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On the trail of giant tubers in South Kannada

Shree Padre, Joida (Karnataka)

Published: Nov. 26, 2015
Updated: Dec. 05, 2016

Joida taluk in Uttara Kannada is so remote and badly connected that the local Kunbi tribals trudge 20 km and sometimes even 50 km just to catch a bus. Joida mostly has no transport, no electricity, no hospital and no mobile network. Seriously ill people have to be wrapped in a sheet and carried to the nearest town. If, by a stroke of luck, a bus turns up, it may be possible to arrive at a hospital in time.   

But if you think Joida should be written off, think again. Remote and backward it may be, but in recent times it has found a place on the country’s agricultural map. Cut off from the rest of India, the Kunbis have been growing an amazing variety of tubers organically. Their main tuber, is the big taro  (Colocasia esculenta), which grows to the average height of a man. Agricultural scientists are now trying to gauge if the Kunbi taro is distinct. If yes, the Kunbis can apply for geographical indication.

The Kunbi tubers caught the attention of Balachandra Hegde Sayimane, a farmer and forestry researcher who works as a coordinator with SWIFT (Sahyadri Wildlife and Forest Conservation Trust) in Nilkund. He was researching non-timber forest produce and had to stay overnight at a remote Kunbi village.

“I couldn’t escape the sight of tubers in all the houses I went to. I realised that tubers play a very important role in the lives of the Kunbis. The only money they earn is by migrating to Goa to work as farm labour. It struck me: can we help them earn a good income from tubers? They won’t need to migrate then. ”

Sayimane organised a one-day Tuber Fair at Joida on 19 November and invited a five-member team of agricultural scientists from the Central Tuber Crops Research Institute (CTCRI) in Thiruvananthapuram.

Dr S. Ramanathan, who headed the team, spent a day studying the Kunbi tubers. He and other scientists are excited by what they have found.

“We have already drawn up an action plan,” says Dr Ramanathan, who is Principal Scientist at the CTCRI. “We will make arrangements to grow some of our varieties in Joida on a trial basis. We will also arrange for some taro samples to be taken to our centre where we will explore the possibility of producing flour.”

He says the productivity of existing tubers could be boosted and varieties like the orange-fleshed sweet potato, elephant foot yam, white yam and arrowroot could be introduced.

For many of India’s poorest farmers and tribal communities, tubers and roots are an important source of nutrition. They are easy to grow, thrive in a variety of soils and are relatively free of pests. But their status is rather low.

“They are orphaned,” says Dr Ramanathan. “There are no special programmes for tubers. Importance is given to cereals, pulses, oilseeds, cotton and sugarcane. Kerala is the only state to have recently started a tuber crop development programme.”

Dr Ramanathan warns that with climate change, productivity of food crops will decline. “But tubers can withstand fluctuating weather conditions to some extent. That is why they are projected as food security crops.”   


Eighty farmers brought samples of their tubers to the tuber fair. The big taro was the star attraction. A husband-wife team rustled up taro cutlets with honey, chutney and a variety of other tubers. It was relished. Prizes were given for the best taro, the farm with the highest diversity and so on. At the end of the day, the tubers had sold out. The total income generated was as much as around  Rs 1.80 lakh in just one day.

“We weren’t aware at all that these tubers we grow have a good market. Now that we know, we would like to increase their yield,” remarked Devidas M. Velip, Taluk President of the Kunbi Samaj.     

The CTCRI scientists made presentations on tuber cultivation, its potential, value-added products, new tuber varieties and so on. Samples of value-added products were exhibited. There was also a discussion on how to help the Kunbis increase their income from tuber cultivation.

The tuber fair was part of a programme to improve livelihood security in the Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), New Delhi, funded it.

It is Kunbi women who mostly cultivate the tubers and sell them. They rely on the men for arduous tasks like digging. The women keep the money they earn for their children’s education.

Seven types of curries are made from the big taro: pana, ate, komb, sambar, kulya kadi (with crabs), sumda kadi (with prawns), kapa (steamed with rice batter). Kona payas, made from dioscorea tubers, is a popular kheer-like dessert.

