COVID-19 takes the spice out of Wayanad’s ginger farmers

 The ginger farmers — referred to as inchikkarans by locals — migrate to Karnataka, lease about 25 to 250 acres of land to cultivate ginger

By R Aswati Nair
Published: Thursday 30 April 2020

The decision by the Union government to relax restrictions on the farming sector may come as a silver lining for several farmers during the nationwide lockdown. It may — to a certain extent — mitigate the adverse impact of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the agriculture sector.

Life has come to a complete standstill, however, for the approximately 2,000 ginger farmers in north Kerala’s Wayanad district.

The farmers — referred to as inchikkarans by locals — are in a predicament, different from what is experienced by other farmers, as they practice reverse agricultural migration. They seasonally migrate to different regions in Karnataka, with each taking about 25 to 250 acres of land on lease every year for ginger cultivation.

Nominal lease rates, lower wages of farm workers, rich soil, availability of large tracts of land and attractive agricultural policies contributed to this flight of ginger farmers from Kerala — known as the land of spices — to Karnataka.

The profits of the farmers surged and — till last season — their yield was approximately 400 bags of 60 kilograms of ginger per acre. The inchikkarans managed to build a sustainable and mutually beneficial agricultural system by winning the confidence of people in the oorus or village clusters where they invested in.

A cultivator from Wayanad would develop the leased land, ensure proper irrigation facility and provide employment to locals in the farm, boosting their income.

The locals would receive a tilled land with irrigation installations — ready to be used for cultivating local crops in the coming season — once the lease term ended. The fortunes of the farmers, however, took a turn for the worse, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lockdown coincided with the ginger planting time, leaving more than half of the ginger farmers with debts and financial crises.

This, in addition to sudden social alienation and stigma they faced, with Kerala becoming the first state to report the country’s first three COVID-19 cases on January 30, 2020.

“We had always worked in harmony. But with cases surging in Kerala, villagers alleged that people from Kerala were spreading the infection. We suddenly became outsiders and were asked to leave,” said KN Haridas, a ginger farmer who has cultivated ginger in Karnataka for the past 11 years.

This year was already a difficult one for Haridas and his partner Shinoj KJ: Water scarcity turned their leased land into an unplowable pit. This did not dampen their will and they decided to take another plot on lease to cultivate ginger. The locals, however, refused to work for them, forcing them to return to Wayanad, where they were home quarantined for the past 28 days as mandated by Kerala government.

A few others, who are stuck in Karnataka, are anxiously waiting for the borders to open to return to their homes. Some others managed to convince local village leaders to cultivate land were able to do so in only 40-50 per cent of the leased land till mid-April.

Map showing Wayanad in Kerala

Wayanad shares a border with Karnataka, where the ginger farmers go to cultivate their crops Source: Wikimedia Commons

“We could only get few people to work in our field, at double the labour cost,” said ginger farmer Jose KU.

Delayed planting not only increases the risk of soil-borne diseases that is likely to be triggered with the onset of the south west monsoon, but may also result in low yield in October and November.

The state government is taking necessary measures to bring back the farmers from different parts of Karnataka who would then be quarantined for 14 days after entering their respective districts in Kerala.

India is a leading global producer of ginger, with around 1.7-1.8 million tonnes produced in the last three years. While there is no official assessment of the loss to ginger farmers, they said there will be a major dip in new yield this year.

A huge stock of ‘old’ ginger also lies unsold in leased farms as big mandis or wholesale vegetable markets in Delhi and Maharashtra are barely operational. ‘Old’ ginger demand in the local market grows from January to April during the festive season across the country.

There is also an increased demand from hotels during this period, as tourist arrival in India is at its peak. But not this time.

Unsold ginger now amounts to approximately 36 quintals, or 60 bags, per farmer. The cumulative stock of the 2,000-odd ginger farmers would create a disparity in supply and demand once the lockdown is lifted, further pushing the market price down.

Despite the odds, inchikkarans have not changed their crop plans and hope to return to work in their leased land in Karnataka once the lockdown is over and inter-state travel is permitted.

Their confidence spurts from the belief that Kerala's negative image as COVID-19 epicentre in India is now erased with the state’s successful efforts to control the infection and flatten the curve.

It is also their basic nature to take risks and invest in ginger farming that is rife with speculative economy and replete with ‘rags-to-riches’ stories along with those of financial ruin.

The probable silver lining here is that post-pandemic, the demand for immunity boosters like ginger — that fight cold and fever — may increase. But will there be enough ginger harvest? The farmers are uncertain.

One thing is, however, certain. In this dark period, the gloomy prospects of farmers, including the inchikkarans, calls for immediate attention from the centre. When a farmer does well, so does the rest of the country.

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