THE Kerala Assembly, before going into recess last week, adopted a measure aimed at saving the State's vanishing rice fields. There are good reasons to believe that it is doomed to fail.
The measure contains loopholes which may well defeat its purpose. One of its provisions permits the government to acquire the fields for any public purpose. Another allows the land owner to raise other crops by way of "rotation of crops."
Rice, once a major crop of Kerala, has been on the decline since the birth of the State. The process has gained speed in recent years. According to official figures, during the eighth, ninth and tenth five-year plans, covering the period 1992-2007, the area under paddy shrank annually by 22,000 hectares, 13,000 hectares and 11,657 hectares respectively. Currently, the area under paddy is less than 275,000 hectares. Many farmers abandoned rice cultivation as high wages and input costs made it uneconomical.
Wage levels in the State are among the highest in the country, thanks to the farm labour unions' bargaining capacity. Fragmentation of holdings resulting from the rise in population in the early part of the last century also contributed to the development. Many holdings were too small to permit the use of machines. Even large ones could not use machines because of opposition from the unions.
The much acclaimed land reform made its contribution too. The tenants, who benefited from it, wanted their children to take up white-collar jobs instead of going into farming. In their hands, land became an asset to be used to further their middle class ambitions. Those who retained interest in farming switched to remunerative cash crops. Those who lost interest in it either sold the land or left it fallow and switched to other occupations.
Over the years, the government took several steps to restore rice to its former glory, but did not succeed. In 2004-05, the Agriculture department launched a scheme to grow paddy on fallow land. Two years later, an official report acknowledged that it had not been effective.
A law that prohibits the use of paddy fields for other purposes except with the government's prior permission has been in force for many years already. This has not prevented the raising of other crops in such fields or their conversion into housing plots.
Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, while in the opposition, had personally led a campaign to save paddy fields. The agitation took the form of wanton destruction of banana plantations raised on paddy fields.
The disappearance of paddy fields, which were an important element in the State's natural drainage system, has disturbed the ecological balance. This has brought environmental groups into the campaign to save the fields.
The Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Bill, which the Assembly passed on Thursday, contains provisions designed to encourage rice cultivation and protect the environment.
The bill came before the Assembly with several changes recommended by the select committee. One of them provides for payment of bonus to rice cultivators. The bonus will be fixed taking into account the cost of production and the need to assure the farmer a reasonable income.
The government accepted a few more amendments on the floor of the house. One of them allows the farmer to convert up to five cents in urban areas and ten cents in rural areas for residential purposes.
The bill prescribes a jail term of six months to two years and a fine of Rs50,000 to Rs100,000 for offenders. During the debate, Kerala Congress leader KM Mani pointed out that the provision to award punishment even for offences committed before the bill was enacted was unconstitutional. Thereupon Revenue Minister KP Rajendran agreed to drop it.
The Nelkrishi Samrakshana Vedi (Paddy Cultivation Protection Front), an umbrella organization of environmental groups, has said the government will be able to permit continued conversion of paddy fields by invoking the "public causes" provision. It wants a moratorium on reclamation of fields and wetlands even for public purposes until the State has achieved food security.
Recently the State government took up a food security scheme which envisages raising crops on fallow lands with the help of Kudumbasree, comprising women's self-help groups. The scheme is not limited to rice.
Like earlier measures, the new ones too do not address the core problem. Farmers cannot be forced to raise a crop that is not remunerative on pain of imprisonment.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 28, 2008.