AS farmers struggled to cope with heavy losses caused by untimely rain, the ruling Left Democratic Front and the opposition United Democratic Front were involved last week in arguments over the relative roles of Nature and the trade unions in the tragedy.
Farmers of Kuttanad, endeavouring to recapture the region's glory as Kerala's granary, had brought 25,232 hectares under paddy this year, as against 22,814 hectares last year.
As harvesting began, hopes ran high with early reports putting the yield at six tonnes a hectare.
The expected triumph turned into tragedy when an unusually heavy spell of summer rain destroyed the paddy crops awaiting harvest in several parts of the State. Other crops also suffered damage.
The loss, now estimated at close to Rs1 billion, may go up as the rain was continuing unabated during the weekend.
The UDF, which raised the issue in the State Assembly, said the paddy crop in Kuttanad could have been saved if the Kerala State Karshaka Thozhilali Union, the farmers' body controlled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had not blocked the use of harvesting machines.
Although Kerala has the highest unemployment in the country, there is acute shortage of labour in many areas of activity, include farming, because young people are unwilling to do manual labour.
The CPI (M), which opposed mechanisation for years to prevent job losses, has now slightly modified its position on the use of machines. It has dropped its objection to farm machines but wants their use restricted in such a way that the farm labourers, who are under its flag, are not adversely affected.
The UDF leaders alleged that farmers who wanted to use machines had to apply to the union and pay a fee to obtain permission. The CPI (M) and the KSKTU denied the charge. They accused the opposition of seeking to politicise a natural calamity.
The fact is that the union leadership had decided last year to draw up an annual farm calendar and enforce it in Kuttanad this year. The party and the union did not deny press reports in this regard.
An Alappuzha-datelined report in the Indian Express of April 10, 2007, had said comrades are making sure farmers stick to the good old sickle just as their forefathers did. It added they were working on a diktat "specifying which individual farmer could sow and reap when, from next year."
Outlining the contemplated procedure, the report, under the byline of Rajeev PI, added that each farmer must apply to the local office of the Travancore Karshaka Thozhilali Union, which was a part of KSKTU, for permission to use machines.
The union will consider the applications on a case-by-case basis. It will send inspection teams to the farms to determine whether union members are really not available do the work manually.
"Any farmer who dares to use a farm machine without union sanction has to be ready for the consequences," it said.
The reporter's source was TKTU general secretary CK Bodhanandan, who was quoted as saying, "We are finalising a calendar for farmers here. From next year, they should plant and harvest at the times specified in it for each, so that enough workers are available, so that they need not come to us asking to be allowed to hire machines." Bodhanandan explained that the union had decided that farm owners should stagger their operations so as to "fit their farming with the availability of union hands to do the farm work."
The report said farmers using machines with the union's permission were required to pay the workers nokkukooli (wages for looking on). For years head-load workers' unions have been extracting nokkukooli from those who engage persons other than their members to carry loads.
Bodhanandan said his union had not authorised levy of nokkukooli and would punish members who took it. However, several instances of collection of unearned wages have been reported.
The union has not taken any action in such cases.
Father Thomas Peeliyanikkal of the Kuttanad Vikasana Samithi, a church-based farm development body, told reporter Rajeev that farm owners suggested that the union might form labour collectives to own and maintain farm machines, but the union was not interested.
Nature and the union made their own contributions to Kuttanad's present misery.
The State government, too, must share the blame for the delay in harvesting since it failed to intervene in time and promote a settlement between the farm owners and labourers. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 24, 2008.