|Problem Of Plenty |
***Summer has never been so harsh on the hard-toiling farmers of Kuttanad, the rice bowl of Kerala.
Perished paddy Result: 10,000 hectares of paddy fell to unseasonal rain between February and early March. This has spread gloom among the marginal farmers of the region. Valiyaparampil Gopi, 60, who had taken a loan of Rs 20,000, killed himself when he found he could not save his crops. It's another matter that he had been a CPI(M) branch secretary until 1991. He simply couldn't convince his comrades to provide him labour or a harvester. The CPI(M) initially contested the suicide theory, but withdrew when the agriculture department confirmed it. The last fortnight reported five similar suicides in the region. This is besides 14 farmers who died in the rains.
The case of Chettithodu Pushkaran, 69, is no different from that of Gopi. A former branch secretary of the Oorkari branch of the CPI(M), he also faced the same trauma of seeing his crop wasting in the rain as the KSKTU played truant. He consumed poison and died. Relations between farmers and labour have been tenuous over the years in Kuttanad. In spite of labour shortage, the mostly small and marginal farmers cannot freely hire harvesters. They have to get the nod from the pro-CPI(M) union before using the machines. But KSKTU leaders take time to decide whether to deploy from the labour pool or let farmers hire machines. This needless delay proved costly this time.
Says Fr Thomas Peelianikkal, the executive director of the Kuttanad Development Committee, an NGO: "Paddy sown in October-December was ready for harvest towards February after roughly 100 days of its growth cycle. Suddenly, the rains came. We sent an SOS to CPI(M) offices to allow us to bring harvesters from Tamil Nadu. Brawny commissars twisted their moustaches, and asked us to wait. We have lost an estimated Rs 60 crore worth of crops in just a fortnight." Peelianikkal led a group of volunteers, including fellow priests, to harvest whatever could be salvaged from the fields.
But why was it important to bring in harvesters? The logic is simple: if 10 farm hands require one day to harvest an acre, the harvester needs only one hour to do the same job. The rent per hour is Rs 1,500 while the wage for 10 workers a day is Rs 2,500 plus Rs 1,000 as tea allowance. During the 10 days between March 5 and 15, there were only 40 machines instead of 200 required for the harvesting.
|Points out former state chief minister Oommen Chandy, now leader of the Opposition: "If the pro-CPI(M) unions had not blocked farmers from hiring harvesters, much of the crops in Kuttanad could have been salvaged, and lives saved".|
But G. Sudhakaran, cooperation minister in the present Left Democratic Front government, doesn't agree. "If only Chandy and company had desisted from issuing threats and innuendos, the farmer-labour tussle would have resolved by itself. Instead, Chandy led an opposition rally in Kuttanad, upsetting the labour. Now, he is shedding crocodile tears for the farmers," he counters.
But it is not a straight case of farmer-labour standoff. Many erstwhile farm hands belonging to the CPI(M) are now members of farmer cooperatives, who borrow from banks to lease out farms. Their priority is to harvest their fields first, either by themselves, or use farm hands or the machines. Other farmers simply have to wait. KSKTU's leader C.K. Sadasivan, MLA, says there's never been a dearth of farm hands. Only that, perhaps in pockets, there might be a little supply-side shortage against unexpected rise in demand. He also denies that his union prevented any farmer from using harvesters although there is a complaint pending at the Kainadi police station in Kuttanad against local KSKTU leaders for blocking farmers who tried to press a harvester into service.
Samaritan’s act: Priests, volunteers harvest paddy in Kuttanad
The shortage of labour lent itself to telling photo-ops. Tiruvalla Bishop Thomas Mar Coorillos led volunteers of the Kerala Catholic Youth Movement to paddy fields left unharvested. While the bishop escaped harsh criticism from the Left unions for his bravado, Kerala Agriculture University Vice-Chancellor K.R. Viswambharan, who took a busload of students for a demonstration on harvesting, is in a spot. The cooperation minister has demanded his removal for subtly educating his students about the problem of labour shortage.