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DEVELOPMENT-INDIA: Reclaiming Land and Farmers for Rice Cultivation

K.S. Harikrishnan

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, Dec 15 2008 (IPS) - After achieving human development indices that approach developed country standards, people living on this verdant strip facing the Arabian sea are attempting a ‘back-to-basics’ return to paddy cultivation.

Kerala's 'rice bowl' of Kuttanad. Credit: K.S. Harikrishnan/IPS

Kerala's 'rice bowl' of Kuttanad. Credit: K.S. Harikrishnan/IPS

The state government’s ‘’Ellavarum Padathekku’’ (Everyone to the paddy field) movement seeks to rehabilitate rice cultivation, once the symbol of prosperity in the state, and bring down the bill for imports of the staple from other parts of the country-now standing at 800 million US dollars annually.

Paddy cultivation in Kerala is set in a unique, natural ecosystem, bounded by coastal plains and backwaters on one side and high mountains of the Western Ghats on the other.

Following the natural contours of the terrain, the people of the state have, over the centuries, evolved different varieties that are suitable for backwater paddy cultivation, salt-resistant varieties that alternate with prawn culture and those that can be grown in the cool, high ranges.

Several factors have been cited for the steady decline of paddy cultivation in Kerala, starting with high wages that resulted from an increase in the bargaining capacity of workers through the formation of strong labour unions and rule by communist parties that implemented the most successful land reforms in the country.

The former tenants quickly converted their new assets into improving education for their children that helped them abandon farming and take up white-collar jobs. Many built houses on their plots or took to growing cash crops.

Where Kerala had 900,000 hectares under paddy in 1970, it now has no more than 250,000 ha. Consequently, rice production dropped from 1.4 million tonnes in 1970 to about 700,000 tonnes against a demand of around four million tonnes.

"Paddy cultivation has over the years become non-remunerative,’’ says Sridhar Pillai, an agriculturalist in Moovattupuzha, a major rice growing area. ‘’For many reasons, both scientific as well as socio-economic, paddy cultivation had lost its glory and the number of people fully engaged in its cultivation has dropped to 300,000 in a population of 32 million people.’’

Conversion of paddy lands to other uses was most marked during the 1980s when the price of rice crashed and the value of land began to rise in this thickly populated state. ‘’People simply gave up cultivation of paddy,’’ said R. Heli, a well-known agricultural scientist.

Finally, in July, the state government passed legislation prohibiting the conversion of paddy lands, prescribing heavy fines and even imprisonment for up to three years for farmers and officials found violating the law.

But, the new law had no impact on improving the profitability of rice cultivation and farmers currently have to bear with annual production costs estimated at Rs 25,000 (521 US dollars) per hectare and the vagaries of the market.

Insufficient monsoon rain, attributed to climate change, and the drying up of ponds and streams near the cultivating areas have worsened the situation. According to Heli and other experts, only integrated networking of farmers, scientists, markets and government can now salvage paddy cultivation in Kerala.

A study conducted by a group of scientists from Central Plantation Crops Research Institute at Kasargode said: ‘’Paddy cultivation is declining due to non-remunerative returns owing to high cost of labour combined with poor productivity. Analysis of problem-cause relationship through farmer participatory approach revealed that low profitability was mainly due to the reasons of unavailability of quality seed, imbalanced use of fertilisers, improper plant protection measures, weed menace and high labour cost."

Environmentalists have their own fears. The rapid conversion of paddy lands, which served as natural drainage system, are beginning to disturb the ecological balance, as is already visible in the gradual disappearance of frogs, crabs, lobsters, worms and small fishes.

According to well-known environmental activist P. Gopakumar, conversion of paddies was the biggest threat to Kerala’s environment. ‘’Farmers, knowingly or unknowingly, distort the rhythm of nature, inviting serious calamities such as flood and drought. By converting paddy land into cash crop farms, they kill a host of living creatures and minute plants which determine balance of environment.’’

After studying the problems of the Kuttanad area – once known as the rice bowl of Kerala – M.S. Swaminathan, an internationally respected agricultural scientist, suggested that the minimum support price be announced at the time of sowing and remunerative procurement prices offered at harvest based on market prices.

While the government’s procurement price is Rs 10 (two cents) per kg, farmers are often forced to sell to traders – mostly mill owners who have been entrusted with the job – at about half that price, while the grain cannot be got in the open market for less than Rs 20 (four cents) per kg.

When it comes to subsidies, paddy cultivation has suffered from step-motherly treatment. The annual production incentive for paddy stands at Rs 350 (7.2 US dollars) per hectare against cash crops like banana that get Rs 7,500 (156 dollars) per hectare.

In contrast, rubber and cardamom benefit from annual central government subsidies worth 415 and 830 dollars respectively because, unlike paddy, they are considered to be important, commercially valuable commodities.

Agriculture minister Mullakkara Rathnakaran admits that the cash subsidies for paddy are low. But he says that under the state’s new drive, begun more than a year ago, 11,500 ha of fallow land have been brought under paddy cultivation with farmers being provided interest-free loans, free electricity and even crop insurance.

Following recommendations made at Food and Agriculture Organisation’s ‘high-level conference’ at Rome in June, Local Self-Government Institutions (LSGIs) launched a paddy cultivation drive by making use of development funds, including funds earmarked for the centrally-sponsored National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme on 10,000 acres of farmland.

LSGIs were told to procure quality seeds locally and avail of a newly intorduced 100 percent subsidy on seeds and 50 percent on fertilisers and pesticides.

Commenting on the LSGIs’ intervention to contain rice shortages, S.K. Suresh, organising secretary of Indian Agricultural Association, told IPS that Kerala had adopted the new intensive paddy cultivation drive only as a reaction to rising demand and that food security for the future remains unaddressed.

‘’Current high food prices have hit the poor hardest, particularly urban food buyers and rural non-producers,’’ Suresh said. ‘’The way to address rising food prices is by freeing up the productive capacity of farmers and giving them incentives in the way that developed countries like Japan are doing.’’

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