- Traditionally, the coastal wetlands in many parts of India have been used for sequential paddy-fish cultivation under different forms of institutional structures. In Kerala it is called Pokkali. In the recent years there’s a decline in Pokkali cultivation.
- In this commentary, the authors interview the farmers who cultivate the unique variety of the GI-tagged Pokkali rice to understand the reasons for the decline in cultivation.
- A shortage of skilled labour, the lack of technology that suits a soggy soil, low crop prices and the disturbance to and encroachment of the marine and estuarine ecosystems are the main factors for the decline of this sustainable farming practice.
- The views in the commentary are that of the authors.
Pokkali rice is a saline-tolerant, indigenous rice variety grown in the Alappuzha, Thrissur and Ernakulam districts of Kerala. In Malayalam, Pokkam means height and Aali means plant. This lesser-known rice variety is developed in low-lying coastal areas and employs one of the oldest organic farming techniques.
Pokkali is a system in which the farming alternates between rice and prawn; the fields are used alternately for rice farming and prawn and shrimp cultivation.
Coastal wetlands, the highly productive yet fragile ecosystems, are fast deteriorating due to several anthropogenic factors like unsustainable resource exploitation, habitat destruction, intensive aquaculture or permanent alteration for other uses. Traditionally, the coastal wetlands in many parts of India have been used for sequential paddy-fish cultivation under different forms of institutional structures. In West Bengal, this agriculture-fisheries integration is known as bheries, in Karnataka it is called gajani, in Goa and Maharashtra it is called khazaan and in Kerala it’s pokkali.
How is Pokkali cultivated?
Pokkali fields are prepared for cultivation from April 14 or 15, around the time of Vishu, the traditional Malayali new year. During the monsoon that follows, the water level in the Pokkali field rises and the Pokkali rice grows above the water up to one metre. During the low tide condition, the excess water is let out through the sluice openings; during high tide, the backwater is allowed to enter the field. By mid-September, the crop is ready for harvest. The rice is harvested by cutting the panicle from the top and the remaining plant part is left in the water column for decomposition. This then acts as the feed for prawn cultivation. After the harvest of Pokkali rice, the field is kept idle for the proper decomposition of the remains. By November, the local prawn larvae varieties (such as naran, choodan, etc.) reach the field when the sluice shutters are opened, along with the brackish water from the sea during high tides.
Many farmers cultivate tiger prawns and crabs, along with the local prawn varieties in the same field. Prawns in the Pokkali field feed on the leftover organic matter from decayed crops. By March, prawn harvesting is done using the nets on the sluice gates. When the water leaves the field, prawns move along with the flow and get trapped in the net. As Pokkali rice is cultivated using organic farming methods, prawns grown in the same field are also organic. They are famous for their unique taste and have a high export value.
The integrated rotational farming of rice-fish cultivation exhibits ‘mutualism’. These prawn seedlings feed on the crop leftovers, and the crop absorbs the nutrients from the shedding of the prawn scales and other remnants.
Why is Pokkali special?
Pokkali is cultivated with no fertilisers, be it chemical or organic, as it is grown in waterlogged areas. Pokkali can claim the title ‘organic’ as it is grown in water, and even if pesticides were added, the change in seawater level washes away the pesticides. This organically-grown rice is famous for its medicinal qualities and peculiar taste and has high protein and fibre content. Due to its geographical specificity, Pokkali was conferred a geographical indication (GI) tag in the year 2008.
According to Pokkali Land Development Agency, Pokkali farming across Kerala has declined from 25,000 hectares to about 4,000 hectares. That said, the actual agriculture takes place in less than 1,000 hectares. They say that this decline has also affected prawn farming. What reasons led to this decline?
Shortage of labour
Unemployment has been growing in Kerala at an average of eight percent per annum, which is higher than the national average. To make matters more complex, there is a considerable shortage of workers for MNREGA work.
Benny, a Pokkali farm owner, said, “One of the major problems noted is the lack of labour to perform this traditional farming, where on average 207 human-days per hectare are required to cultivate Pokkali, that too skilled labourers. Moreover, harvesting must be done by standing in water, and the workers cannot be engaged beyond noon.”
On average the male labourers are paid Rs. 950-1,150 per day, whereas female labourers are paid Rs. 350-550 per day, depending on the intensity of work. MGNREGA guarantees Rs. 311 daily for basic work. However, these wages are not drawing enough labour force.
