Kerala's new Bill protects paddy fields, but farmers find fewer reasons to cultivate rice
Faced with severe rice shortage and acute water scarcity, Kerala Assembly on July 24 passed a legislation prohibiting indiscriminate reclamation of paddy fields. The Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Bill, 2007, received the governor's assent in early August and is now being printed for notification.
Though rice is the staple food of the state, the area under rice cultivation has been dwindling for the last three decades. The recent spurt in real estate business has accelerated the trend. According to the State Planning Board, the state lost over 5,00,000 hectares (ha) of land under paddy cultivation between 1980 and 2007; the harvest almost halved to 630,000 tonnes during the period. Large-scale filling up of paddy fields has badly affected the state's food security, groundwater availability and ecological sustainability.
Kerala has always been food deficient since its formation in 1956. The gap between the requirement and production of rice has been showing an increasing trend in the past decades (see graph Sliding food line). The deficit which was about 50 per cent in the 1960s, increased to more than 75 per cent in the 1990s and to an alarming level of 85 per cent in 2007-2008. At present, the state produces only one-sixth of its total food grain requirement. For the rest, it depends on the Centre and neighbouring states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
"Decreasing rice production, collapse of the public distribution system, frequent cuts in ration allotments and rising prices of rice in open markets have badly affected Kerala's food security," says S Usha, a food and agriculture expert working with Thanal, a Thiruvananthapuram-based ngo.
The hue and cry over the acute food crisis and people's struggles against large-scale filling up of paddy fields gaining momentum pushed the government to come up with the legislation, despite stiff resistance from the real estate lobby.
"The situation is grave...the legislation aims to save the remaining paddy fields," says State Revenue Minister K P Rajendran who piloted the legislation. "The Assembly select committee conducted public hearings in all 14 districts of the state. Over 16, 000 people participated in the public hearings," says the minister. Among other provisions, the bill slaps a fine of Rs 50,000 to Rs one lakh and up to three years of imprisonment for those found guilty of converting or filling up paddy fields.
Agriculture officers will be made responsible to ensure that paddy fields do not remain fallow or are reclaimed. In case of violations, they are to report to the revenue divisional officer. If the government officials fail in their duty, they will get the same punishment as that of the violators. Further, if farmers leave their land fallow, the authorities can hand it over to others for paddy cultivation on lease. Also, there will be a local level monitoring committee that includes village panchayats and farmers' representatives among others to ensure effective implementation of the Act.
While paddy farmers in the state appreciate the legislation, many feel that before making paddy cultivation mandatory, the government should have addressed the questions of why farmers leave their fields fallow or why they switch over to non-paddy crops.
There are about 300,000 paddy cultivators in the state and most of them are marginal farmers with the average holding of 0.33 ha--one-fifth of the national average. While the production cost of paddy in the state is one of the highest in the country, at around Rs 25,000 a ha, its support price has not changed much from Rs 5. 34 a kg in 1995 to Rs 10 a kg in 2007.
"As for the incentives and subsidies, there has been quite an obvious discrimination against paddy," says P V Balachandran, director of the Paddy Research Centre, Pattambi. "The production incentive for paddy remains at Rs 350 a ha while that for banana is 20 times higher, at Rs 7,500. Most often farmers don't even bother to avail of this pittance." Subsidies for cash crops like rubber and cardamom are far higher, Rs 20,000 a ha and Rs 40,000 a ha, respectively. According to the Rubber Board, the area under rubber cultivation is steadily increasing; the state added 35,180 ha to rubber plantations during 2005-2007.
While cash crops have been one of the reasons for large-scale conversion of paddy fields, experts also blame the Green Revolution, introduced in the 1970s, for adversely affecting paddy cultivation in the state. "The indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides during the Green Revolution polluted soil and wetlands in the state, and has turned them into wastelands," says Balachandran. Over 7,000 ha of paddy fields in Kuttanad region, once known as Kerala's granary, are now lying fallow.
|Sliding food line
Requirement and availability of rice
|Source Report of the Expert Committee on Paddy Production (1999)|
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