Kottayam: India has been witnessing the ire of farmers in form of strong protests in the national capital against the three contentious agriculture laws. Here, in the southern tip of the country, a set of farmers have rattled the authorities holding similar protests, but for a completely different reason.
The self immolation bid by two farmers in Kerala's Kottayam district and the protests that ensued shocked the poll-bound bound state earlier this month. Farmers from the Upper Kuttanadu region in the district held protest demonstrations in front of the Supplyco office in Kottayam town carrying sacks of harvested paddy. What triggered the protests were the problems with the procurement of harvested paddy and the delay it caused, which would lead to crop losses.
The farmers claim that they were being exploited by rice mills, who were to procure the harvested paddy at the base price set by the state government. According to the farmers, the mills have been demanding an unreasonable reduction in payment citing quality issues with the produce. However the mill owners claim that they follow the specifications and quality parameters set by the government.
On February 25, a farmer from Kallara set himself on fire in front of the Kallara Krishi Bhavan. Four days later, another farmed attempted suicide after pouring kerosene over himself. The timely intervention by locals saved both. What prompted them to take the extreme step was the desperation over the delay in procuring their yield and an alleged bid by mills to force them to grant more reductions.
Mills, which function as the middlemen between the Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation and the farmers, are supposed to collect paddy from the farmers at the Minimum Support Prices, process them and and hand over the product to the government body. The issue arises when the mills and farmers fail to reach a consensus over the amount of wastage discount – termed 'thaara' by the locals.
What is 'thaara'?
When one quintal paddy is procured at MSP, the mills demand a discount in payment for 1.5 kilograms of rice on an average citing the loss of produce during processing. In the areas where the problems arose, the mills allegedly demanded a discount of up to 10 kg per quintal, which the farmers termed unreasonable. The mills claim that the produce in certain regions or paddy fields have a higher moisture content, which dampens quality. The lack of an established order in handling such issues would lead to disagreements between both the parties, which eventually delays the whole process.
Currently the state-decided support price for paddy is Rs 27.48 per kilogram. (From April 1 onwards, it will be Rs 28 following a hike announced in the recent State Budget.) The Supplyco has a set a number of parameters to decide the yield quality before procurement such as moisture content, discolouration, dockage etc.
As per the quality standards, the moisture content of paddy should not exceed 17 per cent. This would be troublesome for paddy fields situated below the main sea level (MSL). Drying the produce would also be met with difficulties such as unexpected rain. If the produce fails to meet the parameters in the tests conducted by the paddy marketing offices, the mills would demand further discounts in payment aka 'thaara'.
In the backdrop of the upcoming Assembly elections, Onmanorama spoke to a couple of farmers in Arpookara area to understand their concerns and how the issue would affect the prospects of candidates in Kottayam.
“After 10-20 days of harvesting, the paddy is left lying in the fields. If it rains even in one night, more than half of our paddy would be lost then itself,” said Manoj, a farmer from the Arppookkara area in Kottayam.
“Earlier, after harvesting the paddy, the chaff and everything is removed before giving it. Now, there is no arrangement for that. So, they are saying that moisture content is high in the paddy and hence it needs to be dried. But during the rainy season, it is not possible to do that. Then there is chaff - the husk and some hay. They demand payment deductions citing these,” says M K Soman, a farmer from Maniyaparambu in Kottayam.
“If you take one quintal of paddy, the wastage would be just 1kg or 1.5-2kg. Instead, the mills are seeking a discount of 10 to 20 kg. It is exploitation,” Soman said.
Meanwhile, the Kerala Rice Millers' Association claim that they were forced to seek discounts to make up for their loss.
“The paddy has a set of quality parameters. The problem arises when the farmers are not able to adhere to these specifications. The issue is mainly in regions such as the upper Kuttanad area, or in areas with black paddy fields, parts of Kottayam and Vaikom. In these areas, the chaff percentage is more in paddy and the yield is also less. There are issues, this is a reality. Most of the times, we reach an agreement with the farmers over the wastage amount. The issues happen when some with vested interests try to stir up trouble,” said Varkey Peter, General Secretary of the Kerala Rice Millers' Association.
The farmers we spoke to have one demand to the election candidates – “when you come to power, establish an arrangement in which the Supplyco would compensate the losses that the farmer incurs in the form of wastage discount.”