Rice is the staple diet of the Keralite today. Till about two decades back Keralites used to consume millets like ragi, little millet, foxtail millet and also tubers like yam, tapioca etc in large quantities. However, now rice is consumed during all three meals in different forms. Therefore, rice is an important component of life in Kerala, even more important is drinking water. Last year Kerala experienced drought like conditions barely two to three months after monsoons ended in September. This is a shocking state of affairs for a state which gets plenty of rainfall. Both these issues bring us to paddy fields and wetlands.
Kerala’s drinking water availability and food security depend on the protection of two factors, first, the Western Ghats which ensure sufficient rains and water to Kerala and second paddy and wetlands which act as natural water reservoirs and allow for the percolation of water into the ground; thereby raising the ground water levels and recharging wells . Currently, both these are in jeopardy; however the threat to paddy lands is acute and extremely serious. Paddy lands in Kerala have become a desired asset for the capital and cash rich real estate industry. Land has become a prime speculative asset and its price has escalated to astounding levels, therefore the demand for the lower priced paddy fields has increased. People with power are purchasing and converting paddy lands into ‘land banks’. It is clear that in many a project paddy lands are acquired not because there are no other lands available, but because the price of non-paddy land is high ( thereby reducing profit margins ) and investors do not want to deal with issues of vacating people.
The law to protect paddy lands exists in its violation!
In 2008, the Kerala assembly passed a bill to protect paddy and wetlands called The Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 20081. Initially, the Act did prevent the conversion of paddy lands to other uses, but now paddy land conversion is taking place without any checks and balances. This illegal conversion of lands is matched by loss of water bodies and water availability. If one travels through any district in Kerala, levelling of paddy lands (a precursor to conversion on paper) is a common sight. As per the Paddy Land Act there is a provision to issue a “stop memo” against people who level the paddy lands and to seize the vehicles which bring the earth to level the paddy lands. But due to the ‘unholy alliance’ between the police force and the land mafia no such cases have been registered and paddy lands are being levelled without any fear. The state government is also approving projects , which require conversion of paddy and wetlands. Airports in Aranmula, Chikallur in Wayand, Anakkara in Idukki and buildings, industrial parks and cricket stadiums, all require the destruction of our precious paddy fields.
Efforts to undermine the Act
The Kerala government decided during a meeting on February 8, 2012, to modify the Paddy Land Act of 2008 to regularise all cases of paddy field levelling and conversions up to 2005, after charging a fine. This became controversial and the decision was abandoned. Again on June 13, 2012, the Industries Ministry put forward the proposal to amend the Paddy Land Act and it cited the requirements of the ’Emerging Kerala’2 projects for suggesting the amendment. It came to light that the Industries Ministry had already recommended projects that would entail conversion of 1000s of acres of paddy land.
Its demand was that paddy land conversion should be allowed wherever there is a requirement for industrial projects or tourism. Once again public controversy resulted in shelving the proposal. However, two months later the same set of recommendations reappeared, in front of the government in another form as the ’land utilisation’ bill, again sponsored by the Industries Department. The bill among other things also recommended cancellation of the 1967 land utilisation act. The Revenue Minister publicly objected to this new bill and the Law Department withdrew the bill. Decades before the 2008 bill, Kerala had in place a law to prevent conversion of paddy lands.
Based on the Central government’s Essential Commodities act of 1955, the Kerala government had promulgated the 1967 land utilisation act, to prevent conversion of paddy lands. The 2008 Act to protect paddy lands came into being with the intention of strengthening the 1967 Act. If the 1967 Act was promulgated keeping in view the need for food security, the 2008 Act also took into account the environmental importance of paddy and wetlands to Kerala.
According to the 2008 Paddy Land Act it is a criminal offense to convert paddy lands and it can attract jail term or fines, however the publication of the paddy land data bank, a basic requirement for implementing the Act, has not yet been done. In this situation the Act is a mere paper tiger. Violation of the Act happens when it is established that a person has converted a paddy land which is recorded in the paddy land data bank. The local governments at the district level were supposed to prepare a draft data bank (as soon as the law came into place) which was then supposed to be compared with a satellite image and modified and fine tuned.
