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The Rice Diary. Dispatches from Delhi

The Rice Diary. Dispatches from Delhi
Bollywood beats hang in the cool evening air. A few hundred people are gathered on the patio of a swish European-style hotel near Delhi's Indira Gandhi Airport. I feel a tap on my shoulder. “Are you the English chef?” A man in a suit smiles at me. “No, I'm a journalist.” He keeps smiling at me. “You take me to the English chef.” The chap not so subtly sweet-talking me hands me a card. It gives his job title as 'Rice exporter.' He tells me he's come to the capital from Kashmir, the ethereal yet eternally disputed mountain territory hundreds of miles to the north that could spark a nuclear war between Pakistan and Indian at any moment. I point the exporter in the direction of his chef. He toddles off happily.
What he said didn't matter so much as what his attitude implored. Rice is big business in India now. By exporting rice, India earned – wait for it – almost £1.5 Billion in financial year 2010-11. No wonder this crop is so important to them. And no wonder the Indian economy is experiencing the kind of growth that Western countries last enjoyed after World War II.
So the reason that us hacks have been invited to Delhi for the Basmati For The World event is pretty clear from the outset: cash. The Indian agriculture ministry wants to promote rice sales in even more countries. They export tons of the stuff to poor places like Indonesia and Thailand. But they want to export more of it to fill the menus of curry houses in rich countries like Britain, France the US and Mexico.
We diligently say thanks as we receive our newly published Basmati cookbooks containing some soft-focus photos and recipes from chefs like Shilpi Gupta, and David Felton, the latter an Englishman living in America who tells me about his New Jersey restaurant and his new baby over plates of grilled meat.
Of course the eating is the best part of all this week. Indian and international chefs have been bussed in and all of them create some delectable dishes: pilafs and biryanis, and more esoteric offerings too: how about rice balls or tumbada rice? And of course that basmati – the highest grade of rice which is the one the Indians export – is the very best grain you can get. It's long and slender, graceful and beautiful. It expands so it can soak up sauces and its fragrance is subtle and winning. It is the king of the rice world, and we are all duly impressed by what we see and what we taste.
What isn't on the menu though is what this booming business also means to society. The (Indian) elephant in the room is the Green Revolution. In the 1970s and 80s, scientists lifted India out of a situation of near starvation by increasing yields of rice (and other crops too). Indeed the quantities that Indian farmers can now grow is still increasing. But this comes at a cost. The use of fertilisers, pesticides and very much water has disturbed the sensitive ecological balance of the Punjab and Gujarat's agricultural areas. High yield varieties meanwhile are inevitably genetically modified and (surprise surprise) it's often US companies with the patents to sell the stuff to farmers in the developing world. Small changes ripple into bigger ones; and the shift from a smallholder-led agriculture to an export-driven one meant that poor farmers had to move on. The gap between rich and poor in this country is a real shocker. Shopping malls with Zara and Costa Coffee on one street, hungry, runaway street kids begging a couple of rupees for a snack on the next. A monoculture was installed that was different to how farming has been practised in India for years. No-one is sure if this situation can continue forever because the land has a funny way of showing us that she's not happy. Time will tell.
India is a country with big ambitions; a country going through spectacular changes at the speed of light. It's still learning, still listening, still feeling its way around in the modern world. It sucks you in but it also leaves you wondering whether it's always heading in the right direction. But, as I stand drinking no-nonsense Indian red wine at The Grand and feasting on lamb curry and dhal and spinach puri – all of the highest order – my eye is drawn again to the cabal of exporters talking with each other and working the room. Selling rice and making India rich is perhaps as much about what these guys are up to – and the spirit of the new India they sum up – as it is about the farmers growing the stuff and the chefs cooking it. As long as it's Indians making money for themselves rather than foreigners (remember India has been bled by different colonial powers for hundreds of years), well perhaps there's some hope for the future. Certainly there's no doubting that the product they're promoting tastes very good indeed.
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1 December 2011
By: Chris Beanland
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