It was 4 pm on a hot and humid summer afternoon in March, but Karakkadan Abdul Rahman was back at his lotus farm in the middle of Valiyaparappur lake.

Early morning, the 51-year-old farmer had carried freshly plucked flowers by bus from his village, Thirunavaya, in Kerala’s Malappuram district, to the Sree Krishna Temple in Guruvayur, 50 km away.

He came back worried. Turning to his brother Karakkadan Hassan, he asked: “Can we deliver 2,000 more flowers to the Sree Krishna Temple tomorrow?” He muttered the answer himself: “I think it is going to be very difficult.”

Valiyaparappur is one of the largest lakes in Malappuram district. More than 30 Muslim families in Thirunavaya make a living from lotus cultivation. The flowers go to Sabarimala, the popular pilgrimage centre for Ayyappa devotees, the Sree Krishna Temple in Guruvayur, the Bhagawati Temple in Kodungallur and the Muthappan Temple in Parassinikkadavu. It is not known when people started lotus cultivation here, but Rahman remembers he has been growing and selling flowers since the age of 15.

For the first time, he is afraid he won’t be able to meet the orders.

Abdul Rahman still gets some flowers from this lotus farm. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen.

No relief from the Centre

Kerala is living through its worst ever drought in 115 years. With both the monsoon cycles of 2016 failing, the rivers and lakes in the state have dried up. The Valiyaparappur lake has shrivelled. Adding to the distress, the summer has been harsh this year. “The lake has almost gone dry,” said Rahman. “We do not get enough flowers.”

Drought has also affected dairy farming in Kerala. As early as January, the animal husbandry and dairy development minister K Raju cautioned that milk production was falling in the state. “The downward trend in milk production indicated the impact of the drought,” he said.

The government has announced a drought relief scheme to help dairy farmers provide food and water for livestock in drought-hit areas and to prevent the distress sale of cattle. The promise was to disburse Rs 70 for each adult cow and Rs 35 for calves as upkeep cost.

But Dolly George, the secretary of the Panikkankudi co-operative, said they are still waiting for help. “We haven’t got any communication so far,” she said, expressing the hope that the relief will come soon.

The minister for animal husbandry, K Raju, said the money will be distributed after the central government releases drought relief funds for the state. On April 1, the centre released Rs 1,448 crore as drought relief funds for Tamil Nadu, and Rs 1,235 crore for Karnataka. Kerala is still waiting.

“We hope the central government will help us immediately,” Raju said.

Milk collection at Panikkankudi Milk Producers' Co-operative Society in Adimali in Idukki district. Photo credit: Saju Joseph.

Lack of fodder, plenty of deaths

With the summer arriving, the scarcity of fodder, specially green grass, has worsened, and milk production has dipped by 10%-30% in different parts of the state. Farmers now have to shell out a much higher price for fodder – Rs 18 per kg, as against Rs 12 per kg till January. With one animal consuming 5 kg-7 kg of fodder a day, the increasing cost has taken the sheen out of cattle rearing.

This has resulted in the distress sale of cattle at a reduced price in many places. “Plenty of farmers have sold their cattle in Wayanad as they cannot afford to rear them,” said CK Saseendran, the MLA from Kalpetta in Wayanad district, himself a dairy farmer. In many places, cattle deaths have been reported.

The state minister for forests, animal husbandry and zoos, K Raju, said the government has taken note of the distress and set aside Rs 5 crore to help the farmers. “The government will give Rs 20,000 for the death of each cow,” he said. “A farmer is entitled to get a maximum amount of Rs one lakh as aid. It will help them repay the loan borrowed from the banks to buy cattle.”

The impact of drought can be felt most acutely in Adimali, which is known as the hub of dairy farming in Idukki district. One of the best-performing milk producers’ co-operative in the state is located here in Panikkankudi in Konnathadi panchayat. It registered a decline in milk collection starting February.

“We used to collect 1,400 litres of milk from 90 members every day,” said Dolly George, the secretary of the society. “The collection has dropped to 1,200 litres from February.”

Narayanan Nampoothiri, the dairy extension officer in Adimali, attributed the decline in milk production to the non-availability of fodder, especially green grass. “A few milk co-operatives supplied dry grass to the farmers to overcome the fodder crisis. It provided the farmers huge support,” he said.

The Panikkankudi co-operative collects milk at a market price of Rs 35 per litre. Till January, Shajan Abraham, a dairy farmer, sold 10 litres of milk every day, which fetched him Rs 350. From February, his cows yielded just six litres of milk, and his earnings dropped to Rs 210. “I am struggling to re-pay the housing loan which I took two years ago,” he said. “I have defaulted the payment in March and I hope the bank will consider my case leniently.”

High Range Dairy, a co-operative milk marketing company in Adimali, which was established in 1974, is also feeling the pinch of the drought. “We find it difficult to meet the market demand,” said Sajith KS, General Manager, High Range Dairy. “We used to procure 6,000 litres of milk from local market, but now we are facing a shortage of 500 litres of milk every day,” he added.

Drought-affected lotus farm in Thirunavaya in Malappuram district. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen.

A long-term crisis

Even before the drought had set in, lotus farmers were facing trouble – the cultivable space on the lake was shrinking. The fast-growing water hyacinth has covered close to 20% of the lake. Land use changes, construction, sand mining and the dumping of wastes have affected lakes across the state.

For farmers, the drought is a reminder of a deeper ecological crisis. “This is nature’s signal,” said Moidu Haji, a lotus farmer from Thirunavaya.

Like other agricultural produce, the prices of the lotus flowers fluctuate. During the Sabarimala pilgrimage season, demand touches the roof and the prices rise. “We get Rs 5 to Rs 8 rupees per piece,” said Hassan. When huge quantities of flowers arrive from neighbouring Tamil Nadu, the prices fall. “One flower fetches just Re 1,” he said.

The drying up of lakes has reduced the yield but raised the prices of the flowers – farmers are now getting Rs 6 per flower. But many of them say this isn’t enough to make up for the shortfall. “Till January, all of us got more than 5,000 flowers every day. Now the number has gone down to 1,000,” said Musthafa, a lotus farmer from Thirunavaya.

Farmers say they are not sure how long they can continue cultivating flowers. “We will seriously mull over pursuing other professions,” said Moidu Haji.

This is the second part in a series on Kerala’s drought crisis. The first part can be read here.