“People laughed at us because they thought that this was too ambitious to achieve,” said KV Georgekutty.

Georgekutty and Babu Ulahannan are happy that they are cultivating rice on 250 acres of land in the Kollad region of Kottayam district. Till a few months ago, these lush fields were empty stretches – land lying fallow for over three decades. Ulahannan and Georgekutty, along with Suresh Kumar, Shibu Kumar and Varghese Joseph, transformed that.

“The hardest part in this process is preparing the land for cultivation,” Ulahannan said. “It’s grueling work to clear the weeds, treat the soil and construct the irrigation canals around the field.” He and his fellow cultivators from Changanassery, a town 20 km from this field, are all experienced rice farmers.

By cultivating paddy, they are going against the tide in Kerala. From 32% in the 1980s – the highest share of gross cropped area in the state – paddy covered only 6.6% of Kerala’s total cropped area in 2016-’17, according to the state government’s Agricultural Statistics Report of 2016-2017. From 8.8 lakh hectares in 1974-’75, the area planted with paddy came down to 1.9 lakh hectares in 2015-’16, says the 2016 Economic Review of the State Planning Board.

Economic viability

The crop’s economic viability has steadily dropped due to the growth of more profitable cash crops.

Many farmlands in the state have also been turned into prime real estate plots, leaving fewer work days for farmers skilled in paddy cultivation. Cash crops now dominate the landscape – crops like rubber, pepper, coconut, cardamom, tea and coffee constituted 62% of Kerala’s total cultivated area in 2015-’16, according to the 2016 Economic Review. Food crops like rice, tapioca, and pulses accounted for just 10.2% of the total cultivated area in the same period.

“Cash crops compete for land in Kerala and paddy is a poor competitor. For a farmer, it is better to opt for non-paddy cultivation,” said KP Kannan, chairman of the Laurie Baker Centre for Habitat Studies, and former director of the Centre for Development Studies, both in state capital Thiruvananthapuram.

“The present production of rice is so inadequate that it cannot meet even one-fifth of the state’s requirement,” said KK Eswaran, a research associate at the Centre for Development Studies. Production has declined from a peak of 1.4 million tonnes in 1972-’73, notes the Economic Review, to 549,000 tonnes in 2015-’16.

Rice incentives

Ten years ago, the government – after being urged by several people’s movements and activists across the state to protect wetlands and water resources – introduced the Kerala Conservation of Paddy and Wetlands Act, 2008. Under this law, reclaiming or converting paddy farms and wetlands is a non-bailable offence. In 2010, the government accelerated its efforts to create so-called fallow-less panchayats by giving farmers incentives to cultivate on barren land.

“In the first year, the state government provides a subsidy of Rs 30,000 per hectare, of which Rs 25,000 is to the farmers and Rs 5,000 is for the owner of the land as lease value,” said Georgekutty. Once the major task of readying the soil is completed in the first year, this assistance “falls to Rs 5,800 and Rs 1,200, respectively”.

“You need to compensate them with an amount they would otherwise get from alternative crops. Why must farmers alone take the social responsibility to care for the environment and bear the burden of cost?” asked KP Kannan, referring to the ecologically sustainable cultivation of rice.

To address fears of land usurpation, this policy also encourages panchayats to assemble farmers and owners of fallow lands, and act as a mediator to the negotiations. This is done under the supervision of the local agricultural officer.

“After the land reforms [the historic Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1969, which ensured the rights of tenants] leasing is illegal in the state, but [panchayat-mediated] leasing for cultivation also has wide support,” said Shebin Jacob, a member of the Kollad (Panachikkadu) panchayat, who has promoted fallow land paddy cultivation in this part of Kottayam. Local panchayat authorities go to the landowners, he says, and assure them that “you will be the owner, but they will cultivate on it”.