Other main tubers that are grown include greater yams (Dioscorea alata) and lesser yams (Dioscorea esculenta). A few families grow tannia (Xanthosoma fagitifolia) and Chinese potato (Plectranthus rotundifolius). Around 15 to 20 varieties of tubers are grown.  Unlike other tribals, who collect wild tubers from the forest, the Kunbis cultivate theirs.

The Kunbis practise a ritual called Naye when they offer their new tuber crop to God Janmi the day after Ganesh Chaturthi. No family uses the tuber before conducting this ritual. Mirashi, their community leader, has to visit each house to conduct this offering. In fact, since Mirashi couldn’t find time to conduct this ritual, about 50 households that were interested in bringing their tubers to the tuber fair couldn’t do so!


But in Joida the biggest roadblock the Kunbis face in marketing their tubers is chronic underdevelopment.

Neelakantha Nayak, 59, a runner or delivery agent for Karnataka’s postal department, started his career 36 years ago. Till date, he is the only link between Joida’s remote villages and the rest of the world. 

For two decades, there were no roads to his office – the Karamjoida branch post office. He had to walk for 20 km. “Many times, I encountered bears, wild wild boar and bison. After 5 pm tigers roamed in the area. It was frightening but what could I do?”

Once roads were built, Nayak bought a bicycle. Now he rides a motorcycle. But Joida’s progress has been very slow and halting. Fourteen villages don’t even have a path a motorcycle can navigate. Education and health facilities lag for 18,000 out of the 20,000-strong Kunbi community. The total population of the taluk is 50,000.

How much Kunbis earn by selling tubers depends on how far they are located from the bus service.

Rukmini Vithoba Gowda of Pattegali grows 14 varieties of tubers. Since she lives on the periphery of the Kunbi settlement, she has one great advantage – bus connectivity. During the harvest season from November to December, she takes her tubers to Joida’s weekly market. She earns Rs 9,000 a year. From November to June she cooks a tuber dish almost every day.

Sumitra Krishna Velip lives in Malkarni. The bus service is only seven km away. She grows seven varieties of tubers on half an acre. If she gets a low price for her produce at the Joida market, she travels to distant Ramanagar. Her annual income from tubers is about Rs 50,000. “We produce more for the market than for ourselves,” she says.

But most Kunbi households aren’t so lucky. Only 10 per cent can hope to find a bus after walking for an hour. For the rest, selling their tubers is tough. So they grow only as much as the family can consume. 

Families that are close to Goa grow more tubers since they have a ready market in the state. Goa prices for tubers are higher. The big taro, called maddi in Konkani, is much sought-after by the Gowda Saraswath Brahmin community.

Vani Pai, a Gowda Saraswath Brahmin, says: “We believe that the taro has to be eaten at least once a year. Families that visit Goa always return with maddi tubers. Depending on the season and supply, one tuber costs between Rs 50 and Rs 100.”

Villages like Vagili, Bomdeli, Viral, Mayire and Pathagudi have no motorable roads. Though Goa is just 25 km away, these villages, once in a while, have to go to Joida town, which is 50 km away. “They start at 6 am with packed roti and curry. They reach Joida around 3 pm before the offices close. They are compelled to stay at some friend or relative’s home that night,” says Devidas Velip.

The Kunbi Samaj is now considering starting a tuber growers’ organisation. They will then be able to pool their produce and take it on a truck to Joida where they plan to open a sales centre. 


The Kunbis can also earn from tourism. The Kali Pravasodyama Sangha (KPS), which represents seven homestays and a nature resort, is keen to include tubers on its menu for tourists. Another four homestays will be starting in Joida taluk shortly. Some representatives of the KPS came to the tuber fair. “We are for sustainable and responsible tourism with social commitment,” said NR Hegde, President of KPS. “We are keen to promote tubers and create a market.”

After the tuber fair, the KPS organised a one-day workshop on how to cook tubers. Representatives from 15 homestays and resorts took part. Housewives and cooks from home-stays and resorts experimented with tubers and made paratha, holige, payasa, sasive and bomda. The recipes were shared. “It was good exposure,” remarked Hegde, “because none of the cooks had cooked so many tubers before.”

