Like most parts of India, the traditional economy of keralites was essentially based on agriculture. Primarily it was paddy, coconuts, pepper and other spices, and lastly rubber.
Typically, the low lying wetlands have been Kerala’s rice fields, and the medium altitude plots have coconut farms and the highlands cash crops like cashew nuts, cardamom, and at still higher altitudes, tea.
1. Paddy Cultivation:
Pokkali, among rice fields, are in places which are all year under water. Traditionally two crops are taken after sowing once, when the water level is at minimum level on elevated mounds of Earth, and after the seedlings become taller, they are replanted by carefully breaking up the mounds. Pokkali doesn’t need fertilizer application, as the fields are almost always submerged in water. The first type of seeds, e.g. Mundokkannan, is sowed with Aryan, another seed, but they have different harvesting times.
The Puncha, on the other hand, is submerged under water for almost half a year, and one crop. The high lands nearby provides the foliage as manure for the rice crops.
There is also the level lands which have much better water control, usually have two crops. As these lands are near thickly populated areas, cow-dunk, and foliage forms the primary fertiliser.
2. Coconut Cultivation:
The coconut farms which used to be the main cultivation in dry lands, were very common. The coconut trees are usually 45ft apart, in rows and columns. As the trees grow up to about 30 years, ditches are taken in the mid points, to plant new trees. The older trees are removed when the trees reach 50 to 60 years. In addition, the space between trees are used to plant bananas, vegetables like snake gourds, bitter gourds, ash gourds, legumes and beans of various types, etc, fruit trees like mangos, and chickoos, guavas or areca nut trees along the boundaries. It was indeed a good Eco system supporting a large number of birds. Most of the trees also would have pepper wines, which yield every year a good crop of pepper.
The high profitability of Rubber with about 7 years of nurturing the saplings followed by a productive period of 25-30 years, made sure that plantations of every other crops gave way to Rubber. The grant of subsidies by the Rubber Board for plantation, and nurturing, made sure that cultivators filled up and converted even the low lands which could have supported only paddy cultivation normally.
Prices of around Rs 200/kg of Rubber made sure that no other crop survived. Most plots which had coconut plantation were converted into Rubber. Even the paddy fields and other low lying areas were filled up, partly illegally and rest with permission. As a result of the rising competition to convert paddy fields and coconut farms into rubber estates, the price of land increased very fast, thus an acre of paddy field, fetching as little as Rs 50,000/- increased to Rs 5,000,000/- within a span of 5-10 years. Similarly, an acre of coconut farm, which used to be available at Rs 100,000/-, increased to Rs 10,000,000/-
The Rubber Board also ensured that the Kerala Land Ceiling Act, applicable over all landed property in Kerala exempts Rubber Plantation, thus the estate owners could have Rubber plantation owned by individuals with 100 or 500 acres. The same act also ensured that the Rice or Coconut fields got fragmented to the present size of half an acre on an average, preventing application of mechanised agriculture.
Along with the cost of agricultural property, the wages also spiralled very fast. Rubber tapping is a skilled job, performed between 0500 AM and 0800 AM, followed by selling the produce either as liquid latex, or processed as Rubber Sheet, which required another a few hours more in the morning. For this the tapper would get for a wage of Rs 1000/- This made many of the farm labourers into the skilled job of tapper. This made all costs in the farmlands of Kerala expensive.
Conversion of farm lands into dwelling sites was yet another development. Dwelling plots were much more expensive and builders would often use every strategy to get farm lands which they would have bought as dwelling sites and sold at a very high premium.
As against this, the produce fetched very little increase in price. Governments of course provided some incentives to farmers, but the difficulties in using mechanised farming, and over dependence of expensive manual labour, made the profit margins shrink. In addition, all Rice farming depended on the timely rains, and the uncertainties of water availability and ability to drain fields when necessary resulted in crop failures.
