“Kerala: Identifying Food Security with Self-sufficiency”, ‘Business Line’, 14 May 2008.

Among the many public statements on the implications for food security of the current global inflation perhaps the most significant is Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan’s observations on Kerala. Addressing a rally of trade unions in Thiruvananthapuram on May 1 he is reported (“VS: State must become self-sufficient”, ‘The Hindu’, May 2) to have said two things worthy of attention. First, in the context of the global food crisis he had called for an all-out effort to make Kerala self-sufficient in the production of food. Secondly he had gone on to say: “Youngsters are reluctant to stop and dig up the soil a bit and plant a few vegetables. All they do is dress up well in the morning and roam around. This must change. We must try and produce vegetables in the small holdings we have.” These are both significant statements in the current historical context in Kerala. That they were made to a trade union rally on the occasion of International Workers’ Day is doubly significant. Not only did the speech not take the congratulatory form customary on the occasion but it actually identified a role for workers in the betterment of their own lives.     

            In speaking out so clearly, Mr. Achuthanandan has not only shown himself to be critically alive to the issue but also distanced himself from the standard discourse on Kerala’s economic development, one that has hitherto been monopolised by the bonded intellectuals of the Malayali establishment. It’s central dogma is that Kerala’s achievements are superior to that of all other regions of India and that it derives uniquely from the brief but brilliant rule of the Mr. E.M.S. Namboodiripad. Now, a full half-century later we are able to see very clearly that while his government successfully destroyed landlordism and liberated many from agrarian bondage, its contribution to the longer-term development of Kerala has been limited. This is not surprising for reasons that I shall make clear shortly. However, of all the failings of the so-called Kerala Model, failure on the food front is the most significant. Its manifestation is the all-party delegation that flees to Delhi at the first sign of shortage, to plead for greater allocation to the State from the central grain pool. It is the only occasion on which the participants in an otherwise fratricidal party-political engagement ever come together.

            As land reforms are considered the one outstanding achievement of the Kerala development experience, the obvious question to ask is why this has not solved the food problem once and for all. Why after fifty years does Kerala depend on Andhra Pradesh for rice, Tamil Nadu for vegetables and Karnataka for meat? A society based on external dependence on food to such an extent cannot be considered a model. Far from having been able to bring about a permanent increase in the rate of growth of rice, successive governments of the State have presided over the steady decline in its cultivation despite the much-publicised land reforms. This is because land reforms in Kerala have been implemented as a means to re-distribute land, not to raise its productivity. In the implementation of land reforms and the agricultural policy that accompanied it, successive governments in Kerala have been relentlessly re-distributivist. Thus land taken away from landlords was re-distributed among erstwhile tenants who were not even required to cultivate the land given to them leave alone till it themselves. The last assumes significance in that Kerala’s land reforms were legislated by a Communist government. Mostly land went to the intermediary between the landlord and the labourer, seldom to the ‘tiller of the land’. This is left unsaid, though it was pointed out even at the time by the historian Daniel Thorner who had in India found refuge from the witch-hunt against alleged communists in McCarthy’s America.

            Fifty years after, land reforms in Kerala appear more Thatcherite than socialist in that it had the effect of merely multiplying private proprietorship in land than to rejuvenate a decadent feudal agriculture. Recall that in 1957 there was the option of vesting ‘surplus’ land with the state and leasing it out to prospective tillers. Not only would this have been more in the spirit of socialism but it would also have avoided the problem of small and unviable holdings that we are now faced with. Even more significantly it would have prevented the conversion of agricultural land into real estate in so rampant a manner as we see occurring around us today. That many beneficiaries of the land reforms are themselves contributing to this alienation of prime agricultural land is encouraged by the interpretation of socialism as the natural right to receive benefits from society without the duty to contribute anything in return. Why there is no food security in Kerala despite land reforms may now be comprehended. Actually, it is still not too late for the Government of Kerala to decree that beneficiaries of the land reforms must transfer the land to the Government if they do not cultivate it. Government may then lease it out top those willing to cultivate it, of whom there are many. Further, reversal of the by now irrelevant anti-tenancy legislation is long overdue. Existing tenancy law banning tenancy is fuelled by the dogma that all tenancy is exploitation. It prevents the needed re-allocation of resources and hastens the alienation of agricultural land. As a response to the latter, even conversion of paddy land by owners of land since before the land reform should be banned in the public interest.

            In most matters relating to the gravity of the food situation and in seeking to remedy it by raising production the observations of Mr. Achuthanandan are entirely correct. However, he was far from convincing when at the same May Day rally he had gone on to remark that “Kerala would have become self-sufficient in the availability of food grains long ago if the first EMS government was not dismissed before it could carry out the land reforms”. There is little evidence for this. While it is correct that the original proposals for land reforms had to be watered down due to the compulsions of coalition politics, for EMS could return to power only with the support of the Muslim League, it is clear that short of land going to the tiller there would have little chance of raising its productivity. Moreover, the problem of far too many unviable land holdings after re-distribution could not have been avoided even if the land reforms were fully implemented by an EMS Ministry allowed to serve out its term. Nevertheless Mr. Achuthanandan’s identification of food security with self-sufficiency is one of the most far-sighted observations made by a Malayali politician in recent times. Its implication is that production must now be brought into centre-stage, for you can be self-sufficient only if you produce all that you need.

            Lack of self sufficiency in food is also the cause of forced emigration. If Kerala has to buy food it must sell something in turn. If it has no goods to sell, because high labour-cost leaves it uncompetitive, at least some part of the expenditure on food must come out of income transfers. To ensure this inflow has been the role of migration in Kerala’s recent history. The great sense of loss and despair that accompanies emigration is the dark underbelly of Kerala’s development experience. An economy that is not self-sufficient in food must export people to sell their labour-power overseas. For many Malayalis, forced to accept slave-labour, especially in the Arabian Gulf, this has meant the bartering of their human rights for a meagre livelihood.