Rice and shine

Written by Sandip Das | Updated: Jun 8 2014, 06:01am hrs
WALK INTO any supermarket today and the most eye-catching items will be in the section selling packaged rice. Rice, that humble, century-old staple of the Indian diet, has emerged from its traditional imagegrains in an open gunny bagto a slick new avatar. Today, rice, and basmati in particular, comes in glitzy packagingon some, it has the year it was grown stamped in bold. Old is gold, even for rice. Tilda, a popular rice brand in the UK, launched its Tilda Vintage Basmati at three times the normal price. The new variety comes from the crop of 2006apparently, the best year for rice in recent history. It has been aged to create a richer, more separate grain, which, producers say, enhances its flavour. Most rice lovers may not realise that, like wine, it can improve with age and can also have vintage years. Brands like Tilda, India Gate, Kohinoor Foods, Daawat, Radikal and Maharani are the ones leading the charge to change through packaging and branding.

A Tecnopak study says in a country where thousands of rice varieties are grown, branding has come to play a key role in both the domestic as well as the export market. The brand is the new mantra for success and basmati is in the middle of the action. It is the urban affluent and the upper-middle-class which are gradually warming up to the concept of buying branded rice, the study noted. The trigger was exports. When the Indian government initiated the export of basmati, it not only led to the development of a sunrise industry, but also opened up a huge market globally for the aromatic and long-grained cereal, long hailed as the king of rice. Over the years, the investment in automation, yield improvement, packaging and marketing by rice traders and the subsequent processing of thousands of tonnes of high-quality basmati have led to tremendous growth in the export of the fragrant rice. So much so that from a modest R2,792 crore in 2006-07, exports of basmati have increased manifold to cross the R28,000-crore mark in the last fiscal, accounting for 70% of Indias total rice exports.

Indias basmati rice industry is estimated at R40,000 crore, having seen a huge rise in exports as well as an increase in domestic demand. Of the total estimated annual production of 5.5 million tonnes, more than 4 million tonnes of basmati rice are exported. The Technopak study says the packaged rice market in India was estimated at R12,200 crore in 2012 and was growing at an annual growth rate of more than 30% over the past three years. The management consulting firm had projected the packaged rice market to reach R33,300 crore by 2016. Basmati rice dominates the packaged rice market in India with a nearly 75% market share. Vivek Chandra, CEO, LT Foods, one of the leading players in the basmati rice market, says the brand loyalty for a particular brand of basmati rice is growing sharply, as consumers have started to differentiate between products offered by various companies.

Export booster

Even though India began the process in the 1980s, the last seven years have marked a watershed in the countrys export of basmati rice. But what led to the over tenfold jump in the value of basmati rice exports in that period The success of basmati rice, say experts, can be attributed to the Pusa 1121 variety of basmati developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI).

While farmers used to grow the traditional varieties of basmati earlier, the Pusa 1121 variety was released for commercial cultivation in 2003. KV Prabhu, deputy director, IARI, who was instrumental in the development and introduction of the variety, says the new variety is unique because of its extraordinary kernel (grain) length. After cooking, the rice does not turn sticky and retains the aroma of the traditional variety. All these attributes attracted consumers mostly in west Asian countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE, among others, he adds. Of the countrys total exports of basmati, over 60% was shipped to Iran and Saudi Arabia alone in the last fiscal.

By 2007, the 1121 variety had become widely popular with farmers, as it required less water, matured early and yielded 19-20 quintals of paddy per acre as compared to 9-10 quintals for the traditional variety. This variety currently occupies close to 2 million hectares of the total basmati rice grown at around 3 million hectares. According to the Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (Apeda), Indias basmati rice exports rose sharply following the introduction of the Pusa 1121 variety in the global markets. Scientists at the IARI did a great job in developing the 1121. India would have otherwise lost its dominant position as a basmati rice exporter a long time ago, says Vijay Setia, an exporter and former president of the All India Rice Exporters Association (AIREA).

Along with varietal development, the Basmati Export Development Foundation (BEDF), an initiative by exporters and the APEDA, helped farmers get better-quality seeds. Set up in 2003 in Modipuram, Uttar Pradesh, which is located at the heart of the basmati-growing regions of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, the BEDF has been focused on producing quality and authentic foundation seeds of basmati varieties, which are subsequently distributed to farmers at concessional rates. The foundation also has facilities for DNA and quality testing of basmati rice, which command a premium in the global market.

The road ahead

Setia says the best days of basmati rice exports are yet to come. Setia, along with many others, is betting on the new variety Pusa 1509 (also developed by the IARI), which was taken up for cultivation in around 5,000 hectares during the last kharif season in Punjab. Pusa 1509 takes about 115-120 days to mature against 145-150 days for Pusa 1121, which constitutes a major chunk of Indias basmati rice exports. Prabhu of IARI says the new variety, Pusa 1509, is not only high-yielding (around 20-30% more over the 1121 variety), it also saves water for growing rabi or winter wheat. Pusa 1509 combines semi-dwarf stature, early maturing and better grains, cooking and eating quality on a par with the 1121 variety, Prabhu notes. Commerce ministry officials suggest that for sustaining phenomenal success of basmati rice, the industry has to invest in globally-acknowledged good agricultural practices (GAP) and ISO 22000, which deals with food safety management and packaging protocols, so that the quality of rice shipped from Indian ports is top-class. Judging by the slick packaging of basmati rice in the domestic market and the emphasis on vintages and improved varieties, that prospect can no longer be taken with a grain of, well, rice.


* Basmati is a long-grain aromatic rice grown for centuries in the Himalayan foothills of the Indian sub-continent. The rice has some unique characteristics: extra-long slender grains, which expand upon cooking, a superior aroma and distinct flavour.

* Agro-climatic conditions of the specific geographical area as well as the method of harvesting, processing and ageing are the reasons behind these unique characteristics.

* The rices nickname is scented pearl and it is largely used in west Asian countries, Europe and the US, besides India.

* Key varieties of basmati include Pusa 1121, Punjab Basmati-1 and Haryana Basmati-1, among others. The long-grained aromatic rice is grown mostly in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir.