In Troubled Waters

In coastal Kerala, rice cultivation is alternated with prawn farming. The method requires no fertilisers or pesticides. But many farmers in the area aren't too keen on it. What ails the system? m suchitra and p n venugopal find out

Published: Thursday 15 December 2005

In Troubled Waters

-- (Credit: The quest features)Vast stretches of water-logged, fallow fields, blocked from the backwaters by low mud-and-rock boundary walls. Patches of golden brown rice crops partially submerged in the waters, surrounded by acres of tall kuthiraval weeds. Four women keeled over in waist-deep water, cutting rice stalks; a man pushing a small rowboat with harvested rice stalks on to a shallow canal; another man sitting on his haunches on the outer bund, supervising the work. It's pokkali (a variety of rice) harvesting time in Edavanakkadu on Vypeen island, off the Kochi backwaters in Kerala.

The man on the bund is C Bose, who's been cultivating pokkali for the last three decades in his 1.7 hectares (ha). In no time, his litany of woes bursts out: "These four women have been on the job for seven days. It's very hard to find farm hands for harvesting, these days." Harvesting will be over in another day. Bose is now worried about leasing out the fields for chemmeen kettu (prawn farming). "This season, no offer has come my way," he laments.

Like Bose, most farmers in the saline coastal tracts of Ernakulam, Thrissur and Alappuzha districts of central Kerala alternate pokkali cultivation with prawn farming. These marshy tracts are close to the Arabian Sea, and saline water floods the fields regularly. The high and low tides affect water and salinity levels. In normal course, soil acidity and high salinity would inhibit rice cultivation. "But pokkali is resistant to salinity, flood and soil acidity," points out V Sreekumar, associate professor, Rice Research Centre at Vyttila, Kochi.

The process Rice is cultivated during June-October when water salinity is at its lowest; in November-April, when salinity reaches high levels, farmers resort to traditional prawn farming. Some cultivate the prawns themselves, while others lease out their lands to professional prawn farmers.

In April, farmers start preparing fields for pokkali farming: soil mounds -- a metre in base and half a metre in height -- are formed. Once the south-west monsoon sets in, salts and various toxic elements get washed down from these mounds. They are then ready for germinated paddy seeds to be sown. After 30-40 days in these 'nurseries', the seedlings are transplanted to the field; the crop matures in the next two months. Says K A Joseph, a retired schoolteacher and vice-president of the Pokkali-Chemmeen Karshaka Sangham, a farmers group in Ezhikkara gram panchayat in Ernakulam district, "No other inputs are needed: no manure, no fertiliser, no insecticide, and no chemical of any form." Joseph, who has been a pokkali cultivator for five decades, adds that, "The operation is based on astute water management. Water flow is controlled by shutting and opening the thoompu, the sluice gates".

Pokkali farm soil is inherently fertile, with an adequate organic carbon content of 3 per cent-4 per cent; the tidal inflow also brings in potassium and other nutrients; beneficial microbial flora also flow in. The cultivation also relies on astute biomass use. The Pokkali plants have a good height, but farmers crop off only the earhead, leaving the remaining biomass for the soil. This method replenishes whatever the plant had drawn from the soil.

"The method also relies on the symbiotic nature rice-prawn," says Joseph. In October, when the paddy is mature, the corns are cut off, leaving the stubbles in the field to decay: they form the natural feed for prawns that come into the fields with water once the shutter planks of the sluice gates are removed during high tides. "At night, we place hurricane lamps near the thoompu to attract these creatures," says Dileep, a Edavanakkadu farmer who owns 1.3 ha of pokkali land. "We then place thoombuvala (net) at the mouth of the sluice to prevent prawn seedlings from leaving the fields during low tide," he adds. Prawn harvesting starts by mid-December.

But all is not good
According to the Pokkali Land Development Agency (plda) -- a North Paravur-based Kerala-government body that aims to revitalise Pokkali -- the total area under pokkali has shrunk from 25,000 ha a few decades back, to a mere 8,500 ha now. Only 5,500 ha of that's actually under rice cultivation. The rest is either left fallow or used only for prawn farming.

Unavailability of farm hands, especially for harvesting, is the main cause for the decline. Pokkali harvesting is highly labour-intensive, and the young generation of the traditional farm workers' families prefer other trades, notably construction work in booming Kochi. "Things were very different when I came here after my marriage," reminisces 55-year-old Leela, one of the four harvesters in Bose's field. "The harvest was a festival. The entire village assembled around the fields and harvesting would be over by mid-day". She rues that her three sons, would rather while away their time than help her in the field.

