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China rice pot and Indian kettle boil

Feb. 22: Neither China nor India is the gold standard of foolproof figures but both are now locked in a paddy contest worthy of the idiom involving the pot, the kettle and dark name-calling.

A Chinese scientist has taken with a mountain — not a grain — of salt the title of the world’s top rice farmer that Sumant Kumar from Bihar’s Nalanda district earned last year.

Doubts have been cast over the claim that Sumant’s patch of land had in 2011 delivered 22.4 tonnes per hectare of paddy, a world record, beating a Chinese farmer who had logged 19.4 tonnes per hectare the previous year.

For his feat, Sumant has received a national agriculture award, won felicitations by President Pranab Mukherjee and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and spent much of the past year sharing his experience with farmers nationwide.

But senior Chinese rice scientist Yuan Longping, who has helped boost China’s rice yields and is known there as the “father of hybrid rice”, has questioned Sumant’s farm yield, calling it a false claim.

“It is 120 per cent fake,” Yuan has said in an interview to the China News Service. “He (the Indian farmer) said they had lots of rain and little sunshine that year, but high yields would be impossible without adequate sunshine.”

The challenge from China comes amid concerns that yield estimates may not always be correct — whether from farms in China or in India.

A senior Indian crop scientist said China’s yield was typically about 11 to 12 tonnes per hectare. “They claim 18 tonnes in some places, I have my reservations,” a scientist said.

Official statistic is not a particularly admired asset of either China or India. The West has made a vocation out of punching holes and poking fun at Chinese economy figures while Indian poverty estimates and cut-offs are the stuff of domestic lampoon.

But China is not a solo sceptic as far as the paddy count is concerned. The claim from Nalanda is also under question from the Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI), Cuttack, a government laboratory that had sent a team of scientists to Kumar’s farm in 2012 to determine its likely yield.

The CRRI plans to submit a technical report on the team’s findings. Senior CRRI scientists say the conditions in the paddy farm during 2012 suggest that the yield will be about 11 tonnes per hectare.

“A 10 tonne or 11 tonne per hectare yield is by itself a good one, but it’s nowhere near the 22.4 tonnes claimed,” Trilochan Mohapatra, CRRI director, told The Telegraph.

Sumant, who is in his early-30s, was himself oblivious about his high yield in 2011 until a non-government organisation informed him about a paddy production record held by a Chinese farmer for 2010.

A district agricultural officer, who had certified Sumant’s high yield in 2011, said the figure had been calculated through the standard method adopted by the state.

“It is done in a very transparent manner and the authentication of the figure is done in the presence of the block agricultural officer, circle inspector, statistical supervisor, block development officer, the farmer and a representative of the local panchayat,” Nalanda district agricultural officer Sudama Mahto said over phone.

He said samples for productivity calculations were typically collected from about 3 per cent of the total sown area in a given district.

But Sumant has an explanation for the dramatic drop in productivity between 2011 and 2012 — a family feud and nationwide travels.

During 2011, he adopted a technique called systematic rice intensification which led to the exceptional high yield, said Rajeev Ranjan, an agriculture university graduate appointed by the Bihar government to disseminate information about latest agricultural practices among farmers.

During 2012, Ranjan said, Sumant was embroiled in a “family feud” and was invited to share his experiences with farmers across the country. “Both these preoccupations kept him away from the farm and he asked some local farmers to handle his farm and they haven’t done it as well as he did,” Ranjan said by way of explanation.

Senior CRRI scientists concede that if the package of paddy management practices changes dramatically, so would the yield. India’s average yield is about 6 tonnes per hectare.

“The 11 tonnes per hectare is a very high yield — if the farm was mismanaged, it would have fallen to four per hectare,” said Mukund Varier, officer-in-charge of the Central Rainfed Upland Rice Research Station, Hazaribagh.

The Chinese scientist, Yuan, who has scrutinised published photographs of Sumant’s paddy field, said the harvested plants appear short and couldn’t possibly produce high yields.

“Good soil is the basis of high-yield rice,” Yuan said, adding that the soil where Sumant farmed was apparently inferior in quality.

Yuan also questioned the way India verified Sumant’s claim. “If Kumar is able to repeat his success next year, I will be glad to examine the results in the field personally,” Yuan said.

But neither the rant from China nor the report from Cuttack is likely to wrest the title from Sumant. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to reach back to 2011 and measure his crop all over again.