Labour crunch makes Kerala fancy rubber instead of paddy(Feature)

June 9th, 2008 - 1:38 pm ICT by IANS  

By Jeevan Mathew Kurian
Kozhikode, June 9 (IANS) Muthoran is a 70-year-old farmer. He used to grow rice paddy in about three acres of his land, but he disposed it of two years ago. The reason, he says, is shortage of labourers. “No one is ready to work in the paddy fields. You need around 12 people for transplanting paddy and eight to harvest. How can I cultivate the land?” asks Muthoran, whose land is located 20 km from here. He reflects the sentiments of a large number of farmers in Kerala.

People of the food deficit state find no charm in cultivating paddy even though rice is their staple diet. Instead, rubber is the most fancied crop, with 464,035 hectares under cultivation.

Muthoran says paddy is not a viable crop. “The price of paddy just covers the cost. If at all, it is the hay that brings you any income,” he says.

Agriculture in Kerala is facing a shortage of labour, as other jobs have higher social status and the construction industry too is drawing away people at better rates.

On an average, agricultural labourer in Kerala gets around Rs.200 as daily wages and often food is also provided additionally. But that is not enough to lure enough farm hands - which is a problem for paddy cultivation as it is labour intensive.

“Paddy cultivation now is confined to around 275,000 hectares, which in 1970-71 covered 875,000 hectares ,” says D. Alexander, director of research at the Kerala Agriculture University (KAU).

With the price of natural rubber rising in tandem with crude prices, the area under rubber cultivation is witnessing a steady increase. The price now hovers at around Rs.125 per kg, the highest level ever recorded.

Kerala added 15,930 hectares to rubber plantations in 2005-06 while the figure for 2006-07 was 19,250 hectares, according to the Rubber Board, a government body promoting rubber cultivation.

But the increase in rubber cultivation is not at the cost of paddy. Rubber is not suited for waterlogged areas like rice. “The spread of rubber can cut into areas of crops like coconut, but not of paddy,” says Alexander.

Though rubber plantations also face a labour shortage, the problem is not as acute as in the case of paddy.

“Rubber is not a labour intensive crop like paddy. A two-hectare plantation needs only a couple of labourers for rubber tapping,” says A. Mathew, a rubber planter.

Joseph Mathew, a farmer in Kuttanad in Alappuzha district, the granary of Kerala, finds that employing new techniques like mechanisation of tilling and harvesting and application of weedicide can considerably reduce the cost of paddy cultivation.

“I had to spend only Rs.5,000 per acre this year against a possible Rs.8,000 I would have had to shell out had manual labour been used instead.”

Experts echo this view. “Mechanisation is the only solution to labour scarcity,” points out K.R. Vishwambharan, the vice chancellor of KAU.

“Farmers should get good prices for their paddy in order that the cultivation becomes sustainable. Value addition is a key element in this. When the farmer gets Rs.10 per kg for paddy, the price for rice in the market is Rs.20.”

KAU, he said, is coming out with a “three-year mission” in association with the government to boost paddy production in the state.

Meanwhile, Muthoran continues to regret that he didn’t hold back the sale of his paddy land for some more time as land prices skyrocketed later.

He continues to hold six acres of a coconut farm, but is unhappy. “Harvesting coconut is a specialised skill only a few have. I can’t do this work on my own. I should have gone for rubber - the price is really attractive and I could have managed (rubber) tapping myself,” he rues.

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