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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > September 20, 2008 > Land and Food Security in Kerala: The Issues are Much Bigger

Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 40

Land and Food Security in Kerala: The Issues are Much Bigger

Tuesday 23 September 2008, by K Saradamoni


Land and food security, these not difficult or confusing words attracted media attention for several weeks. That is currently subsided not because the problems are resolved, but newer and more catchy issues are cropping up almost daily to attract the media. There were inter-party differences especially between the major constituents of the Left Front, namely, the CPI-M and the CPI. Perhaps it is not yet time to say that everything is amicably settled .though there are media reports about an agreement to create a Rs 1312-crore plan for food security A ministerial committee with the Chief Minister as the chairman and the Agriculture Minister as the convenor will be responsible for the implementation of this plan. A sub-committee consisting of Ministers in charge of animal husbandry, local self government, irrigation, cooperation, finance, and fisheries will supervise the functioning of the scheme. This was announced by the spokesperson of the Left Front.

Declining Paddy Production

THE FAO has a specific definition for Food Security. It is not making available some amount of foodgrains, pulses or vegetables to the people. It is reaching a complete package of foodgrains, pulses, vegetables, fruits, milk and non-vegetarian items like eggs, meat etc in sufficient quantity to people to sustain their physical, mental and intellectual health. In that sense, a not-too-small section of the Kerala population, including those with economic ability, do not enjoy food security. We shall come to this later. Even if we consider only rice, Kerala was not self-sufficient in the recent past. With the formation of the State in the present form, the paddy growing belt of Nanjanad of the old Travancore went to Tamil Nadu as per the decision of the States Reorganisation Committee. The State today has two areas , Kuttanad in Alleppey district and Palghat, which were considered granaries. Besides this, there were paddy fields practically everywhere in the State. Whether we travelled by rail or road we could not escape the sight of coconut trees and long stretches of paddy fields. Today more than fifty per cent of the paddy fields have disappeared. That did not happen as a consequence of some natural calamity. Both the Left and Right fronts who ruled the State one after the other for fifty years have to bear the responsibility for this steady decline in paddy fields. Either they did not think it important to prevent it, or did not see what was happening or could not foresee the consequences. When the much applauded land reforms of Kerala were being initiated, many women and men gave evidence before the Select Committee. Some gave their views in writing. But what they, most of them owners of not too big holdings, expressed did not find place in the debates that followed in the legislature.

Relations Changed, Small Peasant Did Not Emerge

THE small State of Kerala did not have too many big landowners like the zamindars or landlords one could find in the neighbouring States of Tamil Nadu or Andhra and many North Indian States like Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal. By the time land reforms were introduced in the State land including paddy lands were in the hands of owners who had some amount of paddy and/or garden lands where coconut, mango, jack and several other trees, many kinds of yams and other vegetables grew in plenty. All these people were mainly the upper castes with some amount of economic stability. A section of them cultivated their land with the help of labourers, who were generally landless and many belonged to the old untouchable castes. But large numbers of these land owners gave their land to tenants who were from diffrerent castes excluding the highest. Some of the tenants owned some amount of land. They cultivated with or without the help of labourers. It was this group who mainly benefited from land reforms as they got ownership rights over the land they had cultivated as tenants. Prolonged struggles for fixity of tenure , non–eviction from land cultivated under tenancy had taken place in the three regions—Malabar, Cochin and Travancore—which together formed the State of Kerala. In many parts of the world, land reforms had benefited the small peasants who had an inbuilt love for the soil and its produce . This love of the earth is what we have seen in the Nobel Prize winning book, Good Earth. A strong, vibrant community of small peasants emerged in Japan, Korea, Malaysia etc.when land reforms were brought about.

