Kerala has always resisted industrialisation because of the fervour of its inhabitants, who have, even through its communist manifestos, supported agriculture, information technology and tourism. However, tourism and information technology are dependent on post modern practises, which then usher in industrialisation. Not surprisingly, Palakkad which was known to be the rice belt of Kerala, is due to have a coach factory, and an Indian Institute of Technology opening soon. This will mean new elite, as well as, working class consumer needs. Shri Shibu Baby John has been instrumental in setting forth the preparatory mechanism for housing projects in Palakkad for the Domestic Migrant Labourers who now number 2.5 million workers from Bengal, Orissa and UP. (personal communication MP Joseph 9.5.2015). Since agricultural labour is being transformed rapidly into construction labour, as the wages are more remunerative, farming is going to be doubly threatened in the legendary rice bowl of Kerala. In the 60s, of the last century, the famine in Kerala resulted in changes in food patterns, and while in Travancore yams and tapioca became the staple, in Palakkad, it was the wheat gifts of the American Missionaries which tided the population. (personal communication, S Kumar 14.5.2015).The growing of rice became predominant in the 90s, and was also accompanied by the support given, in policy, to organic farming. Ezhimayoor and surrounding villages became a hub for rice cultivation, which then was to be generated as a success story for further duplication in other districts.
This essay attempts to look at organic farming as an offshoot of new interest in survival strategies, where farmers are inducted into techniques which will allow for independence from Tamil Nadu vegetable and fruit markets.
After the fracas of the Mullaperiyar dam, the Malayalis have been very clear that they needed to de-link from the import of vegetables from the Tamil farmers. Ofcourse, the Tamils also lost milk and curd and vegetable sales, purportedly upto six lakhs during the severest of the months of discord. But the move to grow vegetables and fruits came in the early years of the 1990s, when it was observed that Kerala had a high rate of cancer episodes. It was decided then that the Malayalis should prosper by including fruits and vegetables in their diet, and they could escape the chemical ridden commodities of the large scale producer, if they could grow their own food stuffs in a monitored way, with help from the Kerala government.
Thus, Kerala Horticultural Development Programme was set up as a collaborative venture between The European Union and the Government of Kerala. Dr Jacob Thomas of the IPS was the first head of the KHDP, which later became the Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council, Keralam or VFPCK. He had a Phd in Agriculture and was very passionate about the project, and served as the Director of the Research Centre from 1991-1996. What the KHDP discovered was that farmers were educated, but they were very traditional. The attempt then was to induct new Agricultural Scientists and graduates into the organisation, and work with Self Help Groups in Kerala for the propagation of fruits and vegetables. “We invite farmers, help them to establish themselves, create networks and stable organisations, set up farmers’ markets, and invite traders.” The idea was, according to the current Deputy Director of the VFPCK to propagate through selected seeds, and to eliminate the middle man. The European Union in the 90s was willing to help with loans, and as the project became successful, they withdrew, leaving a corpus fund to continue the work at hand.
From 2001, the new organisation, Vegetable and Fruits Promotion Council was established, with a Board of Directors and a CEO. Majority stake was held by the farmers, and only 30 percent stake was with the Government. The representatives of the Board would choose the best panchayats in Kerala, and the fieldworkers would begin to visit them.
The Seed processing plant would harness the best seeds from the University scientists. Earlier, seeds used to come from Tamil Nadu, but now, the seeds would be accessed from Kerala research scientists and if there was sixty percent success in propagating the plant in the controlled circumstances of the laboratory, they would be given to the farmer for enhanced seed production for further distribution.
Palakkad was chosen as the site for setting up the seed production unit, because land was plentiful and labour costs were much cheaper than Alappuzha. Seed production requires a congenial climate, and specifically a dry climate. In Chitoor Palakkad, the Mother Seed or Breeder Seed is facilitated. The Agriculture Scientists go to the University, and get the seeds which are generated through research. The seeds are hybrid seeds, but not genetically modified. There are hundred trained seed producers in Palakkad. Phil Donasia, the Deputy Director says,
In 1996, we took them to Tamil Nadu, and trained them there. We produce 50 to 60 tonnes of seeds. These seeds are to be maintained carefully for genetic purity. Tamil Nadu costs are competitive. In Kerala it rains eight months, and isolation is impossible. We chose Chittoor for its dry climate, and its very committed farmers. So we grow the seeds and transplant them. When they are stable we distribute or sell them to farmers. The impetus towards organic farming has actually come from the media, which for years took it upon itself to inform readers about the statistics of cancer, the need for autonomy, for generating solutions to commonly known problems. A lot of checks and balances were put into cultivation and sustainable development through media alerts. Organic cultivation was considered to be safe cultivation.
