Around 30 km from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram and 35 km from Tamil Nadu’s Nagercoil is the town of Parassala. A rural area located below the Neyyar Dam, Parassala is surrounded by canals and ponds filled with water from the Neyyar river, leaving the town green most of the year.
Passing through a few of the panchayats in Parassala Assembly constituency, such as Perumkadavila, Kollayil, Vallarada, Arayancode and Kallikad, one can see crops planted even on roadsides, in schools, on river banks, government lands, land owned by government departments – there is no barren land anywhere. It was in September 2019 that Parassala was declared the first barren-land-free constituency in Kerala. All the nine panchayats of Parassala were able to achieve the tag.
Once green with paddy fields, plantain cultivation, vegetable gardens and tuber crop plantations, over the years the region’s greenery was lost. Farmers started migrating to the city for better jobs causing an increase in wastelands in the region. It was then that the Thalir project was implemented.
Since 2016, a joint effort by the Haritha Keralam Mission and the state Agriculture Department under the ‘Thalir’ project has encouraged farmers, self-help groups and Kudumbashree units to start cultivation in barren and unused lands in nine gram panchayats in the constituency. Haritha Keralam is a mission integrating waste management, organic farming and water resources management.
“A region’s development also depends upon reviving its lost agricultural legacy. The gap between production and consumerism should shrink. We should move towards sustainability from dependence. Parassala has moved ahead with these aims,” Parassala MLA CK Hareendran said while initiating paddy cultivation in barren fields in 2018.
Now the constituency has converted almost 180 acres of barren land into paddy fields. A portion of the paddy has already been harvested. Vegetables, tuber crops and fruits are largely cultivated by farmers and other groups. Around 10 lakh vegetable and fruit saplings were planted across the constituency. Apart from that, six lakh fishes were deposited in various ponds as part of aquaculture farming.
“The Thalir project in Parassala is a complete success. The rest of the state and country can consider it a model project. Initially there was an extensive survey to locate the barren lands in the region, all of which were later converted into agricultural lands through the project. Various departments coordinated to achieve this success,” Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said while announcing the barren-land-free tag to the constituency.
“This is a state that was developed through agricultural and land reformation movements. So these kind of projects are the need of the hour to revive our agricultural lands,” MLA Hareendran, who initiated the Thalir project, said when his constituency was awarded the barren-land-free tag.
How Thalir helped
Sivadas, a farmer from Perumkadavila, lost most of his crops in the 2018 floods. The Thalir project helped him slowly get back on track.
“My field was flooded and a majority of my crops were destroyed. There was waterlogging of more than seven feet. We thought everything was lost. After that it was a struggle for survival. Goat and duck farms helped us make ends meet somewhat. Later as part of this particular project I started cultivation in a land owned by one of my relatives, which was lying barren for the last decade. Things are better now, but still agriculture is not very profitable especially for organic farmers like me,” he said.
Sivadas planted 1,000 banana plants in one acre of barren land owned by his relative six months ago. In the remaining area he is also cultivating spinach, ladies finger and long beans. “This is an agricultural village. Earlier rice, vegetables and fruits were provided to the city from here. Now many have quit farming but majority are farmers. It is not very profitable, but this is part of our culture, legacy and also our passion,” he added.
Through Thalir many farmers started cultivating in barren lands other than their own. “After the project was implemented, the Agriculture department has encouraged farmers to take up farming in barren lands. There were many such spaces where the owners were not interested in cultivation or were out of station. Such lands were leased out to farmers and we started cultivation there,” he said.
Sivadas added that markets are not a challenge for the farmers. “There are many local markets here. The government’s Horticorp enterprise also buys our products. There are weekly evening and early morning markets where our products are easily sold,” he added.
How the government is spearheading the project
Workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGA) scheme, mainly women, were assigned to cultivate in government ‘poramboke’ land. A harvest festival was organised in a 10-acre paddy field near Thathiyoor in the presence of state Agriculture Minister VS Sunil Kumar.
“There were many barren lands in Thathiyoor area. Initially we organised field visits to these lands, then arranged meetings with farmers. The largest area was owned by a temple. Incorporating NREGA workers, we planned and cultivated paddy,” KR Sunitha, Perumkadavila Panchayat president, said.
Thathiyoor paddy field
“The project is going on very successfully, one can clearly see the change, our constituency is greener and self-sustainable,” Sunitha told TNM. She claims that paddy cultivation has almost doubled in the constituency in a year.
She said the initial step was to give training to farmers and any groups or individuals interested in taking up this farming revolution.
“We had frequent meetings, classes and seminars to create awareness on the need to turn barren lands into agricultural fields. People were interested and that is why we were successful,” she said.
Latha, an MGNREGA worker and also a Kudumbashree unit member, says the scheme has helped many people in the region overcome the damage caused due to the devastating floods that hit the state in recent years.
“Many of us got work because of this project. Not only that, we got abundant vegetables and tuber crops as many people started it cultivating locally.”
WR Ajith Singh, agricultural officer at Nettukaltheri open jail and also the coordinator of Thalir project, told TNM that apart from huge slopes and some areas with severe wild animal menace around 98% of the barren land has been converted into agricultural fields. He said that the project team could incorporate various departments into the scheme. The Agriculture department, local self-government bodies, Irrigation department and self-help groups were part of the scheme.
“To support our farmers and keep up their spirits, the Agriculture department has continued to frequently monitor the project. Even if the cultivation hasn’t provided much profit, farmers are interested to do it. Since we mainly focus on organic farming, our cost of production is high. At the same time cheap vegetables are brought in from neighbouring states. However, after the project implementation the change is visible, people have started turning to farming,” the officer told TNM.
Vegetation in Nettukaltheri open jail
Nettukaltheri open jail also comes under the Parassala Assembly constituency and the inmates have also started farming in the land owned by the jail. “We cultivate a variety of vegetables here, such as bitter gourd, ladies finger, cabbage, snake gourd and many more. We were able to make good profits for the government through the farming activity in the jail,” Ajith Singh said.
In panchayats like Amboori, Kallikad and Vellarada, the wild animal menace was severe. After the project was implemented, farmers formed groups and used solar fencing to prevent animals from damaging crops.
“It was a concern when many farmers started to quit farming. They had a lot of challenges. In the jail too, we have to protect our crops from six wild animals – wild boar, deer, sambar, peacocks, monkeys and Indian porcupine. There are many farmers who face these issues. But the project has enabled many to come back to agriculture,” he added.
To overcome these challenges, the Agriculture department encouraged farmers to start mixed farming. Dairy farming, poultry, and cultivation of a variety of crops, including cash crops, is carried out on the available land so that farmers who face a loss in one type of farming can compensate in another.
Apart from reviving the farming culture, the project has contributed towards environmental protection by rejuvenating polluted water bodies.
“Ponds, wells, streams and canals in the constituency were added to the revival process so that farmers face no difficulty in irrigation. Rainwater harvesting, water recharging and allowing maximum quantity of water to seep underground, etc. are some of the schemes that are planned,” Sunitha said.
Through the scheme, the government has ensured loans to farmers interested in cultivating on barren land. Apart from this, seeds, seedlings and saplings are provided by the Agriculture department. The department mainly insists on organic farming so that farmers are also interested as it is possible to get better prices for organic products.