Each year, Kerala's backwaters attract around 1.8 crore visitors to stay on houseboats, get lengthy massages and gawk at elephants. Few tourists realise that the placid backwaters are the site of a low-key battle – a battle to preserve pokkali, an unusual variety of salt-resistant rice.
Traditionally, pokkali has been grown in Kerala’s kol wetlands, where a unique system of alternating shrimp and paddy cultivation has long been practiced. But with liberalisation in the 1990s, shrimp cultivation became more lucrative than labour-intensive paddy. As a result, landowners began to lease their fields to contractors who cultivated shrimp all year.
Kol fields, which once spread across 25,000 hectares around Kerala, have now shrunk to 5,000 hectares, according to a state government report. Of this, only 1,000 hectares are still used for pokkali.
Among the villages that is still attempting to grow pokkali is Maruvakkad, on the outskirts of Kochi. But it hasn’t been easy.
Paddy farmers usually begin to prepare their fields towards the end of May, when the pre-monsoon showers hit Kerala. The early sporadic rains moisten the soil and make it easier to plough.
This year, paddy farmers in Maruvakkad began to plough their fields only on June 1. It was not for a lack of rain – although the monsoon has been scanty so far – but because the committee that oversees the padasekhara, or adjoining paddy fields, did not give its consent on time.
The pokkali fields, which stretch along the coast across the Thrissur, Ernakulam and Alappuzha districts in south Kerala, are wedged between the sea and salt-fed backwaters. During the monsoon, the rains reduce the salinity of the soil, allowing for a crop of pokkali to be grown. From November to May, when the salinity increases once again, farmers lure shrimp in from the sea to the vacant paddy fields, and harvest them once they mature.
The shift to perennial shrimp farming is having a disastrous effect on the ecosystem. Pokkali absorbs the salt from the soil and helps to maintain a balance over the year. But with shrimp monocropping, the fields are never drained and the excessively saline water seeps into the soil, rendering it unusable for other crops.
The high salinity is even corroding buildings along the paddy fields. “Due to a capillary reaction, the salt is sucked up against gravity from the soil,” said Francis Kalathunkal, general convenor of the Pokkali Samrakshana Samara Samithi, an organisation formed in 2007 to promote alternating cultivation. “This affects the civil buildings adversely.”
Other problems have also arisen. Women traditionally cultivated leguminous vegetables on the bunds that separated rice fields during the monsoon. This served the dual purpose of enriching the soil and giving them an additional source of income. Ever since pokkali cultivation ceased, they have lost their source of discretionary funds
“We make our living by selling vegetables for four or five months each year,” said K Bharathi, an elderly woman who remembered the time when pokkali cultivation was still widespread. “With water stagnating [for shrimp breeding], there is no place for us to grow them. Creepers also used to grow freely earlier, but now vegetables rot very fast.”
In 2007, agricultural labourers in Maruvakkad, who were not landowners, banded together to protest the damage to their homes, which they said had to be rebuilt every two years. In 2013, they decided to pool their money together to lease 160 hectares of the total 450 hectares in that padasekharam to farm it collectively under the traditional system.
Last year, they made Rs 17 lakh. After deducting the Rs 10 lakh in costs, they had Rs 7 lakh to distribute among around 20 labourers who participated in the project.
“We are waiting for the committee to help us set up motors to drain the fields,” said Kalathunkal. “But since they are taking so long about it, we have decided to install one ourselves.” Once this is done, they will be able to plant the seeds and continue with other work – some fish or do odd jobs in Ernakulam during this period.
The committee, the labourers all agreed, was against the revival of pokkali. In 2008, the Kerala government passed a law saying that the primary crop on kol lands must be paddy and only the secondary crop can be shrimp. But some cultivators only make a show of sowing their fields, planting a few seeds haphazardly, and then claim their crop was destroyed and return to shrimp breeding, said Kalathunkal. This is also the reason the delay the beginning of the paddy season as far as possible.
In September 2013, just as the Maruvakkad group’s first pokkali crop was flowering, unknown people broke the bund walls that separated the Vembanad Lake from the fields and flooded the crops, causing a great deal of destrictuion.
“The padasekharam has not supported me for the past 14 years,” said Chandu, who is now in his 70s and used to work as a forest guard. Like Francis, he is one of the few who never abandoned pokkali cultivation. “They destroyed last year’s crop only because they want prawns through the year. But I still do this despite all my losses.”
Read Mridula Chari's previous monsoon dispatches here.
Photo credit: Harsha Vadlamani
Correction: This article was edited to reflect the fact that pokkali is not the world's only variety of salt-resistant rice.