Mired in debt and loss, Kerala farmers lose faith in elections

Representational Image: Manorama

Kottayam: Binoy P of Manimala in Kottayam district (name changed because he doesn’t want to irk the political class) did something unusual a few years ago. He quit his high-paying job in a Gulf country and returned to his homeland with his children. He could have easily migrated to Europe with his wife, an experienced nurse who still works in the Gulf but can find a job in the West if needed. More than the comfort of the Europe, which many in his small parish have already opted for, he was lured by the old world charm of his village. He doesn’t regret his decision, but nor is he too happy. What upsets him is the lack of returns from what he does so passionately – farming. Back in his home town, he started looking after the rubber plantation his father had grown years ago and also tried his hands in banana cultivation. Both haven't been rewarding. More than the fall in prices, he is hurt by the perceived apathy of the governments in addressing it.

Binoy would however be voting for Congress candidate in Pathanamthitta, Anto Antony, in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Not because the sitting MP has done anything particular for the farmers. The reason is different. '' Anto allocated funds for our volleyball court. So we have decided to vote for him this time, irrespective of political differences,'' the 50-year-old sports lover said. ‘We’ he referred means a group of men, mostly youngsters, who get together in the court, built using the MP’s funds, every evening. Lesson for the politicians – happiness quotient matters in elections.

Unlike Binoy, none of the other farmers this correspondent spoke to revealed who would they vote for. When was the last time those in power did something to improve the happiness quotient in their life? They couldn’t remember.

''Elections! Those who still go after these politicians deserve a smack, said Bose (name changed), a farmer based at Kattappana in Idukki said. He was too mild-mannered till then, explaining the daily struggles an ordinary farmer goes through. “Don’t get confused with this house and the car in my porch. Believe me, I have all these just because my sisters who work abroad help me a lot,” Bose said, sitting in his two-storey house.

Among farmers who have been hit most hard with price fall are the rubber cultivators, most of them settled in central Kerala. The price of natural rubber has been remaining low (often below Rs 150/kg) for the past four years. Though the Left Democratic Front (LDF) had promised in its assembly election manifesto to increase minimum support price (MSP) of natural rubber to Rs 250/kg, it remains a distant dream for the growers. The LDF government recently increased the MSP by Rs 10 (from Rs 170 to Rs 180), but it has not impressed the farmers.

'' It is of no use to farmers as the market price has already touched Rs 180 per kg. Without the government raising the MSP substantially, farmers in traditional rubber growing areas will not be able to survive,'' George Valy, president, Indian Rubber Dealers Association, said.

He said plantations which can produce around 2 lakh tonne of rubber has been remaining untapped in the state owing to heavy losses incurred by price fall. He called for a combined effort by the central and state governments to fix the MSP.

The central government, through the Rubber Board recently announced a new incentive scheme for the export of sheet rubber. Under this scheme, exporters of sheet rubber will get Rs 5 per kg as an incentive. This initiative will be in effect from March 15 to June 30. Growers have expressed dissatisfaction over the nominal incentive.

Dejo Kappen of Swathanthra Karshaka Sangham said price instability has affected all sorts of farmers. He said implementation of the recommendation of National Commission on Farmers headed by Dr M S Swaminathan that MSP should be at least 50 per cent more than the weighted average cost of production is the only solution.

While the rubber price has been part of political debate for long, the plight of other cultivators has often gone unheard.

“There is not a single crop which fetches reasonable price for cultivators. Earlier when we staged protests the people’s representatives at least used to reach out to us and hear our demands. Now, nobody cares,” Jose Edappatt, state president, Infarm, said. He pointed out the frequent incidents of human-wildlife conflict forcing several small-scale farmers out of their land. Infarm has even sought an inquiry into the reasons behind the unprecedented rise in such cases.

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