There are three types of seed. The first is Naadan or local seeds. The truth is in Kerala, with our traditional methods, we can cultivate one acre, and produce one tonne, and in Tamil Nadu, the same acre produces ten tonnes. Then there are the high yielding seeds, which we seek now to get from Kerala Universities as prototypes, grow in our laboratory here, and then promulgate to Seed Farmers. Tamil Nadu uses the best hybrid seeds, purchasing them season after season, putting in some costs initially and then reaping the benefits. Our farmers like to harvest the vegetables and fruit, select the best for purpose of deseeding, wrap it in ashes, and use for the next season. What we are now helping them to do is to use the seeds we get from the Kerala scientists, where 1 kg of high yielding seeds can be propagated for five botanical generations. This is in keeping with the mind set of the Malayali farmer keeping the context of Kaala avastha (climatic conditions) type of soil (mannu) and the krishi or agriculture patterns.
But the problem with this is really about keeping the isolation of valuable commodities in place. We demand that there should be five hundred metres between one crop and another, so cross fertilisation should not take place. The seed harvester has to abide by these rules, or else the seeds cannot be purchased for further dissemination. In Modallamadda for instance, thought to be the mango capital of India, where the first mangoes in history are thought to have been cultivated, the farmers grow mangos for the family without insecticides and fertilisers, but for the market, they use chemicals freely. We do not have a solution for this problem, i.e organic farming for the family, and commercial farming for the market. The only possibility of saving future generations from this is socialisation of young children into horticultural practises, at the school level, as Central Schools are doing, and the question of introducing terrace gardening for personal use. By training housewives and interested individuals, we hope that they will make a commitment towards safe eating habits, by growing their own vegetables and fruits in their gardens, in their verandahs, or balconies, or wherever they can access sunlight and water.
Phil Donasia then shows me around the facility. They have vazhae (banana saplings) growing in plastic bags in virus free surroundings on the terrace of the VFPCK building. Seedlings grow in little tubs, hybrid seeds with proficency of reproductivity for five generations. These are not GM seeds. Since there is a lot of discussion about GMT seeds, individuals often communicate their reasons for doubting the validity of using such seeds. A scientist whom I spoke to in Tiruvannamalai, on 23nd April 2015 (where organic farming is a buzz word because of Rudolf Steiner and other alternative theologies,) says that GMT seeds are being endorsed today by the State, but corporate pharmaceutical organisations invest in armoury companies (war) and in gmt seeds, because both will result in illness and disease, making their own company even more profitable. Since corporations are taking over everything the small enterprises and concerns are being swallowed up. With organic farming and the fresh vegetables and fruit movements, the same anxieties are rampant. Does government have a support system in place for these farmers with two and a half acres, the average plot in India for home based and market gardening needs? Policies without concomitant support cannot be viable.
Two field officers of the agricultural department introduced me to their field sites in Kozhanpara, Chitoor district on 13th May 2015.. These agricultural officers are part of a team, come in to VFPCK (Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council, Keralam) to file in their field reports one day a week, and for the rest of the time, they are in their field offices talking to officers and examining the soil, the plants, and the produce of the farmers. Meena Shyam tells me that there are 104 members in the Seed Growers Associations,
We chose Chittoor because of the dry climate. For Seed production dry climate is essential. Because of the Tamil influence, since we are close to the Coimbatore border, family farms are large. For Seed Production, isolation is necessary. There should be 500 metres or half a km between the different plants, otherwise cross pollination will occur. We take strict stand on this, because if the distance is not maintained, then cross pollination will occur, and then in the second and third generation differences in colour and quality will occur. Breeder seeds are used for two seasons, so while it can be continued upto six years, yet for purity, we provide seeds every two years”
Breeder seed for propogation is provided to good farmers. They are selected for their proficiency. From field inspections, rigorously and frequently conducted by the field scientists, such farmers are chosen, for their ability to maintain isolation distance, spacing between plants and germination capabilities. However careful, the cross pollination happens and this can be made out from the colour of fruit and flowers. Rogue or rogi plants can be distinguished, and the field officer can recognise the good from the mutations. There are Samithis for the farmers or Associations. A minimum of 25 farmers (Self Help Groups) form a Vibam, and when they grow in number and the tonnage of production increases they become a Samithi. The farmers in Chitoor district work with the help of family labour as they are influenced by Tamil culture, and they sometimes have landholdings upto 16 acres unlike the Kerala farmers who have on the average two and a half acres per household. The mode of irrigation is open well or bore well. From December to January it is open well, bore well, but the water level is now dropping. After December, there is no water. Vibham and Samithi help the farmers to sell their crop. Earlier it was agriculture, but with the coming of the European Union initiative with Kerala Government, the farmers began to turn into market gardeners. The question was how to market, and where could farmers gather. It was the job of the Associations to take the product further. Further, the Agricultural officers helped them to go to training camps. Prof Dharmalingam from Coimbatore University became a great help in training farmers in new methods in seed technology, and in time became a director of KHDP. Since these farmlands belong to the rainshadow area of the Nilgiris, there were advantages as well as disadvantages in terms of crops and seed proliferation. Nellampalli, Puthusheri, Vadakarapati, Modallamada, Elavancherry, Kollamkode were the most productive in terms of the new orientations. It began with production of 400 kilogrammes of vegetables and seeds and is now upto 60 tonnes.
Britto, a local farmer and President of the Seed Growers Association says,
Till 2006 we had no subsidy. We were being trained. When we had an understanding of things our minds were changed. As Farmers, we cannot change our ways rapidly. The Association however grew to a 100 members. We grow gourds, coconuts, grass for fodder, and chickpeas. Mangoes are grown as a cash crop. However, mangoes are most famously grown in Modallamada, where the farmers grow for their own use organically, and for the market, with pesticides. Thirty kms away, we are not able to grow the same mangoes for home or for sale. That is the thing with agriculture; everything has its own seasons and cycles, appropriate soil and weather. Here there is a cycle of seven years of rain, and then severe drought. In 2002 and 2012 there was a severe drought, and crores were lost. Dairy management has always been profitable, and helps us with income as well as manure and fertile soils. When there is drought, we manage by selling small portions of our farms, ten cents here or there. During the last drought, several varieties of sugar cane went extinct, and so also did things we grew regularly and consumed habitually such as ragi (finger millet) varagu (kodu millet) cholam (maize) kadala(bengal gram) nelakadala (groundnut) Chama (Indian barnyard millet), ella (sesame) and kamba (pearl millet or bajra). We no longer grow these.
Other food items which are disappearing are tapioca, wild spinach and Kamban kool ( a millet gruel) which have given way to new food tastes, mainly non vegetarian such as biriyani and fried chicken.
Britto says that in his childhood there was only one meal a day, and that too after a long day’s work but now over consumption is a habit, and non vegetarianism a daily requirement. P Gangadevi, an Agricultural Officer says that because of such over consumption and increase of lavishness, the poverty in contrast is much more visible. Earlier food was the marker of difference, but now it is vehicles which stratify consumers. Britto reminds us that his ancestors worked in the woods, or walked to Valayar (outpost near Coimbatore, where there were once verdant forests) but now no one walks, and there are life style diseases. Earlier only sesame oil was used or coconut oil, and there was no fried foods. The earlier diet was rice gruel or ragi with a chutney of small onions and chillies, now there are four stir fried items with every meal. However, farmers like him still continue in the old ways, because they only go to Palakkad, Pollachi and Coimbatore for weddings, once or twice a year. For the rest they work on their farms, and never go to town, or have access to modern facilities. Even if he went to town for purchases, he never entered the malls and large city shops or their branches, he went only to the traditional small shops. In the old days, the village supported the farmer. Four or five farmers worked together, but now with difficulty only two or three join up for work. Even the women go in jeeps to the town as packers of spices and the men join up for contract manual labour, which is much better paid than farm labour. Gangadevi says that the labour class in Kerala cannot be identified as labour, they have a house and all amenities, including access to education for children.This may be contrasted to the living conditions for migrant labourers coming to Kerala from other parts of the country who live in the most degraded of conditions, and have minimal protection from the environment in their tin sheds, or collective and communal camp life.
