Kochi: Kerala’s rice bowl of Kuttanad has received a double boost—the Union government’s tentative approval for a Rs1,840 crore package to develop agriculture in the region and the passage of the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Bill by the state assembly.
But questions still persist about the viability of rice farming itself in the face of pressure on land for housing amid a real estate boom, the shift of farmers to more lucrative cash crops such as rubber, lack of enough farm hands and land fragmentation.
The area under rice cultivation in Kerala has shrunk to around 275,000ha from more than 800,000ha at its peak, while output of the grain has halved to 630,000 tonnes.
Helping hand: The plan will enable about 55,000ha, spread over three districts, to be brought under a special agricultural zone. (Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP)
The agriculture package to boost rice production in Kuttanad, in the district of Alappuzha, was proposed a year ago by farm scientist M.S. Swaminathan, known as the father of Green Revolution that made India self-sufficient in food in the 1970s.
The Centre, which has also announced a Rs50 crore fund, will disburse the money over three years after the state government submits a plan on the projects it will undertake.
The Kerala government is readying the projects to be implemented under the plan, says Mullakkara Ratnakaran, the state agriculture minister, adding that there is no clarity yet on the exact Central component of the funding.
The plan’s focus is on the restoration of ecology and ensuring a sustainable livelihood for the farmers of Kuttanad, according to Thomas P., a priest and executive director of Kuttanad Vikasana Samithi, a non-profit organization that works for the development of the area and has 15,000 farmers as members.
The plan will enable about 55,000ha of land, spread over the three districts of Alappuzha and adjoining Kottayam and Pathanamthitta, to be brought under a special agricultural zone and help the state government reinforce food security with Central funds.
It will also enable greater mechanization of agriculture with the use of combined harvesters, tractors and tillers, and the strengthening of vulnerable dams and canals.
“Since there is opposition to these machines by agriculture labourers, it has to be ensured that these machines are owned by them,” Thomas adds.
The Bill to promote the conservation of paddy land and wetland provides for a three-year jail term and penalties ranging from Rs50,000 to Rs1 lakh on those diverting land under rice cultivation to other uses.
It also contains a provision for incentives to rice farmers, who stand to earn a bonus of Rs10,000 per acre (0.4ha).
But farmer R.N. Ramakrishnan of Palakkad district says that the viability of growing rice itself is in doubt.
The average age of rice growers in Kuttanad is around 55 and most of their children have moved into other, more lucrative employment, he says, and the Bill contains nothing to ensure that rice cultivation will be continued, he says.
“Presently, the income for a paddy farmer from an acre of paddy field can at the most be up to Rs8,000,” says Ramakrishnan.
“And this is much less than what a government employee gets, leave alone more lucrative employment in private establishments.”
“There is need to ensure that paddy cultivation is also lucrative,” he adds. “But in the present circumstances, this is impossible.”
The Bill may have come too late, says P.B. Sahasranamam, a Kochi-based lawyer, noting that rice fields are shrinking and parts of wetlands have already been encroached.