A poster with pictures of important tubers and their nutritional values will be exhibited in all homestays and resorts. Narasimha Chchapakhanda, a member of SWIFT and the owner of a resort, is planning to print a brochure and distribute it to homestays and shops that sell tubers. “Demand will grow once we start cooking tubers for guests. We will make tubers available in nearby shops to guests who want to try cooking tubers at home. This is how we successfully introduced jackfruit pappadams here.”


Cassava, potato and sweet potato rank among the top 10 food crops produced in developing countries. India’s most important tuber crop is cassava or tapioca. Originally from Brazil, it was introduced in Kerala in the 16th century by the Portuguese. In the 18th century, the Maharaja of Travancore, Vishakam Thirunal, popularised it and it became a substitute for rice for a while before being upended by rubber plantations.

Today, Tamil Nadu has the highest productivity of cassava in the world. The tuber is pampered with irrigation and fertiliser in the state. It is used as an industrial raw material both in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Different modified starches, liquid glucose, fructose and sago are extracted from cassava starch. Salem is the hub of the sago industry which is in high demand in Maharashtra - where it is cooked as a khichdi – Gujarat and West Bengal.

Andhra Pradesh and Odisha lead in cultivation of elephant foot yam. Baruahsagar, near Jhansi and Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh, are also tuber hotspots. More than 75 per cent of the area under sweet potato is in the east and Northeast. Productivity of sweet potato in India is lower than the rest of the world. Taro is grown along Andhra Pradesh’s coastal belt.

CTCRI is trying to promote cultivation of tubers. In partnership with the International Potato Centre, it is promoting the orange-fleshed sweet potato in Odisha.

Although it has as much beta carotene as a carrot, the orange sweet potato hasn’t been popular because of its taste. “But now we have developed varieties with good palatability,” says Dr Sheela MN, principal scientist and head, Division of Crop Improvement, CTCRI. “One tuber meets the Vitamin A requirement of a person. The FAO is recommending the orange sweet potato as a nutritional food security crop. It is a short-duration crop that can be grown in 120 days. We also have an 85-day duration crop called Sree Kanaka that has 8.8 mg of Vitamin A in 100 gm plus iron and zinc.” It is also low-glycemic and good for diabetics.

The orange sweet potato can be promoted for midday meals in schools, especially in tribal areas where there is Vitamin A deficiency. The MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is promoting the orange sweet potato in Odisha’s tribal belt.

“We are going to release two sweet potato varieties, SP 13 and 14. One is orange and the other is purple. Japan produces sweet potato juice and noodles made from tubers. We have made pasta from Dioscorea alata, the purple-coloured yam. In Rajahmundry the purple yam is being grown in a vast area. It is used for making chutneys and is exported to the Gulf. This yam has anti-cancer properties and is excellent for osteoporosis and rheumatism,” says Dr Sheela.

CTCRI has also developed two new varieties of cassava, Sree Atulya and Sree Apurva, for industrial use. “These have 30 per cent more extractable starch. We also have a mosaic resistant variety,” says Dr Sheela. In Brazil, cassava is consumed as a flour called farinha. CTCRI is likewise planning to convert cassava into flour.

CTCRI and other centres working on tubers have so far released more than 100 varieties of tubers. Gajendra, a non-acrid elephant foot yam developed by the Kovvur Station of All India Coordinated Project on Tuber Crops, is now popular throughout India.

Eventually, it is India’s small farmers who will find ways and means to mainstream tubers. Take Shanker Kishore Chaudhary, a farmer in Bihar who cultivates elephant foot yam or ool. He grows the crop on his own fields and on surrounding fields that he has rented.

“I normally harvest 50 to 60 tonnes from a hectare and earn a gross income of Rs 2 lakh in about 10 months,” he says. “Alongside I grow rajma, peas, bhindi and banana. Intercropping brings me a profit of some Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 per hectare.”

Chaudhury has developed more than 50 value-added products from elephant yam. Some years ago at the Sonepur Fair, he sold thousands of gulab jamuns and litti made from this yam. Chaudhary describes growing elephant foot yam as ‘tension-free farming’ – the tuber doesn’t require cold storage, there are no marketing problems and the income is always good.


SWIFT:        CTCRI: