COVID-19 makes Kerala aim for food self-sufficiency

Converting wastelands for farming, promoting kitchen gardening, boosting animal husbandry and fisheries among state’s action plan to become food secure

By Shawn Sebastian
Published: Wednesday 29 April 2020

Kerala's cabinet gave its nod on April 29, 2020, for a Rs 3,000 crore action plan aimed at tiding over the state’s reliance on its neighbours for food needs amid fears that the lockdown due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic could leave the state in a vulnerable situation.

From grains, fruits, vegetables among other food essentials, Kerala’s consumerist society is a deeply dependent one. Truckloads of them from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and other states cross the Kerala border daily.

Whenever supply is disturbed owing to reasons such as a strike, it is usual for the state to feel the shortage — leading to price rice and consumer woes.

Even during the ongoing lockdown, there were concerns when Karnataka closed its borders with Kerala’s northern district of Kasaragod as the latter was a  (COVID-19) hotspot. Though the border was opened later, transportation of vegetables and fruits was affected briefly — leading to shortages.

Over the years, the state’s once-flourishing agrarian society had been witnessing a gradual transformation: From cultivation of food crops to that of cash crops such as spices and rubber.

Conversion of large-scale paddy fields added to the problem. In the past 30 years, Kerala lost more than 70 per cent of its land under paddy cultivation.

Several farmers abandoned the occupation due to a decline in profits while many found income sources elsewhere such as from foreign remittances.

The trigger for the government’s decison is due to fears that a prolonged lockdown could become a reality and supply chains could collapse in neighbouring states  

In a press conference on April 22, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that even as the state was food secure in the short run, considering a prolonged crisis, there was a need for Kerala to be self-reliant in food production.

“We should be able to increase production for our own consumption and reduce our dependency on other states. We should be prepared to face any shortage or scarcity of food,” Vijayan said.

In the cabinet meeting held on April 29, it was decided that the Department of Agriculture will coordinate the ‘action plan’ with the close collaboration of other concerned ministries. “We should give a new life to agriculture in the state,’’ the chief minister said.

The idea was to reclaim wastelands in the state and encourage farming with the coordination of landowners, local government bodies, concerned ministries, and relevant stakeholders, Vijayan said. If the landowner was keen on farming, the government would provide all assistance including marketing help.

Otherwise, voluntary groups such as Kudumbashree would farm the land in collaboration with the landowners.

According to the Department of Agriculture, 109,000 hectares of wastelands are already identified across the state, including vacant plantations and paddy fields.

In addition to these, 1,40,000 hectares of additional land would be used for side-cropping. The selection of crop would be decided based on soil-nature and climatic conditions of identified plots.

“We should explore all possible ways to improve our vegetable cultivation using kitchen gardens, rooftop cultivation and community projects by making the best use of the available land in the ztate,’’ Vijayan added, emphasising the importance of increasing vegetable production. 

He said the idea was not to cling onto traditional farming but to explore advancements in agricultural techniques to boost productivity within limited land resources while increasing farmers’ income. The government would also setup cold storages in places where there was excess agriculture production.

“In the past, we have often failed to increase value for our agricultural produces,’’ he said adding that emphasis would be to add value for farmers’ products.

The government would promote the traditional local markets while exploring the possibilities in digital marketing as well. The short-term plan will be rolled out from June onwards to enable harvesting in September — coinciding with the peak in demand during the festival of Onam. 

Even as the supply of grains was ensured via the public distribution system, the state should produce more vegetables and fruits while reviving its traditional crops such as tapioca and other tubers, he said.

"We need to increase rice cultivation to over 25,000 hectares in the next two years. Cultivation of cereals, tuber crops, tapioca, and plantain / banana should be increased to a larger area,’’ Vijayan said.

To encourage more people to take up farming, the government plans to make interest-free and / or low-interest credit available to farmers through cooperative banks. The chief minister has also exhorted the youths and returning unemployed expatriates to take up farming for giving a new face to the state’s agriculture.

In addition, emphasis will be given for promoting animal husbandry and fisheries with the coordination of local government bodies. Each panchayat will be encouraged to start their own dairy farms while Kudumbashree will also be roped in for managing poultry farms.

Fishlings would be deposited in public water bodies while unused water bodies will be utilised for fisheries purpose, Vijayan said. 

During the early days of the ongoing lockdown itself, Vijayan had urged the public to make the lockdown time productive by engaging in vegetable cultivation in their backyards. He further had directed local bodies to make seeds available for those keen on farming.

Several local bodies had followed his call. An example is the Vadakkekkara gram panchayat in Ernakulam district where as many as 4,827 families have begun vegetable farming in their backyards.

People are less affected by the lockdown in other local bodies such as in Kanjikuzhy gram panchayat in Kottayam district. The gram panchayat has, in the past, received several accolades and awards for implementing large scale household-based organic kitchen gardens.

The majority of 8,600 families in the panchayat have what is needed for their own consumption. The panchayat had harvested over 40,000 tonnes of organic vegetables in 2018 — reflecting the scale of productivity.

As nodal agencies in charge of implementation, the government has asked all local bodies in the state to revise their ongoing annual plan before May 15 to include the proposed agricultural revamp scheme. 

The ruling Left Democratic Front government had made food self-self-sufficiency a priority after coming to power in 2016. Vegetable production in the state increased to 9.5 lakh tonnes in 2019, from 6.5 lakh tonnes in 2016.

Similarly, the area under vegetable cultivation has more than doubled from 42,477 hectares in 2012-13.   

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