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Paddy paradise

Kuttanad's curse

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AGAINST THE GRAIN: Kuttanad is the only place in the world where paddy is grown on land 2-3 metres below sea level

This eco-fragile paddy paradise in Kerala is threatened by a slew of manmade disasters which have severely impacted yield.

Agriculture in Kuttanad is actually something of a miracle. It is the only place in the world where paddy is grown two-three meters below the sea level. The harvest does not come easily. The Kuttanad farmer is locked in an endless fight with the elements - the fury of the sea, monsoon floods and now, drought.

Despite that, over the last 150 years it managed to become the state's rice bowl. Kuttanad farmers perfected the alchemy of converting the expansive and shallow Vembanad backwaters into a bountiful harvest. The incredibly picturesque 50, 000-hectare stretch across the districts of Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta and Kottayam produces around 1. 3 lakh tonnes of paddy annually. The farms seem borderless, the sea and the backwaters blur into one surreal continuum all the way to the horizon.

Kuttanad has made peace with its natural oddity but today it is grappling with man-made disasters. Pollution is choking the network of water bodies crisscrossing the region, global warming is causing saline intrusion into the fields and the mindless use of pesticides is impacting yield.

"With global warming and increase in sea-level becoming a reality, eco-fragile regions like Kuttanad will be the first to be affected. We need to create this awareness amongst the lakhs of people staying here before it is too late, " warns Leena Kumari, head of the Rice Research Station at Mancombu.

Two years ago, the Centre approved a Rs 1, 840 crore Kuttanad Package based on a study by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation. (The legendary agricultural scientist belongs to Mancombu and his grandfather Kottarathil Krishna Iyer was among the first three agripreneurs to reclaim the land for commercial uses back in 1912. ) But like every other government project, the implementation of the package is moving at a snail's pace even as the region reels under severe shortage of drinking water and the pollution of the Vembanad backwaters.

Syriac Anthony owns the largest backwater block paddy field in Kuttanad, which stretches over 2, 400 acres - a boat ride around the farm takes an hour-and-a-half. Short-sighted technological innovation, he says, has played havoc with the health of the soil. "The construction of Thaneermukkam bund and Thottapilly spillway to stop saline intrusion, stopped the natural process of inter-tidal activity and the pesticide residue and other impurities stayed back in the farms, " says Anthony.

Each block, called padasekharam, is a cluster of paddy fields over reclaimed Vembanad backwaters and wetlands. Kuttanad has 1, 351 such big and small padasekharams. At many points, the boundary lines of paddy fields, the sea and the backwaters, blur into one surreal continuum, right up to the distant horizon. After every monsoon, the farmers drain out saline water from the backwaters, that is a catchment area for four major rivers - Meenachil, Manimala and Pampa and Achenkoil - in Kerala and make the fertile deltaic plain ready for paddy cultivation. Protective bunds have been constructed around each padasekaram to stop sea water from entering into the paddy fields. The river water flowing downhill is allowed to trickle into the paddy fields through a number of small sluice gates.

The early decades of Kuttanad's agrarian history began well. In the first phase, starting early 19th century, farmers like Eravi Ramakrishna Panicker and Kochu Mathai initiated the reclamation process in the Venad and Mathilakam backwaters. The area also saw a lot of social drama. The bonded labour system was heavily prevalent in this era. Christian missionaries too were active in this region and they opened up the platform for socially and economically deprived lower caste like Pulayas and Thiyas.

The process of reclamation continued after Independence even as the state enacted the Land Reform Act and the communist movement took roots in this region. This secured better wages and labour rights for Kuttanad farmers. The degeneration of Kuttanad began in the late '70s. "The new generation of farmers began to use excessive pesticides to increase productivity and began the two-crop season. Many farmers who got land, gave away their clusters for lease to outsiders who were only interested generating profits, " says Anil Xavier, a farmer.

Kuttanad now needs to restore the fertility of the eco-fragile region. "There was a time when India was starving and we needed to produce more. We need to shift the focus, so that we can increase our long term productivity through organic farming and also rejuvenate the ecosystem and protect the health of people consuming rice, " says Swaminathan.

But the Kuttanad farmer is hopeful. "There were many years when tidal waves lashed into the fields, destroying every bit of crop, but we did not lose hope and began afresh next year," says 92-year-old P M Anthony, a law graduate from Aligarh Muslim university who returned to farming.

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