Column | How COVID-19 steered Kerala on the path to food security

At first sight, none in this photograph looks familiar. Look closer, and you might identify the person standing on the right side of the frame. Why didn’t you identify him earlier? Perhaps you were expecting him in white and white as you had always seen him. Former Kerala minister and former speaker K Radhakrishnan ditched his usual attire and hit the field like a true-blue farmer. CPM’s central committee member ganged up with his local friends to plough an acre of fallow land at Narimadapparambil near Chelakkara in Thrissur. Hopes of a food-secure future have sprouted all over the land.

The CPM and the Left Democratic Front it leads have taken up food security as a political slogan. Political leaders have taken a break from committee meetings and street-corner speeches to go back to the basics. Ask any leader in the ruling dispensation about the initiative and they would tell you that it was a collective move by the alliance and the government. There is no one-upmanship in the commendable work. The political establishment has woken up to the harsh reality that the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown are likely to lead to a severe shortage of food.

The CPM kicked off the campaign when all of its members planted a sapling in their yard on the World Earth Day. The CPI was not far behind. The party’s representative in the cabinet, agriculture minister V S Sunil Kumar, nurtured the programme as ‘Subhiksha Keralam’. “The Left Democratic Front has taken up the government’s mission. Now, it is the turn of the opposition,” said LDF convener A Vijayaraghavan.

The agriculture department had already kicked off a programme titled ‘Jeevani’ to liberate Malayalis from unhealthy eating habits. As per the programme started in January, the agriculture department came up with seven “model plates”, or menus, that can be prepared from whatever can be harvested from the neighbourhood. ‘Jeevani’ was originally a programme to encourage the cultivation of such ingredients. Though the plan gradually merged into the ‘Subhiksha Keralam’ project, the agriculture minister insisted that the aims of the original project was still standing.

State governments had hitherto encouraged people to cultivate whatever they can in their own land. However, the uncertainties related to the pandemic have forced a shift in thinking. The government has said that it wants all unoccupied land in the state to be cultivated. If anyone is lacking in resources to cultivate his own land, he can allow other people or groups to do so. The land owner can expect 10 percent of the returns and the contract would last for at least two years.

The plan is to extend cultivation to 25,000 hectares of land in this harvest season. Vegetable production is expected to be increased from 12.4 lakh tons to 20 lakh tons.

Sceptics, however, think that the Left Democratic Front is trying to build social capital ahead of the imminent local body elections. “If the opposition thinks so, it is there problem,” said CPM state secretariat member K N Balagopal, who also serves as the state secretary of the party-affiliated Karshaka Sangham. “This is a mission essential for the state.”

CPI assistant secretary Sathyan Mokeri, also the national secretary of the Kisan Sabha, said that he was hopeful of a change in mindset. “The other day, I saw some youngsters who were searching for tapioca to plant. There are signs that Kerala is taking up agriculture again.” The agriculture department has already distributed 50 lakh seeds to the people. The department is working towards making available 75 lakh more seeds.

The BJP has also jumped in the bandwagon. The party plans to distribute 10 lakh saplings of fruit trees on June 5 through its affiliate, the Karshaka Morcha. The Kerala Students Union, the student wing of the opposition Congress, has requested the government to make available 5000 packets of seeds to be distributed among the people in the Thiruvananthapuram district.

The pandemic has clearly changed the state’s politics and priorities.

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