. This early-maturing, high-yielding variety brought undeniable advantages to farmers, enabling them to cultivate additional crops within a single season.
Recent efforts at IARI have also focused on enhancing disease resistance within basmati varieties. PB-1121, for instance, was susceptible to bacterial leaf blight. Consequently, scientists embarked on the development of varieties equipped with built-in resistance to this disease.
Such advancements have led to a reduced reliance on crop protection chemicals, benefiting not only the premium quality of Indian basmati but also the environment.
While basmati rice yields have reached a commendable 25 quintals per acre, slightly lower than non-basmati varieties, the favourable market price of basmati rice translates to more substantial profits for farmers.
However, basmati farmers remain exposed to market fluctuations and government policies pertaining to exports, including recent restrictions on basmati shipments priced below $1,200 per tonne.
The story of basmati rice serves as a testament to the transformative power of scientific research.