Gowthami Subramaniam | Nov 4, 2022 | 8 min read
The Central fund to promote climate resilience is a welcome step, but farmers need support from implementing agencies and timely redressal mechanisms to make the paddy-aquaculture rotational plan a success
Ernakulam, Kerala: Once touted as the way forward to deal with the effects of climate change on farming in coastal wetlands of Kerala, the integrated scheme for pokkali paddy and aquaculture has not been as successful as expected.
Known locally as oru nellum, oru meenum (One Paddy, One Fish), the project titled ‘Promotion of Integrated Farming System of Kaipad and Pokkali in Coastal Wetlands of Kerala’ utilised the Centre’s National Adaptation Fund for Climate Change (NAFCC). Operated through the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) from 2015 to 2019, it was a harbinger of hope for pokkali farmers like Pradeep MK of Kottuvally panchayat in Ernakulam district.
Labour and construction issues dogged Pradeep’s first attempt to renovate his farm under the scheme in 2017. For eight months, labour unions prevented the use of a floating JCB for building the peripheral bund, fearing loss of labour. However, Pradeep’s relentless pursuit of a solution got him an order from the district collector permitting machinery for construction.
As if the problems were not enough, the 2018 deluge inflicted heavy damage to the bund. He had no option but to wait for another six months — the time he needed to cultivate and harvest pokkali.
When Pradeep finally finished construction, the Agency for Development of Aquaculture (ADAK), the NABARD’s local entity, lent him a huge blow. On inspecting the bund, the ADAK officials found a few areas where the stipulated measurements of 2 m height, 1.5 m top width and 5 m bottom width were not met. Result: Pradeep did not get the NAFCC subsidy.
“I took a bank loan of Rs 3 lakh and spent another Rs 2 lakh from my pocket,” Pradeep said. When he finally rebuilt the bund, the ADAK diligently told him that the two-year time limit for construction under the project had lapsed!
Harvesting pokkali rice, a unique salt-tolerant variety, that is cultivated in coastal wetlands of Kerala (Photo - Gowthami Subramaniam)
Pradeep insisted that the delays caused by floods and unions were not his fault, and that the ADAK was very much aware of it. To avail of the subsidy, he had followed the condition that a group with a minimum of five farmers be formed to cultivate pokkali on at least five hectares. “In my group, three belonged to Schedule Caste and the rest were women. The ADAK did not bother to consider these factors,” Pradeep lamented.
He said even his pleas to reconsider the subsidy claim were rejected, while adding that the requirements under such schemes should be changed to accommodate marginal farmers. “A group of two to three with two to three hectares under cultivation will be the apt model.”
Jayan, the officer-in-charge of aquatic animal health, Kerala fisheries department, said they would recommend a change of rules to reduce the number of group beneficiaries to three and plot size to three hectares while sending proposals for pokkali support schemes to the government in future.
Meanwhile, Pradeep’s rebuilt bund appears to be working for now. “My field escaped flooding several times after the new bund came up.”
Why bunds are vital
Earthen bunds that serve as embankments are damaged due to seawater ingress in wetlands. The frequency of damage has increased with climate change. A NABARD report had assessed that 5,765 hectares of pokkali fields were unutilised due to bund damage caused by frequent high tides.
In any case, high-yielding varieties cannot be cultivated in these wetlands due to soil salinity. Only salt-tolerant pokkali or kaipad paddy, both of which grow tall and can withstand damage when submerged during periods of rising tides, can be adopted. The fact that the sea level in Kerala is rising at a rate of 3.1 to 3.4 mm per year increases the significance of these varieties.
The NAFCC’s push for integrated farming could have served farmers well, provided the underlying issues were amicably addressed. Pokkali is cultivated during the less-saline monsoon months (June to October) and shrimp and prawns are raised in the dry months.
(Above) The mesh-fitted sluice gates used to regulate water during high and low tides; Aliyas Puthusheri, an integrated farming practitioner, would spend his nights at the temporary shed near the field (below), keeping a careful eye on the water level (Photos - Gowthami Subramaniam)
When water is allowed into the fields from October-end to April, shrimp and fish drift in. During low tide, water is let out through the sluice gates fitted with a mesh that stops the aquatic animals from escaping.
“I am used to waking up at night to operate sluice gates during high and low tides for the past 15 years,” said Aliyas Puthusheri (68), an integrated farming practitioner from Ezhikkara panchayat in Ernakulam. Pankajakshan (83) gives him company in a temporary shelter near the field, where they stay vigilant to manage the water level.