The farmers started thinking about their economics. An acre of farm land fetches about Rs 50,000,000, and if he were to sell it, he would easily get this (even sometimes a price up to Rs 1 crore). This could fetch an annual interest of Rs 3-4 lakhs. With the vagaries of agriculture, except Rubber plantations, it was impossible to find a single crop that would bring in this much of profit.
As more and more farmers found Rubber as more profitable, the acreage of other crops diminished very fast. However, this panacea for agricultural sector in India came to a stop recently, when the Rubber prices came down sharply from Rs 200/kg to less than Rs 100/kg. The reason for this is attributable to the drop in Crude Price and the resulting availability of synthetic Rubber at low prices. In spite of the drop in Rubber prices, the cost of fertilisers, wages of tappers and other employees in Rubber plantations and other expenses did not come down. The state government made an attempt to provide a support price by directly paying the cultivator the difference of a notional Rs 150/kg and the actual market price at which he would have sold Rubber!. In fact, such a provision is not made available to any other crop, yet it is far from a sustainable solution.
The other cash crops such as pepper, ginger, turmeric, cloves, etc., which used to be cultivated among the coconut farms, have been also affected by the spiralling land prices and labour costs. Similarly, the others like tea, coffee, cardamom, cinnamon, etc, grown at high altitudes, have also been affected by the same factors.
The land taxes for agricultural land in Kerala is one of the highest in India (around Rs 600/ha for holdings below 5 ha, and Rs 1200/ha for over 5 ha). I understand that the taxes are below Rs 100/ha in most other states)
Agriculture provides a lot of free time to the farm owners and labourers. When the paddy, coconut and other village based agriculture was still being practised, a large number of people used to spend their free time in other professions, the common-most being weaving. A few were also engaged as teachers in the village schools, etc. Weaving provided profitable engagement to a large number of people. This led to the formation of Weavers’ Co-op Societies in each village. Most of the woven cotton materials was being used up in the village itself, and some to the neighbouring villages.
When the agricultural activity came to a halt, most people tried to find alternate employment; many of the educated went to other states as stenographers, a few went to other countries (mostly to the middle east, which was in brisk activities following the oil discovery). Many women also started taking employment as school teachers, nurses, secretaries, etc., both in other Indian states and in middle east, Europe and North America.
The employment potential of Keralites in other states and abroad started bringing in plenty of cash. This suddenly became the source for investment in the form of landed property. This led to the filling up of more and more agricultural land. While agriculture and weaving came to a grinding halt, many became owners of land in villages and cities. Many of the youngsters didn’t know how to spend money which was coming plenty from abroad. As the money was not earned by hard work, they had to device new ways of spending; alcohol became the number one drain for money. This led to Kerala replacing Punjab in per-capita alcohol consumption, coming to the top place in India. And with the high rates of taxation on liquor, the Government’s revenue started increasing very fast.
There were many who were not as lucky as those who had relatives abroad, sending money to Kerala. Also, those who already spent money of a relative, wanted to replace the fund by the time they returned. As this was not possible, many started buying Lottery Tickets, and making offerings in temples. No wonder Kerala topped in the sale of lottery tickets in India. The revenue of temples also was increasing fast. The governments also took active role in siphoning part of the profits, by starting Government Lotteries. Already the Hindu Temples were under the State’s Devaswom Boards, which are under the State Government’s Ministry, and it was quite easy to collect the majority of temple funds to the public exchequer! Thus, instead of other more common sources of revenue, Kerala’s revenue comes from Alcohol, Lotteries and Hindu Temples. In a state where traditional economic activities like agriculture and manufacturing have suffered from the political and trade-unionist overexposures, such activities are making the most of state’s revenue. The only other industry that has survived is Tourism, that too mostly eco-tourism and Health-Tourism, which took advantage of the absence of polluting industries in the state.
I feel that the state has to make some hard decisions before it is too late to save the younger generation from abuse of alcohol (and probably drugs too, perhaps), and bring the mainstream to agriculture, cottage industries, tourism.