Reaping pokkali is strenuous. Labourers have to stand in knee-deep water for hours, the crop stems are razor sharp and the workers get paid only after threshing, that too in kind: one katta (corn sheaf) for every seven they cut. "Who will be interested in the work if they don't get cash?" asks Sukumaran who was a farm worker till he got employment as a peon in a government office. "All my siblings have also quit the farms," he adds.

Schemes, aborted
The plda did come up with a scheme to pay a bonus of Rs 20 a day to each harvesting worker. But this scheme was wound up when the Congress-led United Democratic Front government came to power in 2000. "There are strict orders from the government directing panchayats to not provide any cash incentive to pokkali farmers and farm hands," points out M K Sivarajan, president of Edavanakkadu gram panchayat and former district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist, cpi-m)-affiliated Karshaka Thozhilazhi Union.

"It was a political decision. After all, most agricultural labourers are cpi-m supporters," he says.

There are other problems. On an average, the farms yield 1,200 kg per ha while the approximate per ha expense is Rs 8,500. The agriculturists can hope to break even only if they get Rs 700 per quintal of rice. But mill owners from surrounding towns who monopolise the market, pay them only Rs 500-Rs 530 per quintal.

Many farmers point out that, that the situation would have been different had the government stepped in to procure paddy. "The government should procure paddy, make arrangements for processing, explore domestic and international markets and sell the rice in ration shops," argues Dileep.

The decline of pokkali culivation has in turn affected prawn farming. The juvenile prawns do not get the high-protein from the decaying stubbles, and are rendered vulnerable to diseases. Adds C G Rajendran, associate professor, aquaculture, at the Rice Research Centre, "Without pokkali the entire area gets flooded, the water becomes even more acidic and there is less oxygen and more hydrogen sulphide; all that is detrimental to the prawn larvae".

Earlier, farmers would make up the loss incurred from rice cultivation by selling prawns. Though prawn farming was an expensive proposition -- around Rs 2 lakhs per ha was required, every year -- farmers got 1,000 kg of prawn, annually, per ha. That was good enough to fetch them a tidy sum, enough to offset the losses from rice cultivation.

But today many farmers complain that they don't get enough prawn seeds from tidal flows, because of large-scale fishing in the backwaters. "Often the seeds we get from hatcheries are virus-infected and all chemmeen kettus gets destroyed," says Joseph. Others lament that there are many agents in Kerala, who sell infected seeds discarded by prawn hatcheries in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. "We do conduct awareness programmes for farmers," says T D Velayudhan, executive director, Agency for Development of Aquaculture, Kerala (adak). "But even then, they end up buying the cheap seeds," he rues. As a result, the annual prawn yields have fallen to about 400-500 kgs, per ha these days.

Deteriorating soil and water
Pokkali-prawn farming is also threatened by deteriorating soil and water quality. Most Pokkali tracts lie close to the Vembanad and Kochi backwaters, both are severely polluted by the indiscriminate effluent discharge from factories, by oil from overboard engines of boats, and also by all kinds of wastes from Alappuzha, Kottayam and Kochi cities and near by towns. Many allege that on the prawn-harvesting day (April 15), contractors sprinkle pesticides in the chemmeen kettus farms to maximise their catch. The idea is to stun or kill the prawns so that they float along rapidly with the drain during the down tide.

But, asserts Azheekkal Peter of Kannamaly village in Ernakulam district, a contractor taking prawn farms on lease for two decades, "This is a baseless allegation. I have never used poison to catch the prawns. Using pesticides would only work to our detriment. A big farm has only two sluice gates and by the time the dead prawns reach these gates, they would not really be fit for consumption."

Disaster check
Meanwhile, groups of pokkali farmers such as the Ezhikkara Pokkali Farmers' Self-help Group are bent on securing organic certification in the hope of selling their products in the international market with plda's help. "If this high quality, tasty and totally organic rice reaches the international market, it will improve the farmers' lot," says Zeenath Akbar, member secretary, plda. But many like Sreekumar feel that soil and water contamination are issues likely to be held against the pokkali farmers.

This year, the plda wants to procure 100 tonnes of the original pokkali seed under a scheme it's implementing in association with the State Seed Development Authority, Thrissur. These will be distributed next year to farmers who have begun using hybrid varieties developed by the Rice Research Centre, in face of shortage of traditional seeds.

Even as the plda goes about its ambitious programmes, the agency faces a severe cash crunch. It has not received any funds from the government in the last two years. Meanwhile, the Rice Research Centre has come up with a new hybrid variety for Pokkali farmers, vlta 6; this variety is responsive to fertiliser use.

Asked, if this would not destroy the uniqueness of Pokkali, Sreekumar remarked: "Yes, that cannot be ruled out. But then vlta 6 would at least make pokkali cultivation economically viable."

Or would it sound the death knell of pokkali?

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