Shift to Non-agricultural Work

KERALA’S experience was different. There is a view that it was the opening up of employment opportunities in the Gulf region that resulted in the exodus of workers from Kerala and the decline of agriculture. But I cannot fully agree with this view. When I was doing field work for a study of women and paddy cultivation in Palghat I found women labourers engaged in the various tasks like transplantaion, weeding and harvesting. Even the landlords who started to alienate paddy lands continued to cultivate sufficient paddy for their own use. But these were people who had income from non-agricultural occupations. They were the educated class, and the younger generation in such families was attracted to new jobs where the salaries were rising. The next two decades saw increasing jobs with higher and higher salaries in Kerala and outside including foreign countries. By this time big numbers of people with high levels of education and sometimes with several years of experience as doctors, engineers etc. had migrated to England, the USA and also to Australia. A smaller number of such people and a larger number of skilled workforce sought work in the Gulf countries. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the State Government appeared to have forgotten that employment generation should be a priority. True, the Central Government was also propagating the slogan of ‘self-employment’ in a big way absolving themselves of one of their primary responsibilities. The openings in the Gulf countries certainly helped the State from a major crisis.

But there were many aspirants who were cheated by recruiting agents and never left their villages. Many who reached those countries faced problems which perhaps are not fully known even now. At the same time they had an additional burden. The Middle East at that time had become a success story and as a result every person who went to these countries was expected to bring plenty of gold, money etc. Today there is a more realistic understanding of the situation of poor migrant workers in those countries

Demand for Land for Non-agricultural Purposes

AT the local level the booming building construction industry created opportnuities in a big way. Suddenly the demand for carpenters and masons, painters, plumbers, electricians and others rose and they received high wages. They were all not from the traditional castes. This turned land in a big way into a commodity which could be bought and sold. A new breed of people engaged in these transactions also emerged. They came to be called the real estate agents. Soon they came to be known as the land mafia, a new word in Malayalam. They were followed by the community of developers and builders. Naturally they needed sand, bricks, stones etc. in larger and larger quantities. All of them gave work to labourers, truck owners and drivers in the process causing much destruction to the natural setting. The natural hillocks have been erased in many places; sand was dug out from river beds and paddy fields. Such atrocities in a big way, often illegally, have become common news. Sadly this happened while Laurie Baker, the Scotsman, lived and worked here trying to propagate less ostantatious, eco-friendly houses using locally available material. He has fans, but did not succeed in the age of consumerism and vulgar display of wealth. I am giving such details only to show how the character and worth of land has been changing recently, how land is being tampered with.

The demand for land has not been restricted to the construction of residential houses. There is growing demand for land for all sorts of things. This tiny State already has four airports. There is a plan to have more, including private ones, so we hear. Similarly rail and road transport expansion which the people of the State keenly demand also need land. There is widespread expansion of educational institutions, especially professional colleges. Then there are the IT related institutions and campuses which have come to be seen as a lifeline. The present Left Front Government is trying hard to tell the world that they are not against IT companies or foreign private investment.

The Smart City, the Satelite City all come under this. Currently there is a debate going on within the Left Front partners and their youth wings about sanctioning Special Economic Zones. The government has plans to have IT parks in every district. Each of this dislocates/dispossesses poor people who might have lived there for generations and owned two, three or five cents of land. None of us know what happened to them. This ‘snatching’ of land from these poor people cannot be considered different from what happened in Singur and Nandigram. The SEZ, Techno Parks etc. are protected from hartals bandhs etc. Strange. While such protests can negatively affect many a woman vendor, commuting people etc., the new rich are pampered.

The demand for land also comes from newer hospitals and tourist resorts, shopping complexes, exclusive sales centres for jewellery, saris or for all wedding outfits. The developers who hover around as hawks have swallowed much of the beautiful water fronts. Most of these new builders and shopping centres get popular cinema stars and singers as their promoters. They also sponsor many of the reality shows which have become regular on the TV channels in Kerala. The political parties, literary cultural bodies also want land for their own buildings. Land is also needed to dump increasing waste and as yard for old consumer items from cars, refrigerators, computers, mobile phones to throw-away pens. One thing that does not occur to the powers that be is park or open space for the senior citizens and children to relax, breathe clean air, walk, play or meet friends. The government cannot be accused of not showing concern for the enjoyment of the people. They want theme water parks in more than one place. This is not an exhaustive list of things for which land is needed.

