Towards Agricultural Self-Sufficiency & Prosperity: A People’s Alternative Model from Kerala

Samuel Philip Mathew

OURS is a country in which around 50 per cent of the population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. Yet, we see that the perils of those who are working in this sector are increasing day by day. To get a real sense of the desperation that our agricultural sector is experiencing, it would suffice to simply look at the number of those who have abandoned agriculture and those who have committed suicide as agriculture became unviable. Since 1991, when India took the devious turn to neo-liberal reforms, 15 million main cultivators have left agriculture. Over 3,20,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995, at the rate of one every half an hour. According to statistics available since 2015, 52 farmers are putting an end to their lives every day.

 

Undoubtedly, a quarter of a century of neo-liberal policies has only sounded the death knell of agriculture in our country. If the growth of agriculture in 2014 was 3.7 percentage points, it has plummeted to 1.1 percentage points now. As public investment in agriculture is drastically reduced, agriculture becomes non-profitable. Hence, it results in a drop in agricultural production itself. Attaining self-sufficiency in agricultural production is no more a serious concern of the central government.

 

A few farmers were mercilessly shot dead in Madhya Pradesh earlier this month, for simply raising their voices against the treatment meted out to them. Despite those killings, the issue of farmers’ and agricultural distress was not a major point of discussion in our media. In Maharashtra, farmers had to dump their produce including milk on the highways for the state government to take note of their plight. Distressed farmers from Tamil Nadu even went to the extent of stripping themselves naked and drinking their own urine over their two weeks long protest in Delhi, and yet, there was no answer to their cries. It reveals the absolute apathy this nation and its ruling classes have towards agriculture, farmers and agricultural workers. To top it off, the central government says that they won’t assist the state governments in any loan waiver scheme. No doubt is left, that agriculture and the lives of our farmers and agricultural workers are of little interest to the BJP-led NDA regime.

 

It is in times such as these that the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala is implementing several measures ensuring people’s participation at various levels in a move to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency and ensure prosperity for its farmers and agricultural workers. Kerala is heavily dependent on supplies from other states of India to meet its demands for food consumption, including grains and vegetables. Like many other states, the staple food of Kerala is rice. However, the reality is that not even one tenth of the paddy required for consumption in Kerala is produced domestically. Therefore, agricultural self-sufficiency in the state cannot be ensured without increasing the area of cultivation, particularly that of paddy; which is precisely what the LDF government gave top priority to.

 

One of the first efforts of the government was to restore the clauses of the Paddy and Wetland Conservation Act which was implemented by the previous LDF government, but diluted by the UDF government that followed it. As the original law was meddled with, it resulted in the shrinkage of cultivable land in Kerala. Restoration of the law prevented the mindless appropriation of paddy fields and water bodies in the name of development. Subsequently, wetland conservation programmes were implemented in 4.27 lakh hectares of land. Undoubtedly, the area of cultivable land in the state has increased. In accordance with the law, a data bank is also being prepared to ensure that agricultural land in the state can no longer be encroached upon.

 

This year, 2017, is being celebrated as ‘Paddy Year’ with the slogan ‘Our Paddy, Our Food’. It is remarkable that the LDF government has been able to spearhead paddy cultivation in 3,000 acres of fertile land and 15,000 acres of non-fertile land. Staying true to its promise of preserving and protecting the environment, the government initiated paddy cultivation in 252 acres in the fields of Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district, which was earlier being destroyed in the name of an airport project. In the name of tourism and real estate, Methran lake in Alappuzha district was being appropriated by land grabbers. Paddy cultivation has been initiated in 300 acres there and in 500 acres of Rani-Chithira lake which was being kept fallow.

 

The Haritha Keralam Mission is being implemented to clear and remove waste from all the water bodies in Kerala; ponds, rivers, lakes and streams. Disposal of solid waste, removal of waste water and measures to increase the area of land under cultivation are also being undertaken through this project. Reclaimed land is being used for vegetable cultivation, so as to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency. Several water bodies and agricultural fields have been revived already as a part of this mission. It is developing into a people’s participatory programme on the lines of literacy mission, democratic decentralisation and people’s planning, which were instrumental in presenting the Kerala Model of development to the world.

 

It does not merely suffice to increase land under cultivation, so as to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency. Effective marketing of agricultural products is essential so that the increase in cultivation truly benefits the public. Special fares and markets are being organised during festivals like Onam, Vishu, Ramzan and Christmas so that the people have access to organic vegetables produced through the government’s initiatives. Apart from these fairs, special shops were also put up in every panchayat during these festivals.

