Paddy farmer Biju Alakkad burst into tears soon after he measured the harvest from his five hectare field in Kainakary gram panchayat in Kerala’s Kuttanad region on March 15.

“These are tears of joy,” said the 41-year-old, wiping his eyes. “I got 36 tonnes of rice in this puncha season. This is the first bumper harvest in my life. I can now forget the sorrows of the floods.”

The puncha, or rabi season, begins in October and lasts till the end of March.

Alakkad is among thousands of farmers in Kuttanad who lost their crops, homes and possessions in the floods that ravaged Kerala in July and August.

During the disaster, Alakkad and family shifted to a relief camp on higher ground. When he returned home after 20 days, instead of his crop, he found a pile of silt standing in his paddy fields.

There are about 40,000 farmers in Kuttanad who cultivate paddy in more than 30,000 hectares. Most of them have had abundant harvests. Rough estimates by state government officials put the rice production in the puncha season at two lakh tonnes – 75,000 tonnes higher than last year’s harvest.

Farmers weigh their paddy harvest in Kainakary, in Kerala’s Kuttanad. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

The rice bowl

Known as the rice bowl of Kerala, Kuttanad is nestled between the foothills of the Western Ghats to the East and the relatively elevated plains of coastal Alappuzha to the West. It lies below sea level. Kuttanad usually floods when water levels in four rivers – the Pampa, Achenkoil, Manimala and Meenachil – rise during the monsoon.

When floods first hit the area in July, submerging half-grown paddy in the fields, Kuttanad’s farmers were hopeful that the crop would eventually revive. Those hopes were swept away in August, when the century’s worst floods wreaked havoc across Kerala, including Kuttanad.

The bumper harvest can be attributed to the fertile silt that was dumped in the fields during the twin floods, said agricultural scientists. “Silt accumulation has increased the soil fertility,” said Reena Mathew, associate director (in-charge) at the Regional Agriculture Research Station, Kumarakom. “Besides, decomposed paddy [destroyed during the floods] became organic manure.”

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Santhosh Kumar, an official at the agriculture department in Kuttanad, said farmers in the area got up to eight tonnes of rice per hectare. “This is a record in Kuttanad,” he said. “Till last year, the maximum yield was six tonnes per hectare.”

The puncha season is the second of Kuttanad’s two crop seasons. The first, known as virippu, begins in February-March and ends in August-September.

Mathew said the fact that Kuttanad farmers strictly adhered to the traditional crop calendar this year also contributed to the good yield.

“Farmers often fail to follow the puncha calendar due to a variety of reasons, including a delay in harvesting the first crop,” she said. “Everyone followed the calendar this year as the first crop was destroyed in the floods.”

Labourers load sacks of rice onto trucks in Kainakary, in Kerala’s Kuttanad, on March 15. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Grim start

The puncha season had started on a grim note in October, barely three months after the floods, as farmers took stock of their losses, and cleaned up their farm implements and fields.

Once the water receded, padashekhara samithis, or farmers’ collectives, got into the act. They tested the soil, and found ways to reduce its acidity. They then asked farmers to sow seeds of the locally-developed Uma rice variety.

“I was worried in the beginning,” said AR Soman, 52, a farmer in Kainakary. “But the good start boosted my confidence.” Soman is a member of the Umbakkattussery Padashekhara Samithi. He said he had told his friends to prepare for a bumper harvest in January itself.

News reports quoted officials of the Kerala Civil Supplies Corporation, a state government enterprise that procures rice, as saying that the corporation was expected to procure two lakh tonnes of paddy at the end of the season, 80,000 tonnes more than the previous season.

Uneven harvest

The harvest has, however, been uneven across Kuttanad’s six agronomic zones.

Farmers in lower Kuttanad, which is prone to moderate flooding, got the highest yield as compared to upper Kuttanad (which lies closer to the uplands), kayal lands (in the vicinity of the Vembanad Lake), north Kuttanad (the deltaic formation of the Meenachil river), Kari lands (which come under the west southern side and the northern side of the deltaic formation) and Purakkad (which lies at the western side of upper Kuttanad).

Kainakary gram panchayat lies in lower Kuttanad.

“Farmers in lower Kuttanad got the best harvest,” said an agriculture department official on condition of anonymity. “Pest attack posed a big threat to farmers in upper Kuttanad,” he said.

In February, an agriculture labourer died in Peringara gram panchayat in upper Kuttanad due to pesticide poisoning.

Time to pay off debt

With the profit earned from their puncha crop, farmers here are planning to renovate their damaged homes and repay their debts.

Soman said his house needs urgent repairs before monsoon. “I will start work soon,” he said.

Alakkad is keen on repaying his creditors. “I had borrowed money to rebuild my house after the floods,” he said. So I will start paying it off soon. I want to be debt-free as early as possible.”