In a green haven in Kerala, a rubber plantation, honey bee farm, vegetable garden, dairy farm and much more is managed by jail inmates.

Prisoners at this open jail in Kerala are leading an agri revolution worth Rs 2 crore
Delve Agriculture Saturday, March 07, 2020 - 19:02

In a hilly area with a constant cool breeze is a well-maintained rubber plantation, honey bee farm, vegetable garden, dairy farm with numerous cows, a goat farm, poultry farm, and what not. In lush green surroundings always filled with the chirping of parrots, buzzing of bees and cries of peacocks. There is a small check dam to irrigate and catch freshwater fish. Men in white shirts and blue dhotis are busy working everywhere. This is how they earn around Rs 2 crore income for the state every year.

This green haven is a jail in Kerala. The highest income generating jail in the state. Nettukaltheri open jail lies about 35 km from Thiruvananthapuram city, close to the famous Neyyar wildlife sanctuary. The jail consists of 274 acres of land in one campus and another 200 acres in Thevancode annexe, which is about 8 km away. This huge expanse of land, which has no boundary walls, no lock-ups or armed police, is where 387 inmates live and work. They all reside in a dormitory that is located amidst this greenery.

Vijayan*, who takes care of the vegetable farm, is busy removing weeds and watering the cabbage garden. Pointing to him, the prison’s Agriculture Officer WR Ajith Singh asks, “Do you know him? Once he was a regular face seen in media. Now he is the best farmer here in the prison, he takes care of all the vegetable cultivation.”

Though this reporter couldn’t recognise him, his name was very familiar and easily brought to mind the case he was associated with – the Kalluvathukkal hooch tragedy where 41 people died after consuming adulterated liquor. Vijayan, an abkari contractor, claims he was innocent and trapped by some others in the case. He has spent the last 20 years in Nettukaltheri jail as a farmer.

However, when it comes to vegetable cultivation, Vijayan believes in organic farming, that vegetables should be free from insecticides and pesticides.

“You can see these holes in the leaves? They are made by pests and insects. This proves that we don’t use pesticides. Still the yield is satisfactory,” Ajith Singh says.

High yield, large income

“We have about 20 acres of vegetable cultivation here. Spinach, cauliflower, cabbage, long beans, ladies finger, red ladies finger, long beans, cucumber, strawberries and many other varieties are grown. We use only organic manure and pesticides. A huge quantity of the self-produced vegetables are used in the prison mess and the rest is sold outside through our sale units,” he adds. The income from vegetables was more than Rs 10 lakh in 2018. A group of 50 inmates have been deployed daily to take care of the vegetable farm.

It is under Ajith Singh’s supervision that farming techniques have been modernised, green house and drip irrigation introduced, and new varieties of plants are being developed in the nursery.

Rubber plantations are one of the major income generators for the jail. The income from rubber is about Rs 1 crore per year. “More than 60 inmates are engaged daily in tapping of rubber trees. They start work around 5.45 am. We produce around 1,000 rubber sheets daily in Nettukaltheri,” Chief Jail Warden Sajikumar says.

The rubber tapped from the trees is made into sheets and dried under the sun as well as in a smoke room by the inmates. There is also a rubber and coconut tree nursery in the jail, where inmates develop high quality varieties by themselves. The total income from rubber trees in 2018 was more than Rs 96 lakh. The income has been almost the same for the last many years.

Apiculture is done in the midst of the rubber plantation. Beehives are kept on platforms between the rubber trees. Ravi*, who takes care of the bee farm, follows his own ethical code when collecting honey. Taking out a slice of bee comb from a box, he says, “I collect honey without harming the bees. Some would smoke the box to remove the bees. But I remove them by blowing. We should not smoke the bees,” he says.

Ravi is serving time after being convicted of murdering six people of a family. However, he says he is a changed man with more compassion for the living beings around us. He also says that life and practising agriculture in the jail has changed him a lot, that he is ready for his release in March end after 20 years of imprisonment.

