Destroyed crops, low compensation: Wayanad’s agriculture is at the brink of collapse

With most farmers already in debt and having chosen not to insure their crops, the agricultural economy of the district is close to being completely wiped out, and building it back will not be easy.
Destroyed crops, low compensation: Wayanad’s agriculture is at the brink of collapse
Destroyed crops, low compensation: Wayanad’s agriculture is at the brink of collapse
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On a humid Wednesday afternoon in early September, Mohammad Abdullah is busy helping his fellow farmers load a minivan with whatever plantain his friends could salvage from their farms. A farmer from Mananthavady taluk in Wayanad district, he was not in the best of moods, thanks to a visit to the state agriculture department office that morning. The officials had informed Abdullah about the low compensation he would get for the 100% crop loss he had suffered in the heavy rains and floods that battered the state in August.

“I spent Rs 1 lakh planting ginger in an acre and the flood washed it all away. Do you know how much the state agriculture department offered me as compensation? About Rs 2500 for an acre. Are they joking?” asks Abdullah. “Due to this flood the agriculture sector will die in Wayanad,” he laments.  

As flood waters recede in Kerala, Wayanad’s farmers are taking stock of their losses, and it doesn’t look pretty. 

Even if not one of the most cultivated districts, Wayanad has a considerable dependence on agriculture. According to the 2016-17 state agriculture report, it is the top producer of coffee (52,416 tons with a value of about Rs. 428 crore) and the second largest producer of pepper (4,136 tons with a value of about Rs. 309 crore) in the state. Ginger cultivation in the district was valued at about Rs 153 crore, pepper at about Rs 309 crore and rubber at about Rs 82 crore. The district is also a producer of turmeric, clove, nutmeg, jackfruit, banana, plantain, pineapple, papaya, cashew and tapioca, apart from other vegetables. 

On farmlands which were inundated, all major crops cultivated in the region this year have been lost. Even crops which were unaffected by the floods are being lost, farmers say, due to exposure to excess moisture.

Several farmers TNM spoke to say that it will take them several farming seasons to get back on their feet. Most intend to avail loans just to repair their farms. 

Abdhulla's banana plantation did not survive the floods

“I have no faith in the media or in the state and central governments. I have filed my compensation claims but I am not expecting anything. In the past, for smaller crop losses we never got anything, expecting compensation for losses this scale is foolish. Nobody cares about us farmers,” says Abdullah who is one among the 3,000 odd farmers who have reported 100% agricultural losses in the Mananthavady taluk.   

Acres of dead crops

Shaji Joseph, a farmer from Cherukatoor village under Manadhavady taluk has an eight-acre farm sandwiched between the Kabini and Panamaram rivers. Both the rivers overflowed and his farm was inundated for over eight days in August, so the damage was extensive. 

“I had planted 2.5 acres of ginger and elephant yam, it’s all gone now due to the floods. So has the coffee, areca nuts and pepper. It is all gone,” says Shaji. Shaji was banking on his ginger crop this year, so he spent Rs 80,000 for planting ginger alone. With labour costs, his entire investment into the crop stands at Rs 2 lakh, he says. He had also farmed 5 acres of coffee, but since the flood the seeds have started moulding, drying up and dying. 

With areca nuts and coconuts too, the situation is similar. The leaves of the rubber trees that got exposed to the floods have started falling, the elephant yam plants have all died. The roots of the pepper vines started rotting in early September. 

Shaji with his pepper crop that was destroyed by floods

Shaji is now sowing paddy for the second time. “The yield will be low but something is better than nothing,” he says, adding that his farm has been inundated twice this year, first in May and the second time in August. 

Shaji made investments into each crop over the course of the year and is contemplating availing more loans to get back into farming in 2019. “It will take more than a measly Rs 2,500 to cover these losses and rebuilding the farm. Clearing up the flood debris and rebuilding the farm boundary ridges have not been accounted for. I already have existing loans to pay and will now have to apply for new loans, there is no other way,” adds Shaji. 

Recently, officials of the state agriculture department and central coffee board visited Shaji’s farm to take stock of his losses. “The state is offering only relief, there are no compensation packages yet. The coffee board officials say they will send a report to the centre with details on the extent of the losses. There is no word about any compensation for coffee losses,” he added,

The 100% threshold

A section of Xavier Sabastine’s farm at Thavinjal village stands on a hill, so the farm did not suffer the total devastation several other farms faced during the floods. However, after the floods, his rubber trees, coffee and pepper plants have started dying.

