The theft of batteries from five combine harvester machines that were brought for the ‘puncha’ (Rabi) harvest in Kuttanad is registered in the Ramankary police station as just another petty crime case.
However, two days after the incident, indications are that there is a much murkier side to the “theft”.
The theft occurred on Saturday night at the Panambadi Parambaka padasekharam (paddy polder) under the Veliyanadu Krishi Bhavan, situated on the eastern tip of the district. According to the Parambadi Panambaka Group farming society secretary Stephen C. Joseph, the 900-acre polder, which has 326 farmers trying out their luck this season, had arranged 15 machines, a majority of them from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, early last month for the harvest.
They required six more machines, for which tenders were called, and finally a group from Karnataka bagged the contract at the rental rate of Rs.1,450 per hour, with the society depositing Rs.5.1 lakh as security for the machines. These machines reached Veliyanadu early on Saturday, and after working till 8.15 p.m., were parked on the sides of the paddy polder. Sunday morning saw five out of these machines without batteries, each costing about Rs.8,000, and the harvest in about 400 acres being thrown into jeopardy, more so because, farmers fear summer rains are around the corner like last year.
With farmers turning irate, harvest on the rest of the 500 acres too came to a halt. Police, meanwhile, took statements, did the routine procedures, and returned. The society, after the issue burned bright till Monday noon, finally borrowed batteries from lorries that had transported the machines to Kuttanad and helped resume the harvest.
“This is the first time that batteries are being stolen from harvest machines, even when the lorries that brought them were lying nearby. This is not just an ordinary theft. There is a conspiracy behind this, and we strongly suspect competition between machine agents to be the catalyst behind this freak theft,” Mr. Joseph says.
The reasons he lists out are the low rate at which the Karnataka-based agent bagged the contract – Rs.1,450 per hour. This is against the maximum rate of Rs.1,600 per hour stipulated by the district panchayats and against the Rs.1,800-Rs.2,000 rate that was in vogue last year.
Police have already questioned a prominent agent in the region and indications are that the society’s doubts of a conspiracy behind the thefts, so as to discourage out-of-state agents and to ensure prevalence of last year’s higher rental rates, have more or the less been confirmed.
If so, Mr. Joseph and the other farmers there say, the situation is likely to go worse, because more polder societies are trying to get the machines at the same rates, rejecting long-time agents who had a monopoly over the business. With the weather remaining unpredictable, any such game of revenge by agents could throw the livelihood of the farmers into peril, they add.