Friday, April 25, 2008

Raindrop Tears

Problem Of Plenty
  • Standing paddy across 10,000 hectares have been destroyed by unseasonal rains. No labour was in supply to harvest the crop in time.
  • Mechanical harvesters couldn't be used since the CPI(M)'s union refused to give timely permission
  • It requires union consent for Kerala farmers to bring in labour from outside or use machines
  • Five farmer suicides in the last fortnight. Drastic fall in the acreage under paddy cultivation of late.
  • Annual rice requirement: 40 lakh tonnes. Production: 6.41 lakh tonnes.


Summer has never been so harsh on the hard-toiling farmers of Kuttanad, the rice bowl of Kerala.

The profit from farming at best totals Rs 13,000 per acre. Labour accounts for two-third the expense.

Acre upon acre of unharvested, standing crop meets the eye as you traverse this 500 sq km, low-lying paddy belt in the coastal Alappuzha district. Unlike the usual story of the debt-stressed farmer taking his life, in Kuttanad much of the tragedy owes to the fact that the
standing crop couldn't be harvested due to labour shortage. Farmers who pressed the alarm bells when unseasonal rains lashed the region and tried to bring in harvester machines were allegedly refused permission by the militant pro-CPI(M) farm labour outfit, Kerala State Karshaka Thozhilali Union (KSKTU).

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.

The series of events leading up to the suicides are just the latest pages in the long chapter of farm woes in Kerala. More than 500 farmers have died in the state since 2001. In the last 25 years, 5.25 lakh hectares of farm land have been filled up for real estate and other ventures. The total area under paddy has come down from 8 lakh hectares in the 1970s to 2.64 lakh hectares. Against the annual requirement of 40 lakh tonnes of rice, Kerala produces only 6.41 lakh tonnes.

Farming has become a risky proposition. Leasing an acre of land costs Rs 22,000. If the harvest is good, the income is Rs 35,000. The profit after computing costs at best comes to Rs 13,000, which is far less than what a farm hand gets for his labour. Roughly 60 to 74 per cent of the expense is on labour.

The state government is facing a dilemma. While farmers increasingly leave the land fallow, unable to bear rising costs of cultivation, a food crisis is in the offing. Kuttanad's farmers are left to the mercy of the state and central governments. The other day, a rare multi-party delegation led by Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan and Opposition leader Chandy returned empty-handed after petitioning Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for a Rs 1,440 crore for the Kuttanad region.

Ironically, Kuttanad, with a population of 1.8 million, stands on edge of the Vembanad lake on which Kerala's backwater tourism thrives. The green country their boats wind through betrays no trouble on the surface. But with the government loyal only to unions, tragedy is never too far from those farms.


arun said...

what is cause for the shortage of farmers in kuttanad? There were news regarding difference in the wage rates due to NREGA, paddy harvesters earned less than NREGA jobs.

Centre for Public Policy Research said...

I dont support NREGA scheme much as it has already been discussed in one of the previous post of the blog. In Kuttanad, the issue cannot be NREGA since NREGA is a recent scheme and it was implemented only in one district in Kerala and that was not Allapuzha.

Here the issues are

1. lack of interest from the owners of the land because it has not been a income generating exercise for them.

2. the wages are high but the productivity is not matching with them

3. there is no machanisation for harvesting process.

4. of course, environmental destruction