File photo for representation.
The Kerala State Biodiversity Board is upgrading its vision and mission document, which is 'outdated', says its chairman Dr George Thomas. In the second part of the two-part interview, the former agronomy professor of Kerala Agricultural University talks about why the state is updating its vision on biodiversity and also about the situation of agriculture in the state.
In the first part of the interview, he talked in detail about organic farming in the wake of the Sri Lankan crisis.
You have said that the KSBB is updating its vision and mission. Why is this necessary?
KSBB had a strategy and action plan called SBSAP- State Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. It was prepared for its initial 10 years and now the period is over. The global scenario has changed. Better strategies were developed across the world. The UN released Sustainable Development Goals. Post-2020 targets are also being prepared. So, we decided to update our strategy and action plan to keep it up to speed. This project is funded by the United Nations Development Programme and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Nearly 50 experts were engaged in preparing the new document for Kerala. They are from various fields such as forest, environment, agriculture, education, fisheries, local governance, water resources etc. The committee decided to update the vision and mission statement on par with the new strategy and action plan. Former chairman Dr RV Varma was also part of the team.
Are there any major changes?
The current statement has been expanded further. The final document is not ready yet. Some fine-tuning and approvals are remaining. Various categories like forest, local body and education will have a separate strategy and action plan listed in the document.
The major chunk of the work of KSBB is done through local bodies. At the panchayat level, we have Biodiversity Management Committees. Kudumbashree, Haritha Karma Sena and other agencies help BMCs. The new document will be a guideline for all the departments.
Wildlife attacks in human settlements are growing in Kerala irrespective of proximity to the forest. They come to the fields for food. How do you look at this as an agronomist?
The government has an open approach in this case. They have recommended declaring wild boar a vermin.
We used to cultivate tapioca in the agriculture university compound. It was a huge challenge for us due to the wild boar attack. Since we had money, we built a wall surrounding the area. A very strong one. We dug a little deeper to stop porcupines as well.
In my opinion, these wild boars are not part of wildlife anymore. They are born in our habitat, not in the forest. They should be controlled, undoubtedly.
Even peafowls are dangerous for agriculture. But we can’t kill them.
If we look at why this attack has increased, we can see that it is related to our actions themselves. Why do elephants come to our habitats? Because they don't have food in the forest. We have large teak plantations. They get nothing to eat from teak. The forest department has now started to plant fruit trees instead. Such policy changes should help to solve the issue in the long term.
What are your key takeaways from the agriculture statistics of the last 15 years released by the state government?
One conclusion is about rice cultivation. As we know, it has reduced drastically. The prosperous time of rice cultivation in Kerala was during 1973-74. That was also the peak time of the Green Revolution. Not just that, since there was not sufficient produce, rice was priced well. Later, we imported more rice from north India and our people started migrating to Gulf countries. Simultaneously, the labour charges increased. Demand for land increased. It came to a point that selling the paddy field was more profitable than doing agriculture in it. So gradually the area of rice cultivation decreased.
One thing we must understand is that the area of paddy fields and area of rice cultivation is different. At the peak time, we had only 5 lakh hectares of paddy field but we cultivated rice in 8.8 lakh hectares. This is because there are multiple rounds of rice cultivation in a given year in the same land. The rice cultivation has now been reduced to less than 2 lakh hectares. This is not the area of land, but rice production. We still don’t know the total area of paddy fields. I guess there will be around 2-2.5 lakh hectares of land. But the cultivation is less than this.
Other products are also showing a similar trend. Whichever crop has been giving better prices is showing improvement in productivity. Others are falling.
Mathrubhumi had recently published a report on black pepper cultivation in Pulpally. The Mahindra story. I too have heard that story before. I worked at Regional Agricultural Research Station for the high range zone during the 1986-88 period. It was the peak time of pepper cultivation. Farmers got the best price. Then price fall and diseases affected the production. If farmers don’t get a good return, they will not take care of diseases. So naturally, the production dipped.
As of now, we have 20 lakh hectares of net cultivation. Of this, 5.5 lakh hectares is rubber, 8 lakh hectares is coconut and around 2 lakh hectares of paddy too. So, only 4.lakh 5 hectares remain for the rest.
Youth are blamed for not taking up farming as a profession. Is that a valid criticism?
How will youth take up farming without a good amount of land in their hand? You can’t give them a half acre and ask them to farm and make money. It doesn’t work. At least 4-5 acres are needed to make something. In the old days, the rich were those who had maximum land with them. Now it is businessmen or people in high paying jobs. Even government servants are in a better position as they have a regular income.
My father was a small scale farmer. We had around 3 acres of land. We could live with it at that time with the income from it. But now, when compared to inflation, the income is insufficient. That is why we need a parallel business or a regular income job.
If you look at the statistics, the area of rubber cultivation has increased slightly over the last 15 years. But production dipped hugely. Why is that?
There was a time when Kerala topped the world in rubber productivity. That was the time rubber got the maximum price. There was farmer-oriented research to aid it. The rubber plantations ensured a regular income. But then, the price started to dip. Farmers stopped paying attention to the crop beyond a point. People are starting to move to other crops.
My father used to cultivate ginger when it got the best price. Then by next season, everyone will be in ginger farming. And the price will dip.
In rice, the land is reduced by 30 per cent. But there is not much dip in production.
That is primarily because we started to use modern technology. Fertilisers, pesticides, high-yielding seeds and machines helped to increase productivity.
Meanwhile, it has to be noted that India is recording the best production ever. The total production was 310 million tonnes two years ago. They increase the target every year.
There was an interesting statement from Kerala HC recently that the state was once self-sufficient in rice production. It was hearing a case against relaxations in The Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008. Is that statement factual?
I haven’t heard what the court said. Even during the princely rule, we were short of rice. We used to import from Burma during that time. During the early 1940s, it stopped due to World War. We suffered a lot during that time.
The spread of tapioca cultivation was due to this. My family used to eat rice only once a day. Sometimes, even that will not be available. For the rest of the meals, we were relying on root vegetables like tapioca, elephant foot yam etc. Why I get angry seeing anti-Green Revolution activists is that I have been through poverty due to a lack of supply. Macaroni and wheat were distributed through ration shops at that time. We didn’t know what to do with the wheat. So we made porridge with it. Most of these were from the donation of the capitalist countries. Then, due to the Green Revolution, we got a sufficient supply of rice and wheat. Then gradually, our purchasing power improved due to increased income.
However, we used to make half of what we needed at that time. At present, even that cannot be achieved. We produce 6 lakh tonnes of rice. We need around 50 lakh tonnes.
During the peak time, we produced around 13 lakh tonnes.
The protection of paddy fields has another aspect as well. They are wetlands. It helps to improve the groundwater. That is why the paddy field owners get a bonus from the state government. One hectare of paddy helps to take 2 crore litres of water underground. And the biodiversity of the paddy field is also important. That is why it has to be protected.