Kochi: Kerala, the land of paradoxes, is now fighting a rearguard action to bring a semblance of logic to rules governing its plantation sector, which accounts for one-fifth of the total cultivable land in the state.
The CPI(M)-led Left Democratoc Front (LDF) government is planning a partial relaxation of critical provisions in the historical Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963, and Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1969, to aid the sector.
The two benchmark Acts are widely seen as pillars of social justice and given the narrative that they led to equitable redistribution of land and protect the rights of tenants from feudal landlords, the LDF government is treading the hallowed grounds of land reforms with utmost caution.
On the anvil, however, is the opening of the plantation sector to grow exotic fruits in the land that was hitherto subject to rigid controls, limiting cultivation to five approved cash crops — rubber, tea, coffee, cardamom and cocoa.
The state’s land reforms, which imposed a 15-acre ceiling on ownership of agricultural land, had exempted the plantation sector on the grounds that they were cash crops coming under the central department of commerce, more capital intensive and required a high volume of labour.
It has been the plantation sector’s refrain that the approved crops were losing their sheen as cash crops, with competition in the global marketplace rendering them as unviable farming options.
The reform move, which has been stalled by the previous governments — both UDF and LDF — under the weight of trade unions and many a Left think-tank, seems to have the backing of the Pinarayi Vijayan government.
Industry watchers say it will be a bold move if the Left government decides to revisit the hallowed grounds marked by milestone decisions taken by stalwarts such as E.M.S. Namboodiripad and C. Achutha Menon.
Decision prompted by rubber prices
The current problem plaguing Kerala stems from the deep rot that has set in, in the farming of rubber. According to the Rubber Board of India, of the 8,22,000 hectares under rubber cultivation in the country during 2018-19, only 6,40,000 hectares or 78 per cent were tapped. In 2019-20, this figure fell to 70 per cent.
Another 10 per cent land has trees that are way past their productive life. Yield per hectare has also been in a free fall, from 1,841 kg/ha in 2011-12 to 1,453 kg/ha in 2018-19. And 85-90 per cent of India’s rubber is grown in Kerala. The case is no different with tea, coffee, cardamom and cocoa, the other approved cash crops.
Result: A massive fall in the plantation sector revenue — from Rs 21,000 crore in 2011-12, it has slumped to around Rs 8,000 crore in 2018-19.
“Most rubber plantations in Kerala have low productivity, based on the age of the trees and the need to provide employment right through the year. The rigidity in the system is reflected in the fact that though FDI in the plantation sector was allowed almost four years ago, there have not been any takers so far,” said Santhosh Kumar, executive director, Harrisons Malayalam Group.
“The recent free fall of rubber prices has been mainly due to cheaper output from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, relegating India to fifth position,” he added.
“We cannot forget that these four countries now grow a bulk of the fruits that we were so far denied but are now being considered. They also mix tourism with plantations.”
The reform problems
A major problem is that there are too many ministries and departments involved in keeping the plantation sector going — Finance, Industries, Revenue, Forest and Labour. And the thinking within the state government, driven by political considerations, is that the push towards reviving the plantation sector by setting up a directorate should come under the labour department.
“The plantation sector is on the verge of collapse as it continues to produce commodities which are in excess supply world over — prime examples being rubber, coffee, tea and pepper,” said Thomas Jacob, former chairman of Association of Planters of Kerala. “Hence, the government has to revisit the compulsions that restricted the use of land by plantations and formulate a strategy.
“The pandemic has shown us how vulnerable we are to food scarcity, since we depend on the supply of a major part of our food from outside the state,” Jacob added. “While land redistribution was necessary a few decades ago, it is no longer a viable option, as economy of scale determines profitability in the global commodity market. Kerala has to plan big and invest in bulk farming.”
The High Range (parts of Idukki district such as Munnar), where most of these estates are located, is agro-climatically suited for growing a basket of exotic fruits — mangosteen, rambutan, durian, passion fruit, grapefruit, dragon fruit, litchi and avocado. Moving up the value chain, fruit farming on such a large scale would throw open the prospects of a cluster for food processing units. While fruit consumption is growing nationally at 17 per cent, in Kerala it is far higher at 24 per cent. With a spike in production, there would also be scope for exports.
“We are aware of the danger posed by large tracts not being cultivated as rubber and other cash crops are no longer financially viable. We are looking at various options,” said Finance Minister Dr T.M. Thomas Isaac.
“There is no argument regarding the need to convert unproductive rubber growing areas into other crops. Allowing the farming of exotic fruits on a large scale is one option. We need to bolster our food production and the scale of such farming could make a difference. But nothing has been finalised.”
Growing demand to revamp approach
There is no ignoring the growing demand for a total revamp of the way Kerala approaches its agriculture requirements. The Covid-19 lockdown was a wake-up call for the state to ramp up its vegetable production given that it had to rely on other states for daily supply.
The agro-climatic classification of farming zones, based on variables like soil, temperature, rainfall patterns in line with a study conducted by the Kerala Agriculture University cannot be ignored for long.
Yes, allowing fruit farming in under-utilised plantations could mark a beginning. But the state government needs to look at total horticulture solutions, vegetables and flowers completing the basket of products. In the days to come, Kerala can truly re-engineer its footprint as a modern farm-based economy with the plantation sector being brought under the industries sector even in the state as it already is at the Centre.
Surely, food processing units, agro-based industries and export oriented units will have to play their role in the changing dynamics. That is, if Kerala is finally looking beyond playing to the gallery, where a majority of spectators are assumed to be waving trade union flags.
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