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Has life turned bitter for Kerala's spice farmers?

Sharad Joshi

Caught in the trap of small holdings, volatile prices and pest attacks, some spice farmers of Kerala's remote hilly areas paid the extreme price, though not on the scale of Andhra Pradesh or Maharashtra.


Fluctuating prices, inadequate credit and marketing logistics conspire to make the Kerala spice farmer's life difficult.

By their sheer numbers, the suicides by farmers of Vidarbha in Maharashtra have overshadowed similar phenomena in other States and, thus, drawn visits by the Congress(I) President, Ms Sonia Gandhi; the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh; and, of course, the Chief Minister of the State, Mr Vilasrao Deshmukh. But, ironically, following the announcement of a relief package by each of them, the incidence of suicides has only increased.

Inaccessible places

In Kerala, about 1,500 farmers (the actual figure may be much higher) are said to have committed suicide over the last five years. Many of the suicides happened in the hilly regions, which are difficult to access. On September 11, we met the widow of a farmer who had committed suicide nine years back. According to her, at least five more suicides have happened in the area since then, none of which was reported.

There have been instances of suicides in Wynad, Kasargod, and Kannur districts; 500 cases in Wynad alone. Only the Minister for Agriculture, Mr Sharad Pawar, visited the district from September 10-12 but bad weather prevented him from visiting the affected families. After confabulations with officials, he said that he would formally announce a relief package on his return to Delhi. .

Poor pricing policy

The world at large is familiar with the suicides by cotton-growing farmers of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. This section of farmers is particularly vulnerable because the pricing policies of the government have been bad. While the Aggregate Measure of Support (AMS) for 17 major farm commodities in India in 1986-89 was (-)83 per cent, that for cotton was (-)110 per cent. To make matters worse, cotton requires more pesticides than any other crop and the quality is not uniformly satisfactory. Further, the Bt cotton seed, approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), was vulnerable to excessive drought and flood conditions. Loss of crops and low prices for cotton led to the spate of suicides.

Spice capital

By contrast, the suicides in Kerala are not by cotton growers. A few of them grew paddy. Most produced arecanut, and some pepper, coconut, ginger or vanilla — that is, spice crops.

It is for these spices that Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut (Kozhikode, now) and these are the spices that make Kerala is stand out from all other States.

At the time of Independence, Kerala earned foreign exchange by exporting these spices. None of these produce is subject to any trade restriction or price-depressing measure of the government. Then, what is the reason for the suicides in Kerala?

During my visit to Kannur, Wynad and Kozhikode districts from September 10-13 I managed to meet some 20 bereaved families. My impressions:

The districts of Wynad, Kannur and Kasargod are mountainous. Moving from one place to another involves navigating serpentine roads often intersected by rivulets.

Contact with the outside world is quite difficult. This is not the ideal situation for producing commodities that have a predominantly international market and a relatively small local demand. These districts are, in this respect, like Japan minus the road infrastructure.

Small hodings

Like Japan, Kerala's farmers have extremely small holdings. Most families in these districts had holdings as small as 10-40 cents (a cent being a hundredth of an acre); somewhat like the courtyard of a house.

This atomisation of land holding has been worsened by land reforms. The prohibitions imposed by the State government on diversion of use of agricultural land have further complicated the situation. .

Since the prices of spices are determined largely by international markets, they are subject to fluctuations and the farmers experience the roller-coaster of hope and despair all the time.

When the prices ruled high, the farmers attempted to rent land for cultivating the valued commodity. Agriculture is a losing proposition even when there is no land cost; it is mainly inherited. But if the cash cost of land is to be reckoned with, there are few chances that a farmer can make any money out of the business.

Further, the spice crops require care and attention over long periods. The land taken on rent and which were earlier used for paddy cultivation are particularly susceptible to risks.

Since the year 2000, most of these spice crops have been attacked by viruses and fungi. The arecanut and coconut trees start yellowing at the top; the Murikku trees that shares a symbiotic relationship with the pepper creeper started wilting at the top; ginger is rotting under the ground, and vanilla prices are falling. Most farmers may have a pucca shelter but hardly any income from agricultural operations.

No remedy

Neither the scientists nor the Centre is able to prescribe a remedy. They seem to be oblivious of the fact that the suicides by farmers, resulting from the destruction of areca nuts, coconut, pepper, ginger and vanilla, can hit the Kerala economy.

Amid all this farmers are allegedly being evicted from their land and house by banks seeking to recover loans given on the collateral of these assets.

And things may be coming to a head, with the Karshaka Kuttayama, a farmers' outfit aligned with the All India Kisan Coordination Committee, planning a mass civil disobedience agitation against what it alleges the eviction of the local peasantry.

It would be interesting to watch the confrontation between a Left government and a desperate peasantry.

(The author, the founder of Shetkari Sanghatana, is a Member of the Rajya Sabha. He can be reached at sharad.mah@nic.in)

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