According to Sarasamma, a Pokkali farmer, “MGNREGA should not run during cultivation period to avoid this labour shortage, or they should be directed to work on fields”.
Unavailability of labour coupled with the increase in wages to draw workforce has increased the cost of production of Pokkali.
It’s also noted that the average age of farmers engaged in this Pokkali farming ranges between 50 and 60 years, and there is no trace of a younger generation choosing to cultivate this rice variety. Thankamma, a Pokkali farmer, said, “I have been cultivating Pokkali for the last 40 years. My children have zero interest in farming, and I am not sure whether these farms would exist after my death.”
There’s also another big challenge – migrant labourers. The introduction of interstate migrant labourers who provide cheap and flexible services in the state into Pokkali fields would pose threat to the existing local labour, opine social activists. One of them says, “Employment of inter-state migrant workmen in any farm is prohibited unless it is duly agreed by the local trade unions,”
“Political parties treat trade unions as appendages to boost vote banks. There is little democracy in the functioning of the trade unions. The blocks show little concern for more significant issues such as growing unemployment, declining industries and loss of producer confidence,” says another farmer.
Lack of mechanisation
Mechanisation has revolutionised the agricultural sector in India. It has helped to reduce the cost of cultivation/ production and overcome the labour shortage. However, the latest technology has not benefited Pokkali cultivation, as the technology cannot be used in a soggy soil. “The terrain is not conducive to mechanised tilling,” says farmers. The Government and Kerala Agricultural University, Thrissur, have made many attempts to bring suitable machinery to sort the problem, in vain. This is a reason why the rice variety remains labour-intensive.
A geographical Indication (GI) tag is an intellectual property right that signals the uniqueness. The GI tag helps farmers promote the product and fetch a reasonable price premium. However, 80 percent of the farmers surveyed are unaware of the GI tag, its possibilities and its opportunities.
Paliyakkal Service Cooperative Bank ,Ezhikkara markets Pokkali rice and its value-added products such as Puttupodi, Pachari, Karkidakakanji etc. The cooperative sells these products to organic stores in and around Ernakulam city. When consumers are ready to pay more than Rs.100 for a kilo of Basmati rice, organic rice like Pokkali fails to get introduced in the larger market.
“Kerala government offers a minimum support price of Rs. 29 per kilogram for Pokkali and is available at the market for consumers at Rs. 150 per kilogram. It is difficult to continue when our organically produced rice is so under-priced,” says a representative from Pokkali Padashekhara Samithi, a collective of farmers.
Beyond these local challenges, several exogenous factors are leading to the decline of Pokkali cultivation. The establishment of industrial projects such as the International Container Trans-Shipment Terminal (ICTT) otherwise known as Vallarpadam container terminal, has damaged Pokkali Paddy cultivation field. It acquired almost 24 hectares of wetland (Government, 2005). The immediate impact on Pokkali is the reduction of land area under cultivation. Also, it obstructs the natural flow of tidal waves into the field. The rapid urbanisation of the areas boosted the land prices and encouraged farmers to stop farming and sell the fields. Most of the fields are purchased by MNCs and builders.
‘One paddy, one crop’ is a scheme launched by Government of Kerala to promote organic cultivation of paddy and aquaculture alternatively on the same crop year. The scheme could have stimulated paddy production to some extent. Nevertheless, many farmers went against the scheme as they favoured doing aquaculture alone as it is more profitable.
To survive, farmers demanded that the government form a committee to look into the problems of Pokkali cultivation. They also require revising the base price to Rs. 120 per kilogram to help farmers with the cultivation needs, such as strengthening the outer bunds and solving labour shortages through MGNREGA workers.
The capital-intensive shrimp culture, industrial expansion, ports, harbours, resort and hotels for tourism while have been responsible for the shrinking of the traditional coastal rice-fish farming across the coastal wetlands of India. There has also been inherent difficulty primarily being economic incentive to motivate younger generation to take up this practice. Labour and skill shortage further adds to the problem. In such a scenario, there is an urgent need to deliberate on the survival of this heritage practice before it becomes history.
Kavya Sanjaya is a research scholar at the School of Economics, University of Hyderabad. Gummadi Sridevi is a professor at the School of Economics, University of Hyderabad. Amalendu Jyotishi is a professor at the School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.
Banner image: A Pokkali field in Ezhikkara. Photo by Kavya Sanjaya.