After all the ever increasing demand for land is met, how much will be left for agriculture, especially food production? True there are enterprising people who are engaged in cultivating fruits, vegetables, flowers, medicinal plants and dairying etc for commercial purposes, exporting products even to foreign countries. There is growing awareness about organic farming, the dangerous effects of GM seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides. There are women and men who have first- hand information about the dangerous effects of endosulfan, a chemical used to increase yield in cashew mango trees.. However, they form a tiny section that at the moment cannot impact seriously on decision-makers.

High Wages, High Cost of Living

KERALA is a State where wages and cost of living have been high. Many give this as a cause for the decline in agriculture in the State. This is a question which needs dispssionate and honest enquiry. I can say from my own experience that there is some truth in the statement. Climbing coconut trees and harvesting nuts was done by men belonging to a specific caste. Today many castes do the work. In Trivandrum, I know that they can dictate the amount for climbing a tree. Within some months they have raised the wage from Rs 10 to Rs 20, Rs 25 and some even demand rupees 30. In addition to this they also take coconuts. For the labourer who comes to clear the few cents of land around the house of grass and weeds or to give fertiliser to the coconut trees the present rate is Rs 300 per day. Even if the work is done in a shorter time that has to be given. From this it should not be concluded that agricultural labourers everywhere in Kerala are getting such high wages or that they have work on all days. It is also true that only those who have regular income from other sources can pay such wages.. Many among them have started cutting off coconut trees or not tending to them.

Changing Food Habits, Health Problems

WE have earlier touched the question of food security in Kerala. The people were generally dependent on rice, a large number of vegetables, fruits like jack, mango and a variety of plantains, all of them used in raw also. There was tapioca combined with fish and it was said to be wholesome meal. Even the upper castes and upper classes had rather simple food habits. People here did not have the practice of breakfast, lunch, snacks around tea time and dinner. They developed these over centuries of colonialism and through migration of the Tamil people. Along with the new vegetables and dishes appeared in the Kerala kitchen. Vegetables like carrot, cauliflower, cabbage and fruits like apple, pear, etc. which were not locally grown are today available in many places in the State. Eating out has become common among the moneyed people. This is being encouraged by the regular write-ups in newspapers of such places and the variety of food items available there. The TV channels also have cookery shows where preparation of non-Kerala dishes is shown. There is nothing wrong in knowing about or eating something that is not regularly eaten. But one should be aware of the harmful ingredients and manner of cooking like the use of frying pans from which overused oil is not removed. Fried rice has become popular. This has more oil and is generally eaten without sufficient quantity of vegetables. There are also people who daily buy children’s lunch like chapati/paratha and chicken in plastic containers from restaurants or bakeries. These have been observed by concerned individuals and groups, but there is no sustained campaign against these new habits. Health activists, including doctors, point out that obesity which is common in Kerala is caused by wrong food habits and changes in lifestyle. Increasing cases of diabetes is also said to be the result of changes in food habits.There are people who try to have awareness of these things. There are also people committed to prakrity jeevanam or living the nature’s way. Food security can be achieved only when people’s awareness about food intake, health and wellbeing is thorough.

Land Reforms to be Revisited

RECENTLY there has been mention of second land reforms. What is urgently needed is a review of the land reforms in the State which received national and international applause. What were the loopholes? While all over the world, including the USA, there are small farmers who hold on to their not- too-big holding and continue production, the Kerala farmer, who fought and gained ownership over the holding, had no problem in alienating it. One can argue that the erstwhile tenants who got the ownership were not the real peasant, and land did not go to the real tiller. But what is the guarantee that the latter would not have sold the land? What happened was that agriculture in the State ceased to be a rewarding and respectable occupation. It provided only risk and uncertainty. It is not an occupation where individuals played their role; it was an occupation where collective work and decision-making were essential. If some of the farmers decided to sell or convert their paddy fields for some other purpose their neighbours would find it difficult to continue.

