Afra Abubacker and Nacchinakkiniyan M
While most of India suffers from heat waves, Kerala’s Upper Kuttanad paddy fields are rotting in excess summer rain for the last 20 years. The rain had hit 1500 plus acres of ready-to-reap paddy fields, damaging 171 crore rupees worth of crops says official figures.
“For one and half weeks water is logging here, even the harvest machines can’t run on the lands,” says 60-year-old Sarojini from Pothuvoor village in Mannar.
Nearly 240 acres of Pothuvoor village are rotting and labourers from Bengal and Bihar are trying to reap whatever possible from the land. With harvesting machines getting stuck in the swamp, farmers are getting their harvest sickle-sawed by hand, which they complain is financially not viable.
Rajappan, the 70-year-old farmer, says earlier they used to cultivate twice a year which eventually had come down to once a year. Previously, it was the Monsoon floods that threatened farms. However, now with the heavy pre-monsoon showers, the once-in-a-year paddy cultivation has also become a challenge in Kuttanad.
“Only 30 percent of what we cultivated we could reap, rest has simply rotted in the rain,” said farmers of Pothuvoor.
Known as the rice bowl of Kerala, Kuttanad cultivates half of Kerala’s paddy.
Kuttanad follows the rare practice of farming three metres below sea level. Globally, Holland is another place that follows the same. The sub-sea-level farming has been in practice for 150 years and is one of the United Nations recognised heritage centres. However, the heritage farm system is sinking in unseasonal rains.
Kuttanad fields are dug out of the land, making it hard to drain away water naturally. Therefore, the absence of motors that can pump out water leads to waterlogging. Moreover, both Pampa and Achankovil flow in Kuttanad, making any time overflow possible. Yet, pumping arrangements are poor.
“If only the bunds (embankment) were stronger we could’ve started farming earlier in December itself. These bunds were made 30 years before with mud and now have eroded badly. Most motors are not working and the working ones are old,” says 72-year-old Balan, from Pavakkara village.
Pointing towards a small heap of grains, a farmer said it was the only harvest he had got out 5 acres of cultivation. “This kind of summer rain is new, we are not equipped with modern tools to face them,” says 57-year-old Soman.
For harvesting, machines come on contract from Tamil Nadu. But with waterlogging, mud is clogging into the tyres. “I don’t like driving paddy harvesters to these fields. Water is logging for 2-3 feet, and harvesting machines are getting stuck. We have to use another harvester to rope out the stuck one. If that also gets stuck, the only way is to call for a crane,” says Jayapal from Thanjavur.
When asked about the region’s recurring problem, Praneesh from the AIKKMS(All India Krishak Khet Mazdoor Sangathan) said, “The bund road should be raised, and strengthened. And modern machinery should be used for pumping. The one which is now used is 75 years old. Now there are technologies even to pump many cubic metres within an hour. But we are using age-old technology at the time of such a crisis.”
Besides gambling with the unpredictable rains, Kuttanad farmers are also made to bargain a reasonable price for their harvest with mill traders. Taking advantage of the water-logged harvest, mill traders are demanding mandatory deduction (kizhiv) of 10-14 kg per quintile over alleged poor quality grain, leaving farmers at loss. “If only the government purchases harvest on time and regulate mill traders, Kuttanad farming can be saved,” says Balan.