“There was just too much moisture in the air this time. The rubber leaves have started falling, this means we can't get the rubber milk this season. The leaves usually fall only in December,” says Xavier, explaining that he was banking heavily on his income from rubber this year. “It is the same with coffee and pepper, these plants also are all dying. Excess moisture means more fungal growth and they are spreading fast. In the coming weeks, all farmers across the district will start losing their yield,” he says.

But Xavier cannot claim losses for the yield loss, nor can he claim losses for his banana plantation that got inundated by the flood.

“The agricultural relief is provided only those who have suffered 100% crop losses, those who have suffered losses below this threshold are not eligible for relief. And the present relief is not enough, am ashamed to tell the rates to farmers,” says KG Sunil, an agricultural officer with Thavinjal panchayat. The state government will have to come up with a package that covers both crop loss and yield losses, he adds.

Regi KV, an assistant agricultural officer for Thavinjal panchayat explains, “This panchayat has over 25,000 registered farmers, but there are over 40,000 people in this region who are farming something or the other. But not all of them can report losses as for most of them the crop losses are below 100%. Despite the crop loss eligibility criteria within a few days we received about 1,600 applications reporting 100 % crop loss, so imagine the number of farmers who cannot report their losses,” said the official.

“This is not right, even in the case of crop insurance various levels of losses are considered,” says Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu, Executive Director, Center for Sustainable Agriculture. “If the crop loss is above 50% the officials are obliged to accept the applications,” he argues. 

For the farmers to get relief the crop loss threshold should be above 50 % as per the guidelines under the National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF). “The financial assistance from SDRF/NDRF is only for providing “immediate relief” and is not compensation for loss/damage to properties /crops” read the guidelines. The farmers are treating the relief as their compensation.

Small farmers and labourers stressed 

The condition of farm labourers is even worse since they do not even have land ownership to fall back on. Arjuna from Thavinjal village does agricultural labour work on a hire basis to earn a living and has no other source of income. He has been out of work since August. “After the heavy rains and floods got over no one wants to pour money into repairing their farms. Even the tea plantations are not hiring as there are no buds to nip,” he says. The only working member of the four-member family now is Arjuna’s wife, who works as a house help in Kozhikode. “I have no skills other than farm work, there are no industries or anything for us to gain such skills around here,” he says. 

Babu doesn't own the 50 cents of land where he sowed Rs 10,000 worth of paddy this year. The tenant farmer relies on the hay from the paddy farm to keep his milk supply business going. But with the heavy floods the paddy, his source of fodder for his cows is now lost. “All the labour work that was done at the farm, the money I spent for it, it is all gone,” says the 48-year old whose main source of income is by selling milk from the four cows he owns. “I had five cows but one died in the floods,” said Babu. 

Babu lost Rs 10,000 in paddy farming and intends to borrow money for farming next year.

“For a lot of people in this region cow rearing was a good source of income but we are at a situation where people now have to get rid of their cows as all the hay has is gone. There is simply no hay to feed the cows with,” says Shaji, who also owns five cows.

If fodder for cows are hard to come by, there is no value for chicken in the immediate aftermath of the flood, “The market rate of a kilogram of chicken has plunged to just Rs 100 from Rs 160 for a kilo, the poultry business has taken a hit as well,” says Xavier, who recently ventured into the poultry business to diversify his income.

Lack of crop insurance

None of the farmers TNM spoke to had insured their crops. Only around 55,000 farmers in Kerala have enrolled in 2018-19 under the State Crop Insurance Scheme in Kerala, according to the Agriculture Insurance Company of India (AIC). Under the scheme, the state and centre will bear 75-50% of the premiums depending on the crop. Recent revisions have brought down the premium rates, but most farmers find some of the scheme’s clauses problematic, which they say drive up their costs.

Abdullah gives an example about one such rule: “For banana and plantain, the scheme says we must tie the trees with ropes to each other so that they don’t fall when there is heavy wind. This work adds to our labour costs, and when we compare the total labour costs to the return on investments, our profits take a hit,” he explains.

“Another reason why farmers are averse to the idea of taking crop insurance is the difficulty in getting the claims,” explains Ramanjayalu. “The bigger the unit size for declaring an area drought-hit the lower the chance for a farmer to get compensation. This makes taking crop insurance unattractive," he says, adding that there is an ongoing debate on this. 

The state has notified the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana and Restructured Weather Based Crop Insurance Scheme (RWBCIS) for these years Kharif season. In the wake of the floods, more farmers are expected to insure their crops this year.

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