In a comprehensive report about Kerala’s struggle to restore its once fertile paddy fields, which were lying fallow till a few years back, People’s Archive for Rural India (PARI) explore the reasons for steady shrinking of paddy fields. The report suggests the growth of cash crops, proliferation of real estate interests and lack of competent work force discouraged farmers from paddy cultivation.
The area of Paddy cultivation plunged into a mere 6.63% of Kerala’s total cropped area in 2016-17, from an all time high of 32% in the 1980s, points the report. According the Economic Review, 2016, of the State Planning Board, the area planted with paddy came down to 1.96 lakh hectares in 2015-16 from 8.82 lakh hectares in 1974-75.
Eventually farmers switched to more profitable cash crops like rubber, pepper, coconut, cardamom, tea and coffee, which constituted 62% of Kerala’s total cultivated area in 2015-16, according to the 2016 Economic Review. On the other hand, food crops like rice, tapioca, and pulses accounted for just 10.21% of the total cultivated area in the same period.
The production if rice has declined from a peak of 13.76 lakh metric tonnes in 1972-73, says the Economic Review, to 5.49 lakh metric tonnes in 2015-16, which was so inadequate that it cannot meet even one-fifth of the state’s requirement.
Then, ten years ago, the government was pressured to pass the Kerala Conservation of Paddy and Wetlands Act, 2008, by several people’s movements and activists across the state to protect wetlands and water resources, The law made it a non-bailable offense to reclaim or convert paddy farms and wetlands.
In 2010, the government accelerated efforts to retrieve lost paddy fields by incorporating local self governments and self help groups. It also encouraged farmers to cultivate on barren land by giving incentives and subsidies. To address the threat of land usurpation, the local panchayats played mediators between farmers and owners of fallow lands.
To meet the demand for labour, the panchayat often employs MGNREGA workers from within Kerala for fallow land cultivation. With the Kudumbashree collective, which has a statewide network of 4.3 million women, joined hands with local self governments’ efforts, the state is on a successful path in its crusade to recover the paddy cultivation.
Before concluding on a positive note regarding the future of paddy cultivation in Kerala, the report also sheds light on the uncertainties of disagreements between farmers and the agents of mill owners over the quality of the produce and long delays from the time of the harvest to its procurement.