Shrinkage of aus rice in eastern India

A paper looks at the darker side of agricultural intensification - disappearance of autumn or aus rice, entry of high yield varieties, and implications in terms of environmental sustainability in West Bengal
12 Oct 2022
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Rice has undergone an unprecedented rise in production and yield during the green revolution (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Rice has undergone an unprecedented rise in production and yield during the green revolution (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Agricultural intensification riding on the Green Revolution ushered bountiful production of selected staples (rice, wheat, maize) in the developing nations and caused a significant economic growth. It showered a new hope through a package of high-yielding seeds of rice and wheat, laying networks of irrigation and facilitating ground-water usage, over-dependence on agro-chemicals, primarily nitrogenous fertilizers, and broad institutional support that claimed to have changed the trajectory of agricultural growth of India. However, its negative impacts have become apparent now.

West Bengal’s fertile alluvium had allowed the cultivation of a whole suite of crops, rice, jute, pulses, mustard, vegetables, etc. across its diverse agro-climatic regions. The primary crop was monsoon, kharif or winter rice (aman), while secondary autumn rice (aus) was grown in uplands in pre-monsoon where aman cannot survive.

The third crop was rabi or summer rice (boro) in low-lying flood-prone areas. Peasants used to grow diverse landraces which were different not only in phenotypic features or other economic traits (stress-tolerant, disease resistance, early maturing, etc.) but also in culturally important characteristics (e.g., taste, texture, aroma, color, etc.) that epitomized their culinary distinctiveness.

The technology transfer via the green revolution in the mid-sixties radically changed the situation of low productivity and a huge spurt in agricultural production has been achieved. Especially for the principal cereal crop, rice, which has undergone an unprecedented rise in production and yield. A rise in dry season agriculture, boro rice cultivation was vehemently pushed with the sure supply of HYV seeds, shallow pump lifting groundwater, subsidized fertilizers, etc.; it was also followed by a simultaneous thrust to kharif rice or aman and less to pre-monsoon aus.

Within a few decades, various detrimental effects of agricultural intensification soon became apparent, a general loss of agro-biodiversity for the sake of promotion of a few high-yielding varieties (HYV), decline of aus and rapid rise and acceptance of dry-season rice or boro, change in water usage landscape of West Bengal (even in neighboring Bangladesh), huge rise in agrochemical application and its effect on soil and water resources and on edible biota of rice fields, changing rice field ecosystems.

It is undenying that the green revolution has spearheaded the surge of food grain production that made food available and at cheaper and affordable prices in developing nations. Saving a major portion of the global population from hunger serves as a messiah in the international public welfare. Yet, increasing food availability and lowering food prices through enhanced agricultural productivity and trade also raise the externalization of costs on health and the environment.

A paper by Avik Ray in World Development Sustainability, Volume 1, 2022 looks at the issue closely and locally at the eastern state of India. It examines various detrimental effects, in terms of agricultural biodiversity, HYV acceptance, and water, and agrochemical usage. In summarizing, the paper also analyzes the findings in terms of environmental sustainability.

The major shrinkage of aus or autumn rice acreage and near extinction of landraces, the establishment of a few high-yielding varieties are a few key changes overly visible in the rice cultivation system of West Bengal state. It has also become heavily dependent on groundwater, nitrogenous fertilizers, and pesticides. The side-effects of indiscriminate use of groundwater took a toll on human health through heavy metal poisoning.

Monocropping of HYVs also accelerated a heavy onslaught of pests causing major crop loss. Building on these results, it does not seem to grow endlessly and remain sustainable in the long run. The study reinforces its snowballing vulnerability to climate change endangering food systems.

The effect of the green revolution on account of environmental sustainability is quite multi-faced. With this backdrop, the author examines its effects on the agricultural dynamics of West Bengal focusing on the decline of autumn rice, wide adoption of HYVs, and the other associated changes.

The increment of water-thirsty boro at the cost of water-thrifty aus acreage permanently changed the water usage in rice agriculture in West Bengal and elsewhere. Boro rice was promoted as a water-guzzling HYV crop whose high productivity can only be ensured with a high dosage of fertilizers, a huge volume of water, and other supplements. Therefore, the gradual shift from aus to HYV boro entirely changed the water-use landscape of eastern India and made it essentially groundwater-dependent. Wells emerged as the primary source of irrigation which was solely contingent on canals and tanks in the pre-green revolution era.

The paper specifically focuses on the phenomenon of technology transfer, especially in terms of social, bio-cultural, environmental, and health and nutrition aspects of sustainability. In doing so, the author examines some of the proxies to account for the change, i.e., 1. loss of agricultural biodiversity, 2. water use pattern, 3. degradation of the natural resource base, and 4. Other collateral damage. These are evaluated and discussed in terms of resilience and climate change adaptation.


The agrarian state of West Bengal became reliant on a highly external input-dependent, water-hungry, production system capitalizing only on a few modern cultivars of rice. Gradual shrinkage of aus acreage, the rise of boro, and concomitant changes in agroecosystems closed the means of rice cultivation to adapt to climate change.

In other aspects such as the environment, the production system may not appear to be sustainable in a long run for multifarious interrelated problems such as recurring pest outbreaks owing to monocropping of HYVs, depletion of groundwater, and emerging health crisis, deterioration of soil and water ecosystems discussed so far.

The distilled message from the study also reinforces the snowballing vulnerability of the agricultural systems to climate change thereby endangering food systems. This necessitates urgent policy changes leading to a major overhaul; where short-lived techno-fixes, newer modern varieties, better delivery of nutrients through efficient fertilizers, and subsidies to chemical fertilizers may not withstand unless the core of the issues has been identified and resolved.

A few broad solutions and aligned policy measures may include harnessing the potential of landraces through on-farm conservation and invigorating seed banks, changing cropping patterns, lessening the use of groundwater and dependence on agrochemicals employing various locally-suitable strategies, restoring soil health, and efficient recycling of resources, and sustainable intensification of production.

The full paper can be accessed here

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