Kerala’s rice bowl is submerged. But for its farmers, paddy is still everything

‘Water hasn’t even receded from my yard yet. How can we start farming in October?’

Published - September 29, 2018 04:29 pm IST

Kavitha, a farmer, rows across an inundated field.

Kavitha, a farmer, rows across an inundated field.

On either side of the Alappuzha-Changanassery road is a vast expanse of water with an odd canoe bobbing about, or a precariously leaning electrical pole. But these are not the backwaters.

I am in Kuttanad, the rice bowl of Kerala, but there is not a paddy crop in sight. Farmers in this area have for generations welcomed — albeit with some trepidation — the annual flood. It after all brings in rich, red soil, called akkal, from the hills to the fields.

But this was no farmer-friendly flood. It was a deluge that destroyed everything in its wake. More than a month later, all you see is water everywhere.

“When I saw the flood water entering our paddy fields, I realised instantly that the only thing we could save was our own lives,” says Jessamma, 42, who lives in Chempumpuram village in Alappuzha, where a kalkettu (quay) generally prevents flood waters from entering. But not this year. “Our field was under water in seconds and the water started entering the house.” Jesamma took one last look at her inundated field before swimming across neck-deep water to the rescue boat with her children and husband.

She knew she had, like most farmers in the Kuttanad area, spread across Alappuzha and Kottayam districts, lost her entire crop just days before harvest.

Over a month after the floods, Kuttanad’s paddy fields remain submerged.

Over a month after the floods, Kuttanad’s paddy fields remain submerged.

In Kuttanad, farming is done on paadashekharams , each paadashekharam a cluster of hundreds of small fields, from 20 cents to 5 acres, that lie packed closely together. An individual can own upto 15 acres, but the land is tilled by tenants or lessees, not by the owners.

In Nedumudy panchayat, in Alappuzha, more than 45% of the 35 paadashekharams are cultivated on lease by the poorest of agricultural labourers, with 35.6% categorised as ‘poor farmers’ and 31.83% as ‘middle-income farmers’. The owners get rent, the rice entrepreneurs make profits, the banks realise their credit, but the hundreds of farm workers are left with marginal earnings.

Pushpa is 54, and works with Kudumbashree, the State government’s women empowerment and poverty eradication programme. She and Jessamma are helping with relief operations. Pushpa cultivates her own 1.75-acre paddy field and also two acres that she has taken on lease. “I had to pay ₹20,000 as lease; then I had to pay workers for bunding, sowing, weeding and applying fertilizer.” By July, she had spent over ₹60,000 on her farms and now it is all gone and she can’t repay her loan.

Meaningless life

Pushpa’s daughters are married and her husband and she can live off the compensation and relief material for a while, but “our lives have no meaning without farming,” she says. She hopes the water will drain from her fields before the next season. That would be Punja Krishi, which starts on the 10th of the Malayalam month of Thulam, that is, October 27 this year.

Shalini, 30, is less optimistic. She and her husband farm 20 cents of land. They also have jobs; she is a seamstress, he is a nursing assistant. “Water hasn’t even receded from my yard yet,” she says. Her house and her paddy field lie in one of the lowest-lying areas of Nedumudy panchayat. “How can we start farming in October?”

Says Kavitha, 46, also with Kudumbashree and an area committee member of a farm worker’s union, “Every piece of gold we had is now mortgaged.” She has been farming her own 20 cents for the last 15 years. “We farm both seasons. We don’t make enough to sell. But it gives us three meals a day. And I’ve never had to buy rice.” But now, all that’s left is a wrecked house and a flooded farm.

“Even if the water is pumped out in three weeks, I don’t see how we can afford to continue farming,” Kavitha says. This could, in effect, be the end of their life as farmers.

Jayan Champakkulam convenes the environment committee, Kerala Shastra Saahithya Parishad. “We may not be able to start sowing on October 27 but we are hoping for the first week of November,” he says. “Most of the motor pumps have been repaired. We are also thinking of renting them out on subsidised rates.” Jayan is convinced water can be pumped out of Kuttanad in three weeks.

Harvesting hope

The Kerala government is looking at compensating farmers for their loss with approximately ₹30,000 each, says Jayan, and they could use this to pay labour for the coming season. Besides this, Raveendran Nair, secretary of the 164-acre Venneli paadashekharam , says that Krishi Bhavan should give the entire seed stock for free. Both Nair and R. Vinod, the convenor of another 330-acre paadashekharam, insist that with “three motor pumps of 70 hp, the fields can be drained in 15 to 20 days.” Jayan believes they can expect at least the normal yield of 12-13 quintals per acre of paddy crop in the March harvest.”

Farmers like Pushpa want banks to waive their loans. “We are all affected; not just in Kuttanad,” she says. Farmers across Kerala have lost their standing crops after spending 90% of the outlay and in almost the final quarter of farming.

Their homes, harvests and belongings are gone, but their only hope for the future is still paddy. Says Kavitha, “We belong to Kuttanad; farming is our way out of hunger. We cannot all go looking for alternative livelihoods.”

Meanwhile, the sun is scorching down and Kavitha and the other women have assembled at the bus-stop to collect relief material like groceries and medicines, a temporary reprieve. But their thoughts are all on October and sowing their paddy fields again.

The Kottayam-based writer lives in a coffee plantation.

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