Thursday, April 17, 2008

Food Crisis Hits Kerala: A Summer of Discontent in God's Own Country

Facing an acute food crisis, Kerala seeks higher rice quota for its public distribution system, but the Union Government refuses to budge.

SUMMER IS the festival season in Kerala. As April comes with its scorching heat and the ripening fruits, farmers are busy harvesting paddy in what is known as puncha season and by the time Vishu celebrations arrive by the middle of the month, granaries are full and every face radiant with a happy smile…

Well, to set the record straight, this is how it used to be, when the summer harvest festival is celebrated on the day of Utharayanam, or the northern solstice, the day sun starts moving to the northern hemisphere.

But this season, instead of celebrations what one comes across is the heart breaking stories of farmers committing suicide, even as the paddy in their fields, ripe for reaping, remain uncut. In the past three weeks there were three reports of rice cultivators taking their life in various parts of Kuttanadu and Kottayam, the two main rice growing areas in southern Kerala, where an unprecedented crisis has gripped the farm sector. Simply put, it is a crisis of shortage of man-power to carry out the farming operations of harvesting and threshing on a time-bound basis as they need to be completed before the summer rains hit, on the one hand; and the unwillingness of the farm workers and their powerful trade-unions to allow the machines to take over, taking into consideration the potentially huge losses faced by farmers.

Farmers in south Kerala say the 83-year old Eeeravettikkttu John, who hanged himself on April 5 as he failed to harvest his paddy, had faced immense financial losses as most of his crop remained in the fields. Earlier, two others also had committed suicide in the same area where the harvesting should have been completed weeks ago. Now what remain in the fields are broken stacks of paddy, most of the grain lost and destroyed in untimely rains. Even the hay appears to be useless, unfit as cattle-feed.

The present tragedy of farmers in Kuttanadu is a man-made tragedy. It is one of the most fertile areas for rice cultivation and the yield is excellent and one can go up to three plantings a year. Around 30,000 hectares were sown in Kuttanadu this summer harvest season and as rice cultivation is a time-bound, labour intensive operation, shortage of labor has always been a big issue. The farm-hands are well organized and they are politically active as the heirs of many revolutionary struggles from the days of Punnapra-Vayalar uprisings in the forties that gave deep roots to Communist party in these farming regions.

In those revolutionary days, workers and peasants marched together, but now they are finding themselves at loggerheads. The area under rice cultivation has been going down alarmingly, making cultivation a loss-making affair, and the number of active farm-hands has also dropped much faster. The result is acute shortage of farm-hands in the peak season, making use of machines inevitable. But the farm hands’ unions refuse to accept it and insist that they should have a monopoly on all farm operations. They say they were not opposed to the use of machines per se, they cold be used in emergency situations, but they insist that such use should be cleared by their unions to avoid job loss. It means that every farmer, in case he finds no farm-hands to work his farms, has to apply to the trade unions for permission to bring in machines.

As usual this year too there were disputes and haggling over the permission to import machines into Kuttanadu, the farmers insisting on their use and labor unions refusing to accept their demands. Every year it is a committee chaired by the district collector which
settles these disputes and finds a solution to avoid crop loss.

But this year rains came a few weeks early and that unsettled every calculation. Thousands of hectares of ripe paddy remained in the fields and were completely destroyed. According to the State Government, the total loss of crops could be around 30,000 hectares all over the State, the deadliest hit coming to Kuttanadu, Kottayam region. The total losses, according to figures submitted by the State to the Central Government, were around Rs. 200 crore.

The government swung into action, but quite late. The authorities made every effort to bring in harvesting and threshing machines to Kuttanadu from Tamil Nadu in the past few weeks, but most of the machines are now busily engaged in fields of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where it is the peak of harvesting season.

As frantic calls were made to Tamil Nadu for more machines to be made available for Kerala, the machine owners there refused to oblige. They said when they had sent machines weeks ago, they were stopped and sent back by the unions in Kuttanadu. “Why should we sent the machines there when we have much work here itself and also in other states,” they ask.