An organic farmer near Mannil village, about ten kms from Palakkad says it will take upto twenty five years for a cultivator to acquire the skills for jaivakrishi. Another says, in the old days, that sort of farming was called prakarti, (nature) but now it is technically known as jaivakrishi. Most farmers cannot afford to do this kind of cultivation, because it is expensive. However, Appankuttan says that he knows one thousand organic farmers, they are part of a network. It is imperative to keep an eye on one another, for those not fully organic must admit that they use an ‘integrated’ approach. One of the most successful of these farmers is KSRTC Narayan, who however, has moved away from the organic movement, because according to those who know him, he now maintains that commercial farming cannot be fully resolved with organic herbicides. However, he continues to be careful that the proportion is 80 percent organic, and says that he advertises his crops as “Fresh vegetables and fruit.” In a television interview on 14th May 2015, Narayan said that he and his wife were successful because they had the total support of consumers, not just locally but from distant places. His wife , a former school teacher said to the camera, “Retirement is no longer boring, and we, consumers and us, have all become a family”. One of the customers, said in the televised interview, that the Narayan outlet “is becoming a co-operative and others also bring their produce here, and we buy from them too.” Another client said that Narayan and his wife sold vegetables which did not spoil for four or five days, even when not refrigerated. Narayan himself agreed, and said that they were concerned with quality over quantity, and did this work as a service. Appankuttan says that they do this as a hobby, as their daughters are independent and work abroad. Appan himself grows only for his family, and they are selfsufficent in everything, except onions, garlic and potatoes which they have to buy in the market.
Padmaja Sasi Kumar, (the agricultural officer associated with Kannadi and adjoining village who had introduced me to the farmers in the locality) and I watched the 11.30 am Doordarshan television show on 12th May, 2015, featuring the KSRTC Narayan episode, at Appankuttan’s house. The latter’s wife in the typical hospitality of Malayalis brought us mangoes and bannanas from their trees, delectable, free of chemicals, ripened naturally. Appankuttan feels that rice farming, organic or otherwise will be extinct soon. He introduces us to extended clan members who have started to diversify into pupae or silk cocoon production. This farmer buys butterfly eggs from Pollachi, hatching them on his farm, and then feeds mulberry leaves to the catterpillars, which then weave their cocoons, after which they are taken for sale to Ramnagar in Mysore by tempo, with the other silk cocoon farmers who collaborate in the venture.
Appankuttan says in Palakkad, farmers just do not like to take risks. They enjoy their work, and there is a saying among them that Pullthoti Adichu Kozhi y al Attrem Madi Jeevikan. This means that the cow’s feeding platter when scraped will give one enough to make a living, or that subsistence farming depended on the cow and pasture. So ten acres and twelve cows is wealth indeed. Appankuttan suggests that it was his association with relatives who were from Alleppey district who persuaded him to give his children a good education, and because of this, his son is a professional with an LLB, and earns a good salary, with out having to bear all the anxieties of a farmer, which range from unseasonal rain, and low prices. The agricultural officers whom I had spoken to earlier, told me that they had heard of farming as a new occupation for people who felt that this was a passion, but they had not met any. Appankuttan feels that the organic farmer has to have more than one acre for it to be successful, and that certainly it must not be contaminated from the canal water from other farmers’ fields. As Palakkad farmers were dependent on bore wells, it was feasible. While farmers are aware about the vulnerability of their situation, scientists are much more vehement about the technicalities of the dangerous situation India is now facing. In the Financial Chronicle of May 19th 2015, A.V Balasubramanian from the Centre of Indian Knowledge Systems (www. Ciks.org)writes,
For several years now, agriculture in India is said to be in a state of crisis. This is tantamount to saying that India is in crisis since about 70 percent of our population is still in rural areas with agriculture as their main livelihood. This crisis manifests itself as increasing impoverishment of the farmers and lack of options for rural non-farming employment. There is an alarming degradation of the resource base of agriculture, especially of soil, increased pressure and demand on land from non-agricultural activities, erosion of biodiversity in terms of both species and varieties of cultivated crops and decline in cattle population. This has led to distress migration to the cities and causes scarcity of labour in rural areas for agricultural activities. (FC, KNOW, pg 12 19.5.15)
The Gulati Institute Report of 15th February 2013, on Domestic Migrant Labour in Kerala (authored by DS Narayan, CS Venkiteswaran and MP Joseph) suggests categorically that building up urban centres rapidly in Kerala requires the presence of domestic migrants from Bengal, Orissa and U.P to augment the Malayali worker presence. However, these migrants, who live frugally and send the major chunk of money to their homes, are referred to as aliens, and are treated as such. Tragically, many of them are landless labour from SEZ domains, or farmers with small land holdings. They live in dreadful conditions, as tenants in barracks or community flats residence organised by language or regions, with no facilities for cooking or eating. As for even occassional recreation, after work, this is taboo, for the Malayalis resent their presence in local parks where they themselves congregate, mistrusting them for their proletarian habits. The domestic migrant tended to say to the data collectors, that the local people treated them well, but this is something which is part of the good behaviour clause manifesting itself, since the Malayalis actually have nothing to do with the “other”, ignoring them totally. Thus the Minister for Labour and Rehabilitation Mr Shibu Baby John was anxious that they be provided with appropriate social security and safe living conditions.
