Mumbai: Kurukkupotta Kandai Vasu’s family has grown rice in Kerala for four generations. Now, the 62- year-old farmer buys the food staple in his local store.
When the annual monsoon rains reach the country’s southernmost state this week, Vasu will sit out the planting season because he can’t recoup the cost of fertilizer, seeds and pesticides.
“The cost of cultivation has more than doubled, but the yield has only fallen,” said Vasu, pointing at his barren paddy field below a green hill near Mundur village.
With the cost on paddy cultivation increasing, farmers such as Kurukkupotta Kandai Vasu are shifting to rubber plantation. Rice production has almost halved since 1980 in the state (Photo by: Prashanth Vishwanathan / Bloomberg)
“There’s a shortage of rice globally, and the government is finding it difficult to supply enough rice to people at a reasonable price.”
To ensure it can feed India’s 600 million poor, the government banned rice exports on 1 April, contributing to a shortage in the world market that drove the price of the grain to a record high last month and sparked food riots from Haiti to Egypt.
The curb caused local prices to lag behind the international increase, encouraging Vasu and other growers to switch to more lucrative crops and further reducing supply.
“Paddy cultivation today is a complete loss for the farmers,” said K.A. Jayachandran, 64, who advises farmers on growing and cultivation techniques at the Integrated Rural Technology Centre, a non-government organization. “If the farmer doesn’t make money in one season, then he’s ruined.”
The area growing rice in Kerala has fallen to 276,000ha in 2006 from 801,700ha in 1980, according to the state’s Planning Board. Production almost halved to 630,000 tonnes from 1.27 million tonnes during the same period. The price of rough rice has almost tripled in the past two years, reaching a record $25.07 (Rs1,075) a 100 pounds (around 45kg) on 24 April on the Chicago Board of Trade.
In India, rice sells for Rs18 a kg at local markets, and government-run stores distribute it to the poor for a sixth of that price.
To make ends meet, Vasu and his two brothers have devoted one-fifth of their 20acre plot to vegetables to feed their family, and reckon they can double the Rs10,000 they earned from 1acre of paddy by planting natural rubber.
Rubber prices rose to a record Rs123 a kg in Kerala after crude oil prices more than doubled in a year, according to Rubber Board, the government trade promotion body.
The state accounts for more than 90% of the natural rubber produced in India, the world’s fourth biggest grower.
The tropical climate in Kerala is ideal for rubber, helping growers achieve an average yield of 1,879kg a ha, the highest in the world. The area producing rubber has almost doubled to 494,400ha during the past 25 years, according to the Planning Board. Still, government curbs on converting paddy land for cash crops are forcing farmers to hold back.
Since 2002, the state government has required paddy farmers to obtain permission to put their farmland to other uses, though construction of houses is permitted in small plots.
The prospect of spending six months of the year knee-deep in brown paddy water for scant reward is encouraging rice farmers to abandon their land. About 2.5 million people, or a 10th of the state’s population, work in West Asia, where they help build apartments, hotels and offices.
The exodus has led to a tripling of wages for day labourers who stayed behind, and fuelled a building boom on drained paddy fields as engineers, surveyors and construction workers send money back.
At least 60% of the land traditionally used for rice in the Palakkad district, about 110km north-east of Kochi, Kerala’s largest city, has been lost to other crops and to the construction of homes, villas and shopping malls, said Jayachandran.
The share of agricultural land devoted to food crops, including rice, fell to 12.5% in the year ended March 2006, from 37.5% in 1981.
“The younger generation no longer wants to dirty his feet and hands working in paddy fields,” says Jayachandran. “He prefers a job in a factory or a shop.”
Vasu may well be the last rice farmer in his family. His 29-year-old son, who earned a diploma in electronics engineering, works in a cement company.
Still, Vasu said he could be tempted to resume rice farming if the government increased subsidies above the Rs160 an acre it pays, and provided cheaper fertilizer and pesticides.
“Rice is close to our heart,” Vasu said. “But we need to be practical.”