It is in this context that the young Agricultural Minister is trying to resurrect paddy cultivation and agriculture in general. Without questioning his sincerity and enthusiasm one cannot but ask: where would he find the land? Will his demand get priority over others? There is a law prohibiting the conversion of paddy land to other purposes, but there are frequent reports of such activities. Occasional photographs of school children engaged in transplantaion of seedlings in paddyfields appear in the newspaper or on the TV. Can he send out a message that agriculture has come to stay and spell out policies through which they will get regular income which would give them security to lead a tolerably decent life and a sense of pride? For that to take place many ideas and formulations that have taken roots in the thinking of administrators, party people, academics, grassroots level workers, in fact all concerned people have to change. The most important of them are on development itself, the role of agriculture in development, self-reliance and food security, poverty and inequality. Let us start from the last. Both poverty and inequality are universal. But this statement will not help us resolve our problem. Till the Third Five Year Plan, the Government of India approached them together. Concentration of income and wealth was a major concern. But today we are proud that there are Indians who are among the richest in the world. We want more of them. We have divided the poor into below the poverty line (BPL) and above the poverty line (APL). Still the number of the poor remains high. For the rich and those who aspire to reach that level the sight of the poor is becoming more and more irksome. So the corporate world is coming up with various ideas to make them totally invisible. One of the recently floated ideas is to make a one-time lump sum to the poor. The representative of the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), in an interview over a national TV channel, suggested something like the poor having a stake in the business that would come up in the land which she/he loses. This was in the context of the present developments in Singur in West Bengal.

Can a people survive on food brought or bought from outside? This may be possible or a country may be able to purchase food for its poor for a short period, but it cannot be made a permanent arrangement. Our option is that we have to produce the maximum in our own country. This is intimately related to what we have said, namely, the role of agriculture in development. The demand for land for non-agricultural purposes is increasing everywhere. The current policy is to treat agriculture as the last priority. This has to be reversed. The demand for land from other sources should be prioratised according to the needs of the people. For example, should we need more private schools and colleges? Cannot we make a ceiling on land for the IT companies, and other non-agricultural purposes? It is not an easy task as the present demands come from powerful lobbies. But the government has to be firm on allotting land taking into consideration the societal benefit, possibility of increasing pollution as well as environmental and ecological destruction. This leads us to the very important question of what is meant by development—sky scrapers and luxury villas, six-lane roads, never stopping traffic movements, shopping malls, sponsors and prizes, reality shows, five-star hospitals and tourist resorts and the super rich whose dazzling life mesmerises and fades all others?

There is no doubt that Kerala has a significant section of the population who have imbibed the ideas of globalisation and believe that they show us the correct path to follow. It is true that in the whole country there is a sizeable and powerful middle class who give unrelenting support to the UPA-led government at the Centre which has a clear-cut neoliberal agenda. But it cannot be so in the case of Kerala which has a strong presence of the Left ideology and the Left parties come to power alternating with the Congress and their allies. If some individuals, who generally support the Left, have not tried to understand the full meaning of globalisation and its implications, that is understandable. But when the Left parties together have not succeeded in educating the people, especially the working class, the poor and even a section of the lower and middle class, not to allow themselves to be trapped by the ideas, the symbols and the messages of the corporate powers, that is a serious lapse.

A Fragile Land Mass

BEFORE concluding let me touch upon a few serious issues related to land, agriculture and food security, the main themes of this article. The first is climate change which the State has started to experience for sometime. The monsoons do not come on time. Earlier the monsoons had decided the agricultural calendar on which depended the agricultural operations like sowing, planting, tending, harvesting, rest and festivals. Today all that has changed. Rains at undesirable times and their shortage when they are needed, apart from agriculture, affect the State’s electricity production.

Global warming too will not leave the State alone. Kerala has not fully recovered from the ravages of the tsunami. This fragile waterlogged land- mass called Kerala may find it difficult to withstand any fresh onslaught even from well-intentioned industrial development.

A renowned economist and concerned social activist, K. Saradamoni is the President of the National Federation of Indian Women.

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