Kerala’s agriculture is at the brink of collapse. Will the communism-loving state wake up?

Kerala’s agriculture is at the brink of collapse. Will the communism-loving state wake up?
Kerala’s agriculture is at the brink of collapse. Will the communism-loving state wake up?
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Agricultural land reform in Kerala by the communist party in the 1950s was the backbone of leftist political movement. With the war cry "land for the tillers", the first EMS Namboodiripad government rammed through revolutionary land reform legislation in the state assembly. But nearly 70 years later, the agriculture sector of the state is in doldrums. Kerala’s polity knows it, but has few solutions.

The slow, yet consistent, collapse of Kerala’s agriculture is alarming. State Economic Survey 2014 reported that the contribution of agriculture to the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) has steadily declined from 36.8% in 1980-81 to a mere 8.95% in 2013-14. From 2008-09, agriculture’s contribution to GSDP had dropped by more than 4% points in 2012-13.

According to the State Planning Board (2011) data, the state is producing only about 12% of its total requirement for rice. In 1960-61 Kerala produced more than 10 lakh tons of rice. By 2012-13 rice production was down to 5.08 lakh tons. By 2012-13, in just a single year, area under rice cultivation had declined by 5.2%, and the production itself dropped by 10.2%.

Production of major food crops in Kerala over the last 6 decades

In 1960-61, Kerala contributed to nearly 70% of the country’s coconut production. In 2011-12, it was at 42%. It dropped further by 2.3% points the next year.

However, when it comes to cash crops like cashew and pepper, there has been consistent increase in production, although the area under cultivation has been reducing.

National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) conducted a Situation Assessment Survey in 2013. According to their data, as opposed to 57.8% of national households declaring themselves as agricultural, 27.3% did so in Kerala. And of those households in Kerala, nearly two-thirds earn income from activities other than agriculture.

Why is this happening?

The most important reason seems to be the land policy. “It is important to address the fact that in spite of government’s land reforms which provided ownership of land to the farmers through ‘land to the tiller’ policy, it has not been able to ensure agricultural productivity,” says KG Padmakumar, former Director of the Kerala Agricultural University (KAU), Thrissur.

As a result of the land reforms, agricultural land was fragmented with more and more smaller farmers owning land. While this was seen as a positive development for social justice, cultivation on fragmented land is one of the main problems plaguing agricultural production, according to Padmakumar. Further, unions demanding labour rights curb the mechanization of the sector, adding to the lack of skill of the farmers.

The increasing cost of production coupled with low profitability has also led to the disinterest in the sector. For example, in the case of rice, cost factor has been instrumental in the decline of its production. In 1999-2000, the cost of production of rice was Rs 575 in Kerala, Rs 185 in Punjab and Rs.175 in Andhra Pradesh. Clearly, with the complicated labour laws in the state, competition from the farmers of other states affected Kerala. But this has also contributed to some farmers moving to capital intensive crops like bananas.

 While the national policy in agriculture supports single crop farming, it has not helped Kerala much since the state has smaller farm land holdings. And multi-crop farming is more popular in Kerala due to fragmented land-holding.

How is Kerala’s economy growing then, even if at a slow pace?

No, it’s not because of manufacturing, as we would like it. As a case in point, according to the Department of Economics and Statistics of Kerala, between 2004-05 and 2012-13, industrial manufacturing sector’s contribution to GSDP has actually dropped from 3.84% to 3.42%.

“Our economy is a money order economy”, says KG Padmakumar. He is referring to the ‘pull factor’, encouraging millions of people from state going abroad in search for work and send money back home.

The dip in agricultural production and its contribution to GSDP could be justified if Kerala saw corresponding industrial growth. But what has increased is the service sector and foreign remittance.

Padmakumar, however, considers the shift to a service based economy inevitable. Acknowledging the decrease in production, area of cultivation as well as productivity of crops that has contributed to the slow down, he said that the low contribution of the agricultural sector should be seen as relative contribution of other sectors. But that industrial growth is also not growing is a cause for alarm. This is evident from the financial crisis that the Kerala government is in.

Several steps are being taken to save agriculture. The KAU has introduced the technique of integrated farming in Alappuzha through which fish and rice could be grown simultaneously. Due to this, the cost of production of rice has dropped significantly. Self-help group schemes like Kudumbashree are also trying to revive the agricultural sector. But the Kerala government has to work substantially towards a better economy, and as Padmakumar says, food security, “Considering that we produce food to sustain us for only two months, the dependency on neighbouring states for food is suicidal. The government must work towards achieving food security,” he says.

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