Though Aliyas got a good harvest due to a normal monsoon this year, it is not always guaranteed. “Six months of prawn cultivation secures our livelihood. Otherwise, how can we get past the losses that erratic rains and rising salinity shower on us?” exclaimed Vincent KP alias Vichappan (75), another local farmer.
Though the ADAK had received Rs 250 million for integrated farming — the plan was to provide 80% grant to cover field input and infrastructure costs for 300 hectares each of kaipad and pokkali farms — both Aliyas and Vichappan had never heard of the ‘One Paddy, One Rice’ scheme.
“Schemes will be there on paper. Nothing reaches us,” bemoaned Aliyas, also the former president of Palliyakal Cooperative Society Bank, Ezhikkara.
Vichappan and his wife have been practising pokkali cultivation for nearly seven decades. They had never heard of the ‘One Paddy, One Rice’ scheme (Photos - Gowthami Subramaniam)
Competing paddy schemes
Did ADAK fail to sensitise farmers about the scheme? While rejecting the notion, Jayan said 65 farmer groups carrying out pokkali cultivation in 360 hectares in Ernakulam and Thrissur districts received 80% subsidy.
However, Saritha Mohan, Agriculture Officer, Ezhikkara Krishi Bhavan, and incharge of Kottuvally, suggested that competing paddy schemes could be the reason. “The State government offers several schemes per hectare of paddy: Rs 32,000 under the panchayat scheme, Rs 10,000 for speciality rice, and Rs 1,000 as post-harvest assistance,” she aid.
Aliyas acknowledged having received Rs 1 lakh under the panchayat scheme, but claimed he needed at least Rs 3 lakh to prepare the field.
This year, over 140 pokkali farmers have received unsecured and interest-free (for the first six months) loans of Rs 25,000, with an upper limit of Rs 1,25,000 per farmer, from the Palliyakkal Cooperative Society Bank.
According to the bank's clerical staff Raseena KA, the bank also buys the crop at a “better price” of up to Rs 60 per kg. Paddy labourers are paid Rs 350 per day, and the wages are deducted from the final price paid. These measures also address the issue of cash flow among farmers.
MGNREGA and labour shortage
Among the many objectives of the ‘One Paddy, One Fish’ scheme is the generation of 2,64,000 man-days for labourers. However, they are more interested in the less-demanding work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme, which pays Rs 250 a day.
Acknowledging that finding labour was a challenging task, Aliyas said pokkali-related works should be a part of the MGNREGA. Vichappan, meanwhile, called for mechanisation.
Though women get work in fields, they are paid only Rs 350 a day against the Rs 1,000 given to men. “When it rains well, we get roughly 120 days of work in the fields. For the rest of the year, we catch fish in the backwaters,” said Sadhi Krishnan (68).
The maximum output per hectare of pokkali field is only 0.75 tonnes, but the shrimp business saves farmers. Fertilisers are not used as there is a constant inflow and outflow of water and as the rotational organic wastes of paddy and shrimp keep the fields fertile.
“I get paid around Rs 1,000 a day because the land preparation work is extremely hard,” said Pankajakshan, whose income provides for his family of five.
Agriculture Officer Saritha explained the process. “The field has to be made as a bed with side channels or mounts to allow monsoon rains to wash the salinity off from the topsoil. Later, the land is levelled to keep the saline-heavy soil at the bottom and low-saline soil on top.”
(Above) Abdul Jabbar, an NAFCC beneficiary, with Saritha Mohan, Agriculture Officer, Ezhikkara Krishi Bhavan; The 18 lakh subsidy he received, helped Jabbar, among other things, to raise the height of his bund. Pictured below is the new bund, rising two meters above the old one (Photos - Gowthami Subramaniam)
Beneficiaries like Abdul Jabbar (72) from Kottuvally are thankful for the ADAK subsidy that helped him construct a two-metre-high bund. “This year, the Vrischika tide was unusually high. But my field was spared,” said Jabbar, who had received Rs 18 lakh as subsidy for the construction that cost Rs 30 lakh totally.
For elderly farmers, pokkali is a matter of sentiment. “Why do I need money when I can catch fish from my backwater and grow vegetables on my land,” asked Vichappan, adding that pokkali has been a part of his life for the last 68 years.
Aliyas, whose children hold corporate jobs, summed up aptly. “I cannot live without the sound of tides, no matter how difficult this gets.”
Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli
This story was written and produced as part of a media skills development programme delivered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publishers.
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