Farm Land is also rendered dissolute not just from rapid urbanisation, but because the Malayali no longer knows how to manage new kinds of waste, which are not bio-degradable. Everywhere, the householder is being told that the official policy is that each person should take care of the waste generated by his household. A survey of web related articles on Garbage in Kerala, shows how urgent the situation is as journalist report across the state. The land is being polluted at a very rapid rate. My field notes for 11th May 2015 are as follows,
Allapuzha is burning its waste.There is no collection schemd. Every house has been told to take care of its own garbage. As a result they bury it or burn it, or throw it into the river or canal. Burning is the easiest solution. No one seems to have heard of climate change or global warming. As no garbage collector comes around,they just sweep it up into neat piles and light bonfires. It keeps away the mosquitos they say. They are surprised by the rising temperatures in summer in Kerala and the unseasonal and intermittent rain. “People have been sent abroad to study recycling and invest in incinerators. But they don’t practise it. Money is allotted for this but there is no implementation. People throw garbage into their neighbours yard. They drop things out of the windows. Awareness has to start at a very young age. If there are Collection Centres, the matter of recycling plastic would go very well. “
In Palakkad, the story is the same. Flat owners have been told to burn their refuse on a daily bases on the terrace, and the ashes will be collected by the Government. How this will work in the Monsoon, no one knows, and what will happen when the wind blows is a puzzle. Daily burning of the waste produced by sixty flat owning households? The Kuduma Sthree comes around now every alternate day. In Alapuzha, the fruit shop owner says he takes the organic waste home to a cousin’s place, where it is stored and collected by a merchant who makes manure. Several shopkeepers told me that the municipal van does the rounds in their town, but householders are not encouraged to give them their waste. At a crunch they could pay fifty rupees and bribe the municipal truck to take their waste. Because of garbage piling up, the mosquito menace is huge. Diseases like chikanguniya and malaria are rampant. John, a jeweller’s assistant working in the Kottayam region, who travels in the train from Aluva to Trichur, as a co passenger, whom I interview, says that the only solution to the waste problem in Kerala is to change the mind set of the Malayali from passive to active, to demand recycling and collection facilities, to avoid plastic and to encourage children to conserve and use carefully without littering.
One of the most interesting experiments to face the new world, where earth may be indeed become dead or absent from misuse, is bionics, a creative blend of biology, botany and engineering where for instance, fish farming is linked with nutrient production for plants which are grown on a bed of algae and gravel. Vijayan, a friend of Appankuttan in Palakkad circulates the waste or offal from the fish to the plastic covered algae troughs on which he experimentally and successfully grows coriander, cauliflower, spinach, marigolds. He tells Padmaja Sasi Kumar and me that he knows only two people other than himself who are experimenting with this method, which requires electricity to circulate the water in the fish tank to the various troughs. One according to him, is a farmer on the Coimbatore border, (who taught him the modalities of New Age farming on igneous rocks, osmotic plastic sheets and algae, with constantly circulating water from the fish pond,)the other is the award winning actor Sreenivasan, in his Chennai home. Perhaps the question of climate change and adaptation is already in place with the courage and labour of unknown farmers like Vijayan and his son, who do what they do because they have guts and ambition, and a desire to see things work for the betterment economically and socially of their farming families.
Susan Visvanathan, CSSS/SSS JNU. 26th May 2015