Sporadic success

The success is, however, sporadic. “There are successful cases here and there – in Arakulam, Idukki and Kayal land [paddy land in the Kuttanad region in parts of Alappuzha and Kottayam that has UNESCO heritage status for its unique below sea level farming] because a lot of people struggled to get it done,” said Eswaran.

As they did for the field in Kollad, which speaks of the combined efforts of local governments, communities, agricultural officers and farmers. Across the district, in 2017-’18, roughly 830 hectares of fallow land is now covered by paddy, including the 250-acres in Kollad, states the progress report for March of the agricultural office in Kottayam.

“We started to sow in November and after 120 days of hard work, we are here today,” said Ulahannan. “If everything goes well, we estimate an output of 22 quintals of rice per acre and a profit of Rs 25,000 per acre.”

Labour shortage

Once he and his fellow farmers from Changanassery got the administrative clearance to cultivate, they brought with them a known team of labourers. The state effort to promote fallow land cultivation does not address a huge agricultural problem in Kerala – a shortage of labourers.

“Labour is a big problem,” says Jose George, a farmer in Kalathukadavu village in Kottayam, who is co-cultivating 10 acres of rice. Local workers are paid a daily wage of Rs 850 (this rate varies across the district). Migrant workers, mostly from Bihar and West Bengal, get Rs 650. “Then there is the additional issue of local workers resisting the hiring of migrant workers,” he says.

To meet the demand for labour, the panchayat often employs workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act from within Kerala for fallow land cultivation, at a daily wage of Rs 260. “The [MGNREGA] workers are of great help to farmers in the initial stages of land preparation. They also create micro-irrigation canals around the fields. This considerably reduces the cost of cultivation ,” says Rasia A Salam, an agricultural officer in Kottayam. “Earlier, the panchayat was unable to offer even 30 days of work, but now they get 50 to 60 days of work due to this new programme.”

Well before the government’s policies to promote paddy, the Kudumbashree collective too has done a lot to increase the crop’s cultivation. Started in 1998, this is now a network of 4.3 million women. Most of them live below the poverty line, and many are agricultural labourers with the skills to sow and harvest paddy. Kudumbashree helped them group together and approach farmers or landowners.

The women work on the land themselves and get a cultivation incentive from Kudumbashree of Rs 9,000 per hectare. The collective now cultivates paddy on 8,300 hectares across Kerala, mainly in the central regions of Malappuram, Thrissur, Alappuzha and Kottayam districts. They process and sell this paddy, branded under the name of their regions, and have tie-ups with some retail outlets. “This adds to their income,” said Rahul Krishnan, advisor on farm livelihoods, Kudumbashree.

Harvest festival

Meanwhile, in Kallara village in Vaikom block of Kottayam , at a harvest festival in February, a group of around 40 farmers and their families, along with agricultural officers, panchayat members and the media, have assembled to celebrate the collective transformation of 100 acres of fallow land to golden rice fields. The atmosphere is jubilant as drums beat and farmers are honoured with sashes and gifts.

Sreedharan Ambattumukil, one of the 40 farmers, happily holds the first bundle of cropped paddy; his months of hard work have produced a healthy harvest. But, like other farmers in Kallara, he is concerned about the procurement of this harvest. “They [private contractors who collect the grain for the state government] will take 100 kg and not pay for 17 kg. Last year though they cut just 4 kg.” The contractors do this with all crops, not only fallow land paddy, and this is a point of conflict for many farmers.

In some places, disagreements between farmers and the agents of mill owners over the quality of the produce have also caused long delays from the time of the harvest to its procurement. “This is very disadvantageous to the farmers,” says Eswaran.

Given the multiple uncertainties, what keeps the farmer going? “Farming for us is a passion. We will do it even if we run into losses,” says Sreedharan. “The farmer will never be prosperous in this country, but neither can we be destroyed.”

Vishaka George is a journalist based in Bengaluru. Noel Benno is a student of public policy at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.

This article was originally published in the People’s Archive of Rural India on April 23, 2018.