Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Economic devastation and Crisis response of Wayanad Farmers

A lop-sided international trade regime, an adverse climatic condition and sustained governmental apathy have caused a reverse trend in the agriculture sector across the country. Its implications in the agricultural economy have been reflected in the series of farmers' suicides in different states. One alarming case is Wayanad district of Kerala where 549 farmers committed suicide in five years. Notwithstanding the specificities of Kerala's agricultural scenario this is a microcosm of the Indian situation which calls for serious attention.

The shortest possible way of describing the devastation in Wayanad would be this: debt, drought and sharp fall in global crop prices have spelt doom to the five lakh-strong smallholding farmers of this primarily agricultural economy. Five successive years of drought, from 1999, have left the region with enormous tracts of non-cultivable farms and fields. This coupled with low price for agriculture produce has made the situation even worse. Pepper, the main source of income for a majority of Wayanad farmers, which once touched Rs.270 per Kg crashed to Rs.60. The recent slight improvement in the price does not alter the situation significantly. Coffee which used to fetch Rs. 70 per Kg for the farmer plummeted to Rs.15 in the same period. The Spices Board statistics show that the export value of pepper which was Rs. 885.28 crores in 1999 fell to a paltry Rs.178.8 crores in 2003. Similarly the nation's coffee exports also declined considerably – from $265 million in 1999 to $143 million in 2002.

The above mentioned economic collapse has led to multifaceted social chaos. It has upset the loan economy. The region's loan economy, which has always been a representative of Indian agriculture, is in the doldrums. The smallholding farmers, whose budgeting was dependent on loans from scheduled and co-operative banks, consistently failed to repay the annual installments and the interest had a multi-fold increase. Rs. 752 crores is the collective outstanding debt of Wayanad farmers who have mortgaged their land to national banks. The size of the liability towards private moneylenders might be almost the same. Some of the farmers in the stranglehold of banks and private moneylenders took the extreme step.
Meanwhile, there was no meaningful governmental intervention to check the 'social tragedy'. Notwithstanding the announcements of several packages there is no substantial debt relief for the farmers. Let alone writing off the loans, the Central and State governments have not yet been ready to waive the interest of farm loans. In fact, the sweat of Wayanad farmers has substantially contributed to the exchequer through the export of cash crops and has enhanced the profit of scheduled banks through the repayment of heavy loans. But they were let down in the hour of crisis.

As far as the productivity is concerned, the government had hardly any programme for the irrigation of the farm fields. Setting up of independent irrigation facilities is not possible for the smallholding farmers in the district. Most of the land remains unirrigated in the absence of any large scale project. This is despite the fact that the abundant Kabani River flows through the heart of Wayanad.

In sum, the government and the financial institutions are insensitive and relief measures are largely ineffective. It is interesting to see the way the agrarian community responded to the crisis. While a few chose to end their lives the general trend is to fight back. The political response spearheaded by agitating farmer outfits like the Farmers Relief Forum and `Porattam' (meaning `The Struggle') saw the end of revenue recovery and attachment procedures. Banks now limit their punitive action against the defaulters to sending notices.

A substantive response with a long-term perspective has been initiated by farmers' clusters and is guided by NGOs. Organic farming has gathered momentum in the land which was abused with excessive chemical fertilizing. Internationally certified organic farmers have begun selling their produces in the international market at a price higher than the market price. Rural credit system is active in Wayanad and the SHGs, to an extent, act as a safety net.

The alarming level of rural unemployment has resulted in largescale migration to other districts and outside Kerala. A large group of village boys from Wayanad is working as bearers, cleaners and male servants in Kochi, Kottayam, Kozhikode, Thrissur and Kannur. Those who are relatively rich have managed to find their way out to the Gulf countries and add to the labour force there. For example, about 50 of a small village, Seetha Mount, with a population of 1500, recently went abroad to take up jobs while around 300 of its youth are working outside the district. You can see very few youngsters in the village presently. In addition to this, people now place great stress on educating children and making them employable despite the difficulties involved in this.

Another encouraging factor is the initiatives for agri-based industries. Some NGOs have launched food processing units. Farmers are slowly switching over to multi-cropping as crop diversification is a time tested way out. Nonconventional items like vanilla, bamboo, flowers and medicinal herbs find their way to the farm fields here. While it is clear that much more is to be done to enhance the production base, the evolving responses of farmers shows a rural community maturing into a social group which is able to withstand economic onslaught. The perseverance of this 'local' community to get over a 'global' challenge holds relevance in a 'neo-liberal economic phase', which is widely perceived in the developing world as a phase of `selective extermination'.

As a native of this hill district I have first hand experience of the life here. My involvement in the social actions and academic field studies – five annual N.S.S. camps, social surveys and a project paper on People's Plan in Mullenkolly Panchayat – have given me also an academic/intellectual perspective on the volatile economic situation here. The backward district of Wayanad continues to be my learning ground.

(Originally written in September 2006, a failed fellowship entry)

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