Insights into Editorial: Food on its own terms
Kerala is said to be in the middle of food crisis. The Chief Minister of Kerala recently met the Prime Minister and sought a greater allocation of rice to the State. It is surprising to see 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. Experts opine this can only reflect the failure of public policy.
What are the reasons behind this scarcity?
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.
- Also, 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. Besides, leasing was also made unlawful by the Land reforms 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 on to 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 also interesting that the law discourages tenancy as 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 party politics at the village level, and the alienation of Kerala’s precious agricultural land continues.
What needs to be done now?
There has been the alienation of agricultural land in the state. 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 also 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.
Kerala is rare among the world’s economies, barring Zimbabwe, where agricultural production actually declined after land reforms. 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. 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.