But the pro-CPM farm-hands’ union, KSKTU (Kerala State Karshaka Thozhilali Union) refused to accept responsibility. “We have not stopped any machine coming here,” said KSKTU state secretary C K P Padmanabhan. He, however, accepted that there may be some stray cases where such incidents had taken place as farmers forcibly brought machines to deny work to farm hands.

“There is a clear calendar for sowing and harvesting which has been in practice for so many generations,” said K P Devadas, an expert on Kerala’s farming calendar and weather cycles, who pointed out that as the monsoon hits Kerala first, it has to sow first and reap first. Once this calendar is upset, the entire farming operations could be upset. He felt it was wrong to accuse the early rains for this season’s tragedy as summer rains, quite unpredictable by nature, were experienced even by mid-March even in recent past.

The cycle of accusations and counter-accusations continue unabated, even as the rice production in the state goes down in an alarming manner. According to the State Department of Economics and Statistics, there has been a drastic decline in both area under rice cultivation and its annual production. According to the recent figures announced by the Government, the drop in area under rice cultivation was a whopping 63 per cent in a 44- year period from 1961-02 to 2005-06. The rice production which stood at 13.40 tonnes in 1981-82 had gone down to 6.30 tonnes by 2005-06, registering a decline of around 50 per cent in 24 years.

Still, demand for rice keeps rising as rice is the staple food for Malayalees. The present annual demand is to the tune of three million tonnes a year and as the rice supply has declined from its own fields, the state has been depending largely on imports from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and other states. Now the Central Government has reduced its rice quota by around 80 percent owing to poor off-take from PDS. With the steep rice in food prices in markets all over the world, the price of rice a kg has shot up from Rs. 14 a few months ago, to Rs. 21, sending alarm signals.

Then came the statement from Kerala’s Food Minister, CPI’s C Divakaran: “The shortage of rice is going to be a perennial problem. So why not think of changing our food habits”, he said and suggested meat and eggs as an alternative. As the CPI leader found himself at the receiving end for his innovative suggestion, some commentators even comparing him to Marie Antoinette, the French queen who wondered why people can’t take cakes if bread was not available, beat a hasty retreat and blamed the Centre for causing the shortage.

The saddest part of the events of this summer of discontent in Kerala is that all these years, farmer suicides were confined to its eastern hill belt, where cash crops, mainly dependent on the global market are grown, is now spreading to other parts too. Rice had been a stable crop, though with reduced income for farmers, but there has never been any case of rice growers taking the extreme step. Now in a tragic turn of events, even Kuttanadu, the rice bowl of Kerala, joins the trail of farmer suicides that link the entire rural India, in a sordid drama of unhappy peasant lives.

1 comment:

Chovakaran Azeez said...

Dear Chekutty,

I got your mails in January and March. Sorry I couldn't respond so far.
Let me express my opinion about the latest posting about food crisis in Kerala. It's well presented. We are all very much concerned about the issue. These ministers including C.M are not experienced. They do not know how to tackle difficult situations.
See what is happening in Kasargod..earlier Tellicherry ..and how they handled farmer's problem in Kuttanadu and Chengara issue. These rulers will issue foolish statements even if Chala bazar of TVM or Big bazar of Calicut is closed owing to accute shortage of food items. If Karnataka, Tamil nadu and Andhra pradesh can sell rice at Rs.2 per kG Why not Kerala Government?
Earlier, We heard farmers suicide stories from Wayand district only.
Now poor farmers of Kottayam and Aleppy follows the same track.
We, the Expatrite Keralites in Gulf countries pay more for Rice, fruits and vegetables imported from Kerala. When Compared to price levels in 2001, the hike ranges from 25 to 50 percent. Then why does the Kerala farmer commits suicides? Who gets the benefits of steep increase in prices of agricultural products