Monday, May 12, 2008

Kanjikuzhy Leads the Way for Rural Kerala

Travels in Vasco da Gama Country --part two

By N P Chekkutty

IT WAS at Kanjikuzhy, a small village on the Alapuzha coast, that I met Saswathan, a 75- year-old farmer. We were on a mission to check out what goes on in villages as Kerala grappled with the difficult task of negotiating with forces of globalization and maintaining an egalitarian society that ensured minimum livelihood to its people. Kanjikuzhy is a panchayat on the Arabian Sea coast, tucked between Muhamma in south and Mararikkulam North in the north. It has a predominantly farming economy supported by other traditional trades like coir products. Most of the 1200-odd coir unit owners are part-time agriculturalists also. Kanjikuzhy, at the same time, is at the centre of new economic transformations that were brought in by globalization and its beaches are now booming health tourism spots and its coir products highly prized items exhibited in multinational retailing chains all over the world.

On the highway, we saw the decently decorated outlet run by the Kanjikuzhy Panchayat Primary Development Society (PDS) which displays all kinds of fruits, vegetables and other farm items besides a variety of coir products. The farm products are collected by the society from the village farmers who supply them on a regular basis. They get paid in cash and no middlemen are involved. Saswathan had come there to sell his vegetables. He looked happy as he got around Rs. 200 for the few items he had carried to the retailer in the off-season. He was one of the scores of farmers in the village who regularly sold produces in the PDS outlet, who accepted everything the peasants had to offer, even those items usually discarded when they sell to private businesses. Saswathan said the PDS outlet accepted not only banana, but its leaves and fiber too; besides all kinds of vegetables, coconut, melons, etc. The day’s fixed price is displayed on the board and there is down payment in cash.

Santhosh, a pleasant-looking young man in his early thirties, is the president of the primary development society (PDS) for vegetables and he gave an account of how they built it up and how it functions. The panchayat had only a few families in farming as it s a predominantly coastal region focusing on coir an cottage industries, and it was only a decade ago that they decided to attract youngsters into farming activities in a big way. They organized groups of farming communities in each ward and started planting seeds in leased lands. It was a political movement as the community leaders were worried about the way farming was becoming a “lost career” in Kerala.

It was a success, asserts Santhosh; and Saswathan agrees. Production started booming and then the question was how to sell all the vegetables and fruits they produced. It is a perishable item and traders used to undercut farmers when production was in plenty. In the past there were scores of small private vendors who used to set up their stalls on the highway, took the products from farmers at their own terms and the prices were fixed at their own convenience causing much hardship and losses to cultivators.

It was then the idea of marketing came in. Dr T M Thomas Isaac, now finance minister of Kerala, who represents Mararikulam which includes Kanjikuzhy in the Assembly, gave the lead by initiating and supporting the effort to organize what is now widely known as the Mararikkulam Marketing Company Ltd, a society registered for production and marketing of local items. They got support from UNDP and Union Government’s rural development ministry for developing infrastructure. Now the company has its own production units making a variety of items like jams, fruit juice, notebooks, soaps, umbrellas, pickles, fish and other marine products, coconut and coir products, etc. They employ a number of local people in various units, most of them women and their various products are marketed throughout the state in the ‘Mari’ brand-name.

I went to see Saswathan’s family, who lives a kilometer away from the PDS sales outlet. It is a small thatched house, and he lives there with his wife and younger son. He has three children and the eldest son is a toddy-tapper and he works a dozen coconut trees which gives him a daily income of around Rs. 400. He said toddy, the natural brew from coconut palms, is much in demand, and he works on his trees twice a day: in the mornings he brings the brew down as the earthen pot gets filled up in the night, and in the evenings, he has to work again tapping the tender leaves for excellent yield. “It is like milking a cow,” said Saswathan who also used to work as a toddy-tapper in his younger days.

Saswathan said he has been able to get a decent income from his two-acre plot in which he cultivates paddy, vegetables and bananas. He said he goes by the organic farming methods though when there is a severe attack of pests he has to apply chemical pesticides. For manure, most of the peasants here depend on natural sources like compost, ash, cow dung, etc.

The village has around 80 full-time farmers now and they are divided into various groups focusing on different farming operations. Paddy cultivation is carried out as a group activity as it helps them sort out the acute problem of labor shortage, as it is a labor intensive activity as the sowing and harvesting has to be done in a few days’ time based on the agricultural calendar. There are two types of paddy based on the time it takes to harvest; the virippu needs only four months to get ready for reaping, and the mundakan, a more hardened variety, would require ten months to mature. The self-help groups carry out the operations in unison and all members -- generally a group has 15 to 20 members-- are eligible for an equal share. All members have to take part in the operations and if anyone opts out they would have to pay a fine, said Santhosh.

The self-help method has taken deep roots in this village, with palpable impact on the lives of people here. Already there are as many as 242 self-help groups in this tiny village: 36 in coir, the most important activity in this coastal village, paddy-16, floriculture- nine, coconut 11 and the rest in a variety of other activities in trade, industrial production, etc. Since the PDS sales outlets were opened in February, 2007 with a view to help producers get maximum income and keeping middlemen out, the private vendors have practically gone out of business.

The elimination of middlemen who were fleecing the producers had the greatest impact on the coir sector. In this village almost all houses has a coir-making machine, locally known as thari, which produces various kinds of coir products like yarn, mats, carpets, packing materials, etc. Women and children work on the machines in their spare time and men also help them out. But the coir products are generally exported and the business was monopolized by a group of firms known as depots who were private outlets who used to collect these items from the small manufacturers and supplied them to exporters. Four years ago the struggle against this exploitation reached a critical stage when Dr Thomas Isaac and others launched the coir PDS which took over the collection of coir items for a more transparent business model. Dr Thomas Isaac said the Coir PDS, which started its operations in 2003, had done a business of over Rs. 22 crore, which meant that more than Rs. 2 crore was additionally made available to the producers as the middlemen used to take ten percent of the proceeds. In fact the struggle against the strangle-hold of the depots who controlled the coir trade was a long and difficult one. Almost all the small producers were indebted to them as most had taken money as advance, and then the struggle had to be waged on a global level with direct communication to the global outlets and consumers groups, through a campaign over the internet about how the original producers are being fleeced by middlemen. That had a great impact as the exporters, under pressure, started negotiating with the small producers through the PDS in coir sector, said Dr. Isaac.

As a people’s initiative, Mararikulam experiment is a grand success. However, it depends on the volunteers who are dedicated to a political and social cause. Jalaja, the block panchayat president, and Santhosh, who heads a successful PDS, are examples of the selfless volunteers who are leading these efforts. But it is an island of hope in a sea of desperation, as in most other panchayats in the district the Mararikkulam example is not being followed. The reason is a lack of leadership and enthusiasm.

Can’t you convert this into a professionally run business, I asked Santhosh. He said it would be disastrous. The Mararikkulam example is strong because of its political content. Once a bureaucratic setup comes into place, this unique experiment would simply go astray, he feared.

Mararikkulam looks like a promising example for the people everywhere to emulate, provided they have such an excellent leadership as this village has. But that is not the case everywhere and in most places even local politicians seem to be working as agents of the big money business in their effort to grab lands and farms. Still, there are efforts to copy the Kanjikuzhy model and in the neighbourhood panchayats of Muhamma, Aryad etc, are setting up similar groups, mainly in the coir sector.

(This is the second of a three-part series on Kerala. for part one see blog archive, February 2008. The final part will examine the impact of global economy in the cash crops in the Kerala interior.)

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