20080510

Hammered By The Sickle

Kuttanad's bitter harvest

The CPM’s anachronisms reach a frightening level: rice farmers are starving because the party says, ‘no machines’. KA SHAJI reports


THE CPM’S time-warped ideas are reaping a bloody harvest for Kerala’s rice farmers. The party’s peasants’ unions have been boycotting machines for years, insisting that the sickle is revolutionary both as tool and idea. Ask local Congress leader and rice farmer Shaji Cherukad, and he’ll tell you that raising a banner of revolt in the Red bastion of Alappuzha is a recipe for starvation. Cherukad lent his fields for a “symbolic” protest by Congress leaders against the CPM unions’ refusal to allow farmers the use of cutting and threshing machines.

The Congress’ state leadership turned up in full strength to deploy a giant harvesting machine on Cherukad’s farm in the Kuttanad region, and offered the gathered mediapersons some defiant bytes. But no sooner had the ceremonies ended that Cherukad’s woes began. Those in charge of operating the machine fled fearing the CPM’s wrath, and the farm workers avenged this assault on peasants’ unity by boycotting Cherukad’s farm. Twenty days after the harvest date, the crop lies uncut and rotting. What makes the situation bizarre in the Alappuzha-Kuttanad region, once called Kerala’s rice bowl, is that the embargo on machines has meant a severe shortage of farm hands.

At Thengara, a 69-year-old farmer died on March 27 while cutting the crop. TG Govinda Pillai died after he had been forced to reap the crop himself after weeks of vain search for labourers. The comrades are now seeking to overcome this obstacle with an elaborate plan whereby farm workers will have to take turns to work in the fields from next year. “Each worker should sow and reap at the time specified for him. This will ensure that enough workers are available and farmers wouldn’t need to come to us asking to be allowed to hire machines,” says CK Bodhanandan, leader of the Travancore Karshaka Thozhilali Union (TKTU).

Both production and acreage of rice have been plummeting over the years. The state depends on its neighbours for about 80 percent of its requirement. Also, the fact that harvesting takes a long time, increases the crops’ vulnerability to summer rains. Over 1,500 hectares of paddy was submerged in the rains in the belowsea level Kuttanad this year. Another moderateto- strong shower could wipe out a crop worth over Rs 30 crore in almost 7,000 hectares .

FARM LABOUR makes up the bulk of the CPM cadre in the region. The TKTU fixes the farm wage and considers applications for permission to use a machine. But even this is a big change. Five years ago, the union had enforced a blanket ban on machines in over a lakh hectares. Today, not a single farmer owns a harvesting machine. Some hire machines from Tamil Nadu. While the strong unionisation of farm labour has regularly hiked wages, it has also forced many farmers to shift to cash crops.

Not even Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan’s campaign some years ago here, in which party workers chopped down cash crops, has helped. The TKTU’s leaders extract a nokkukooli (payment for watching work being done) for every harvesting machine allowed into a farm. Though the union denies the levy, not everyone’s amused. It takes 10 or more workers a full day’s effort to harvest an acre of paddy; a single machine can do the job in less than an hour. The CPM’s intransigence has left the region on the brink of famine. “I could have saved at least 90 percent of my crop if I had a machine. The harvesting would have been over in the first week of March itself, before the rains that destroyed my crop this year,” laments Samuel Kunju, another farmer. “I had taken a loan of Rs 1,75,000. How am I going to repay it? Maybe I should ask the union.”

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