The final version of the land data bank was supposed to be published in the Gazette within three months, but four years later it has not yet been published. Therefore, the various cases filed by the police against persons who illegally converted paddy lands during the last four years have been thrown out by the High Court. The available draft data bank is full of errors. To rectify these mistakes the satellite image available with the government is inadequate, and a high resolution image is required; but the government has not yet made the purchase. This delay is directly benefitting people who are illegally converting paddy lands.
Does a state have to ensure its food security?
In the meantime, the prescription suggested by the Deputy Chair of the Planning Commission is that paddy lands in Kerala can be used for all other purposes including tourism, and neighbouring states will sell Kerala the rice it requires. Leave aside his ignorance about the ecological services provided by paddy lands; the simple question is how long will Kerala protect its food security with grains from other states? What if Andhra Pradesh and Tami Nadu decide to develop by converting their paddy lands? In earlier times, when there was no means to transport food across long distances and when Kerala used to grow its own food, food scarcity was a relatively rare occurrence.
Today Kerala grows only one fifth of the rice it needs – 6 lakh tonnes of the 40 lakh tonnes required. In 1974- 75 paddy cultivation was taking place in 8.81 lakh hectares and the paddy produced was 13.5 lakh tonnes. As against that only 2.13 lakh hectares is under paddy cultivation today. That means we have lost about 6 lakh hectares of paddy land in the last 30 years. This loss of paddy lands is the biggest threat to food security in Kerala.
Does paddy cultivation need support?
One of the major reasons cited for abandoning paddy cultivation is that it is considered a loss making proposition. Considering various factors paddy cultivation might seem like a losing proposition, however paddy farmers in Kuttanad (Kerala’s rice bowl) say that if paddy is procured and payments are made on time, paddy farming is viable. Their complaint is that even when they are willing to pay, there is no labour available for paddy cultivation. It is a fact that paddy cultivation can never be as remunerative as real estate deals. Today, world over, agriculture is sustained through government subsidies be it in Japan, the countries in the European Union or the United States.
All countries that are worried about food security are going in this direction. According to the 2008 Paddy Land Act the government is supposed to provide necessary financial support to paddy farmers, but disappointingly enough, nothing on that front has happened till now. Paddy fields not only provide food, they are also fresh water reservoirs and store and replenish more fresh water than large dams in our state. During paddy season the fields are the food source and living space for many creatures and birds. Preserving this is not an individual need; it is a societal responsibility.
The solution: Sustainability on one hand and mindless development on the other hand are two ways open to us. If we convert paddy lands for temporary benefits, we will be sacrificing long term food security and drinking water availability of the state. Even in developed nations land use patterns are not changed for building activities. We have to accept the fact that we are a land scarce state and we can’t allow projects that require large tracts of land. We should put stringent restrictions on land use and land transactions and place restrictions on indiscriminate buying of paddy land.
Any modification of the Paddy Land Act should only be to strengthen the Act. The current situation where even private agencies are using loopholes in the law to convert paddy lands in the name of public purpose should be stopped forthwith. Paddy lands serve many ecological purposes which benefit the society and ecology at large, however any losses that are incurred are borne by the owner alone. Therefore, the government should think of all paddy lands in the state as a ‘food reserve’ and buy it from people who can’t afford to maintain it, and lease it out to people who want to farm. Alternately the government should provide paddy land owners a fixed amount every year to maintain their paddy lands.
This will give manyfold returns to the society in terms of drinking water availability. Paddy cultivation has to be promoted and encouraged, farmers should be supported, paddy procurement should be done at the panchayat level and there should also be facilities for storage. Innovative programs to attract youth into paddy cultivation have to be introduced and eco-friendly farm tourism promoted while making the farmers also beneficiaries of the program. The lacunae in the Paddy Land Act need to be urgently rectified and the draft data bank made publicly available after correcting the errors. Protecting paddy lands which are our food reserves should become a priority.