 

While ensuring cultivation and marketing is essential, stable incomes have to be assured to the farmers as well. When agriculture is becoming unviable for farmers and agricultural workers across the country, Kerala has increased farmers’ pension to Rs. 1,100 per month. Further assistance is being provided to those engaged in farming, by writing off agricultural loans, specifically in districts acutely hit by natural calamities. A crop insurance scheme and an emergency assistance fund are also being administered so that adequate compensation can be ensured to farmers in the event of a crop failure or onslaught of natural calamities.

 

Another area that is receiving attention under the present LDF government is value added products in the agricultural sector. If streamlined and connected with farmers and their cooperatives, agro industries can play a major role in increasing the market for the indigenous products of the state. Parks are being set up for the value added products of Kerala and steps have been taken to open 20 new agro service centres. Distribution centres for Kerala’s rice varities and a silo for storing up to 5,000 tons of paddy have also been set up. Production and storage facilities are being set up in places like Wayanad, Kannur and Alappuzha to ensure that agricultural products are not wasted.

 

Apart from rice, Kerala is renowned for its coconut, spices, rubber and jackfruit. Rubber parks are coming up in Kottayam and Pathanamthitta, spice parks in Idukki and Wayanad and a jackfruit park in Thrissur. ‘Keragrams’, based on cluster groups are being set up throughout the state for the overall development of coconut cultivation in 500 acres. Oil palm re-plantation has also started. Undoubtedly, it will improve the coconut oil production. Schemes worth Rs 45 crore have been set apart specifically for coconut cultivation. Currently, paddy is being cultivated in 2 lakh hectares in the state. By setting an ambitious target of paddy cultivation in 3 lakh hectares, the LDF government has reiterated its commitment to revive Kerala’s primary agricultural produce. Simultaneously, while focusing on other areas of Kerala’s strength in agriculture, and engaging organisations like Kudumbashree in the implementation of its programmes, the government has demonstrated a pragmatic approach in revitalising agriculture in the state.

 

Government policies should be beneficial to all sections of the people. Therefore, a special scheme worth Rs 20 crore is being implemented for the development of agriculture in tribal areas. With the help of schools and other institutions, agriculture is sought to be promoted in urban areas as well. To ensure that children have an exposure to plants and agriculture, bio-parks are being introduced in schools. It goes without saying that agriculture should become profitable so that educated young people will also engage in it. Kerala is moving towards instituting minimum wages and insurance for all those engaged in agriculture. Apart from all these initiatives, contract farming is being encouraged through incentives, so that more people engage in agriculture as well.

 

A major issue that farmers and agricultural workers in India face is that of landlessness and reduction of the land holdings. Many are homeless as well. Kerala is seized of the need to ensure land and housing for all the landless and homeless. Land deeds have been given to over 20,000 people in the first year itself. A universal housing scheme has been initiated, with emphasis on providing livelihoods. Through LIFE mission, the LDF government aims to ensure housing to all the homeless in the next four years. Beneficiaries have already been identified for the first phase and priority was accorded to Sheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and coastal inhabitants, particularly those engaged in fishing.

 

In our country as most of the agricultural activities are seasonal, many who are engaged in agriculture end up being jobless for long periods of time. It is in such a time that the demand for increase in number of days under the MGNREGS becomes significant. However, the Centre is refusing to allow even 100 days of work a year and actual work happens for only 40 to 45 days. It is merely a fraction of what is required for the sustenance of our farmers and agricultural workers. Kerala, on the other hand, generated 683.73 lakh man-days under MGNREGS till 31 March, 2017, a 113 per cent gain. It needs to be kept in mind that Kerala has the highest rate of daily wage across the country at a minimum of Rs 600.

 

The LDF government’s achievements over the last one year in the field of agriculture clearly show that it is not just agriculture that is on the path of revival in the state. The lives of farmers and agricultural workers are also being turned around along with other disadvantaged sections. Increase in cultivation and farmers’ income is being supplemented by ensuring land and housing so that the farmers’ standard of living as a whole is made better. This revival is being orchestrated by the planned interventions of the government across sectors. Departments of Agriculture, Civil Supplies, Local Self Governments, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Housing, Fisheries, Industries and others are being brought on the same page on a wide range of initiatives, along with the people’s participation cutting across age, gender and region; making it truly a people’s alternative towards achieving self-sufficiency in agriculture. The defining factor that sets Kerala’s LDF government apart from the ruling classes in the country is that, it has once again shown that the Left’s commitment to agriculture, the sector that lays the foundation of our country’s economy, and the agricultural workers and farmers who sustain it, is rooted in action that would achieve its slogans. 

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