(This is Part 2 of an editorial series by Malayala Manorama. Read Part 1 here)
Fruit-growing in Kerala will witness a revolution if the legal hurdles are removed. That revolution will then spread to the agro-based industries and the employment sector.
Farmers have been demanding that rambutan, avocado, mangosteen, durian, jackfruit, breadfruit, pineapple, lychee, dragon fruit, longan, and achachairu (Garcinia humilis), also be included in the list of plantation crops under the Land Reforms Act.
Government in favour
The state government is in favour of including fruit farming under cash crops. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan himself has said that the government is considering allowing the cultivation of fruits without affecting the basic nature of plantations.
The government intends to introduce scientific changes in the Land Reforms Act to enable cultivation of crops that are suitable and profitable for different types of land, agriculture minister V S Sunilkumar had earlier stated. The Department of Agriculture is planning to allow a fixed percentage of plantation land to be used for fruit and vegetable cultivation without affecting the job security of plantation workers.
James Mathew, MLA, had raised the issue of allowing farmers to cultivate fruits through submission in the Assembly.
Revenue Minister E Chandrasekharan had then said that matters, including amending the Land Reforms Act, were being considered. If that amendment is made, it will be the most historic change in a law related to agriculture and land use to come into effect after the Land Reforms Act of 1963. The important thing is that there is no need for any drastic changes in the land use law to make the amendment. All that is needed is to add fruits to the list of cash crops.
Partial cultivation not profitable
During discussions to include fruit farming under cash crops, the suggestion that emerges is that approval can be given for partial use of plantation land. That is, only 20% of the land. But farmers say this will never be profitable. For example, if a person with 10 acres is allowed to use only two acres for fruit crops, farming will not be profitable. How can a farmer make a profit if the annual income is not even Rs 1 lakh per acre?
Very few plantations in Kerala have irrigation facilities. And fruit cultivation is possible only on such land. Therefore, approval for only partial conversion will result in a loss for many plantation owners.
When an expert committee was appointed to look into granting concessions, only those with more than 1,000 acres were seen as plantation owners. Those with 50 or 60 acres were not considered. No one thought about these people facing loss and crisis due to cash crops being limited to just seven varieties.
Plantation owners say fruit cultivation can open up great possibilities for Kerala. Even small farmers can reap good profits, which can put an end to the constant refrain that farming is a loss-making business.
Small farmers can sell fruits to processing facilities and plants making value-added products in the public sector or of large plantation owners. Small farmers' associations will also be able to set up such factories on a cooperative basis. Industries allied to agriculture will grow.
In addition to the existing workforce, many others will find employment.
When it becomes profitable, it will attract a large number of young people in agriculture and business.
Food processing and marketing will also reach new heights.
Kerala's foreign exchange earnings will increase through exports.
Most of the fruits that reach the Gulf today come from countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. The flight distance to the Gulf from Kerala is half of that from those countries.
Farm tourism will expand
There are many people who have returned from abroad due to the COVID crisis and are not sure what to do next. There are also those in Kerala who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and are in crisis.
Opportunities can be made available to at least some of them not only in agriculture but also in many other sectors such as marketing, exporting and processing.
Nurseries offering fruit saplings also have great potential. The potential for farm tourism is also huge. In this regard, too, Vietnam and Thailand can be considered as the model.
The figures speak for themselves
The cultivation of many cash crops is declining in Kerala mainly because it is not profitable.
The income for Kerala from the plantation sector during the financial year 2012-13 was Rs 21,000 crore. By 2018–19, it had fallen to Rs 9,945 crore. Things got so bad that 13 plantations had to be closed. Workers had to starve because the crop was unprofitable. Such figures are enough to give a picture of the ground reality.
While in many other crops, the average annual income is Rs 25,000 per acre, in fruit cultivation, it is around Rs 4 lakh. This is in addition to the revenue that can be generated from the sale of value-added products and farm tourism.
It would be a grave mistake if the land use law that was made decades ago is not reviewed, says James Mathew, MLA, who sought the inclusion of fruit cultivation in plantation crops through a submission in the Legislature on November 18, 2019. Fruit cultivation is very important at a time when farmers are suffering the most. Fruit cultivation can fetch good prices in the domestic and foreign markets. It is a great source of income for the country, farmers and workers, he says.
According to James Mathew, employment opportunities will increase significantly. Just one worker is enough to tap a block of rubber. But, a two-acre fruit farm will require at least two people to pick the fruit. The same number of people are required to apply fertilizer. A worker can get employment for 20 to 25 days at Rs 800 per day. It will not be difficult for the employer to pay the wages as there will be profit, he says.
PC Cyriac, the former chairman of Rubber Board and former additional chief secretary of Tamil Nadu, said the state government should come forward to save the diseased plantations and small farmers who cultivate horticultural crops and help in creating new jobs.
Rambutan, jackfruit, mango, mangosteen, wild jackfruit, coconut and oil palm can also be included in the list of horticultural crops. There should be no stipulation that only a certain percentage of plantation area will be allowed for new crops. If the existing crops are not profitable, then the new crops included in the list should be allowed to be cultivated. The restrictions on the cultivable area will not help anyone’s cause, he says.
Earnings can be guaranteed by allowing projects such as animal husbandry on a certain portion of the plantations.
In a responsible democracy, it should be the responsibility of the government to ensure small farmers don’t suffer because of legal hurdles. Legislation should be enacted to prevent plantation owners from losing, after three generations, the land that was purchased for a price, Cyriac says.