"Food on your own terms", 'The Hindu', March 2, 2017

Food on your own terms

A picture they say is worth a hundred words. Two pictures related to Kerala, though separated by decades and differing in content, speak to us strongly of how we may secure its future. Thus, a photo in a leading Malayalam newspaper shows the Chief Minister of the state meeting the Prime Minister of India. An amiable Pinarayi Vijayan is seen extending flowers to Narendra Modi, who accepts it betraying no emotion. The power equation is astutely conveyed by the caption “Ariyetra …” meaning “How much rice …” in Malayalam. The chief minister was in the national capital in January seeking a greater allocation of rice to the state. Then there is a painting by Anjolie Ela Menon. Titled ‘Malabar’, it is a canvas smeared with green paint bearing no detail. Presumably it was the artist’s impression of the paddy-filled landscape of Kerala when she first encountered it decades ago. How is it possible that a state once identified by the wealth of its agriculture has been brought to the sorry state whereby its chief minister must travel to Delhi to ensure that his people are properly fed? It can only reflect the failure of public policy.

          In the early seventies, following the boom in the Arabian Gulf region, the state saw a new form of emigration. While Kerala had long witnessed the migration of the educated for want of opportunities domestically, for the first time there was a significant outflow of manual labour, some of it from agriculture. While it was only the men who migrated, the higher incomes transformed the households socially, and the women too withdrew from the labour market. This hit paddy cultivation most as, in an age-old sexual division of labour, women were disproportionately represented in the planting and harvesting of paddy. The sector began to face severe labour shortage. Naturally, the wage rose and the cultivation of paddy was no longer viable as cheaper rice came in from the rest of India. 

          The rise in the wage may not have had the impact it did if the ownership of land was vested with the tiller. The temptations of migration overseas may have been held at bay had the tiller also owned the land. But the latter was not the case despite the much-vaunted land reforms of the state. In abolishing tenancy the land reforms had extinguished the traditional landlords but did not inevitably transfer land to those who actually laboured on the field. This is reflected in the current agitation for land by the adivasi community.

           Kerala is rare among the world’s economies, barring Zimbabwe, where agricultural production actually declined after land reforms. Land reforms in China after Mao led to a surge in food production, which in turn led that country’s rise to global prominence. In theory one form of re-organisation possible even at this stage in Kerala is for those in ownership of land but not wishing to cultivate to lease it out. But leasing was made unlawful by the land reform act. At the time of its legislation, tenancy had been a symbol of the exploitation of the peasantry who were held down by the possibility of eviction at will. But now, close to half a century later, when the economic position of owners of small parcels of land pales beside the owners of urban property in the state, to hold onto an archaic law for its symbolic value is mere sentimentality. It is unimaginative of a public policy to not remove all barriers to the leasing of land so that smaller portions can be pooled to form larger operational holdings and paddy production becomes viable again. It is interesting that the law discourages tenancy unlawful but is sanguine about the alienation of agricultural land to other purposes. Actually, there is legislation meant to address this but its implementation is hostage to the party politics at the village level, and the alienation of Kerala’s precious agricultural land continues.

          It is quite extraordinary that public policy in Kerala has not addressed the problem of a declining production of its staple food, a  trend in evidence for nearly half a century by now. At the time of Mr. Vijayan’s trip to Delhi an editorial in another leading Malayalam daily reported that the state produced only one eighth of its consumption requirement.  This figure needs to be whetted, but surely the situation may be judged to be critical if a region were unable to produce even half of it? An obvious question emerging from the chief minister’s much-publicised visit to Delhi is why Kerala cannot jettison its dependent status. At least here Kerala’s political leadership may take a leaf out of the record of the central government. In the mid-sixties, smarting under Lyndon Johnson’s directive that food be sent to India “by the shipload” so that she may be “kept on a short lease”, Indira Gandhi had turned in a frenzy to increase food production in India. The Green Revolution followed and, despite its negative ecological fallout, India has never looked back. Earlier Nehru had cautioned his fellow citizens how India could not live permanently on “handouts” from the rich countries and needed to grow her own food. There is a lesson in this for those in charge of public policy in Kerala. If the state is to remain an autonomous entity it must reduce all forms of one-way dependence, even vis-à-vis the Indian Union. A far firmer base of food production would be one aspect of this. In a world of creeping climate change the global supply of food is set to shrink.

          There is a factor other than the legal architecture discouraging the leasing of land that works against agricultural prosperity. This is the natural environment, which in Kerala today is less hospitable to agriculture of any kind let alone paddy cultivation. This has come about due to the depletion of ground water and sand mining of the river beds to provide material for luxury house construction. There has also been the alienation of agricultural land already referred to. Land need not be turned into real estate to lose its fertility. Using fallow paddy fields as ‘exhibition’ grounds or for shopping festivals, even when the structures made are temporary, could degrade the land permanently. Kerala needs a land use policy that conserves every bit of its natural capital. As part of this, the state could consider acquiring all unused paddy land and making it available to the adivasis on long-term lease. This would ensure its preservation,  saving Kerala from the hardship that is assured if the present situation of more plastic than grain clogging the rice paddies continues. 

          Kerala needs a new politics if its economy is to adjust to the emerging scenario of rising food prices and a shrinking Gulf economy which is sure to impact livelihoods. Public policy is likely to adapt only if political parties are pressurised by a citizenry alerted to the limits to distributivism. An instance of how this can work is the return of paddy cultivation to vast tracts of the Aranmula Puncha, an iconic agricultural landscape in central Kerala, after citizen action prevented its diversion to build an airport. The regeneration has been made possible by active support from the government machinery. When such synergy is replicated across the state its future chief ministers need not travel to Delhi seeking food.