“The experience at this jail will help inmates like Ravi to work hard after release and begin a new and changed life,” Sajikumar says.

The honey from the bee farm, which the officers claim is in high demand, is sold through the jail’s sale units. “We sell our products through the sale unit counter near the main entrance; thrice a week we also sell the products outside Poojappura Central Jail. Wherever it is, all our products are sold out within a few hours,” S Babu, Assistant Superintendent of the jail, says.

Another major income generator for the jail is poultry. In 2018, the jail made more than Rs 57 lakh just from poultry, apart from Rs 6 lakh from eggs. “Poultry provides us good income. We produce about 10,000 kg of poultry meat per month. We sell it through freedom food counters where food prepared by Poojappura Central Jail inmates is available. Now all of our chickens have been used and we have to start again by getting new chicks,” Ajith Singh notes.

The jail also has a livestock farm with more than 50 cows, 20 buffaloes and 50 goats. “We generate more than Rs 6 lakh per year from milk and curd alone. The meat from goat farming provides extra income. We provide the livestock natural feed, grass cultivated here for the cows, and we also use other leaves as feed for goats,” he adds. The jail also organises an annual auction sale for their buffaloes, cows and goats.

Next to the vegetable garden is the carpentry workshop where around 10 inmates are busy finishing a work order for desks and benches for a nearby school.

“These are gifted carpenters, their work is really professional. In fact, every inmate here has one or the other talent. We just give them training and the opportunity to pursue their interests,” Babu says.

Most of the furniture used in the jail is made by the inmates themselves; orders are also taken from other government departments. Those who are skilled in carpentry also take classes for others who are interested.

The jail has a check dam for irrigation purposes, where freshwater fish are grown with the help of the Fisheries department. Tilapia, Catla, Rohu and many other varieties are farmed, and the jail sold fish for Rs 1 lakh just a few months ago.

Chief Jail Warden Sajikumar, S Babu, Assistant Superintendent of the jail and WR Ajith Singh, the Agriculture Officer

Twenty-five acres of coconut plantation, eight acres of fodder grass cultivation for the livestock, floriculture, tuber crops farm with more than 15 varieties, duck farm where more than 350 eggs are collected per day and many fruit trees cultivation – all of these make the jail a green land of hope.

How inmates are selected for open jail

Apart from Nettukaltheri, Kerala has another open jail – Cheemeni in Kasaragod district. Disciplined, healthy inmates from the state’s central jails who have been allotted regular parole and have completed three years of imprisonment in a closed jail are eligible to be admitted in open jails.

A selection committee, comprising the central prison superintendent, zonal director general of police, chief welfare officer, central prison medical officer and open prison superintendent, decides which inmates should be sent to open jail. Habitual offenders, convicts serving death sentences, terrorists, those convicted for heinous crimes against women and children, and those charged under the POCSO Act are not considered for the open prison. In open jails, inmates stay in a dormitory in six barracks, and are free to walk around. There are no handcuffs, no cells, lock-ups or armed security – the inmates lead a self-disciplined life.

Nettukaltheri was established in 1962. The 486 acres of land, including the Thevancode annexe, was given by the Forest department to start the jail. Nettukaltheri has about 300 inmates, of which more than 250 are serving life imprisonment. Another 90 inmates might join in another month, as the campus and its annexe have a sanctioned capacity of 391 inmates.

Nettukaltheri jail has a recreational hall, where inmates can read newspapers or watch TV, apart from a prayer hall, library and a yoga hall. The jail’s library contains around 20,000 books and is the biggest prison library in the state.

Inmates are allotted a 15-day parole every 75 days. Another 15 days extra parole is allotted as home leave. For their work in the jail, the inmates are paid a daily wage of Rs 230, from which a small amount is deducted for their canteen expenses. They are allowed to make calls, and buy extra items from the canteen. When they are released from prison, the money they earned from the jail is transferred into their account.

“When they leave the jail, they have this amount in their account. This money will help them start a new life outside,” Babu says.

* Names changed

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