- Paddy farmers across Kerala incur significant personal losses by continuing with paddy cultivation, as is reflected in the benefits forgone due to conservation.
- The regulatory mechanism restricting paddy land conversion in the state of Kerala penalises paddy farmers without adequately compensating them for private economic losses, write the authors of this commentary.
- The current regulatory mechanism needs to be complemented by market-based policy instruments over and above the prevailing subsidy and production bonus to incentivise conservation efforts, they argue.
- The views in this commentary are that of the authors.
The unassuming paddy fields have been the hotbed for politics for decades in the state of Kerala, and continue to be so even contemporarily. These fields has witnessed some of the fiercest class struggles and militant trade unionism in the name of food and livelihood security, environmental protection and development. A basis for many of these struggles has been state land use legislations on paddy lands. The Land Utilization Order of 1967 was cited to legitimise the Save the Rice Field Agitation (SRFA), launched by the Kerala State Karshaka Thozhilali Union (KSKTU) in 1997.
This agitation was around conversion of paddy fields. The farmers, especially the small holders, raised concerns of economic viability of paddy farming and the social irrelevance of the order, following overall improvement in food situation in the state. KSKTU brought in the food, livelihood and environmental protection angle to the debate to protest conversion of paddy fields.
The political buy-in for the KSKTU position was evidenced in a subsequent legislation brought in by the left government in Kerala. The landmark, Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008, was implemented with the stated purpose of ensuring food security and sustaining the ecological system in the state of Kerala.
The legislation emphasised the environmental/ecological relevance of paddy lands to the state. The penalty for non-compliance includes imprisonment for 6 to 11 months and a fine in the range of $610 to $1,220. It’s another story that the State subsequently has diluted many key provisions in the Act. The state has also introduced several subsidies and assistance for paddy farmers that include an input assistance to the tune of $67 per hectare, a production bonus of $15 per hectare per season, free electricity and a royalty of $37 per hectare for conservation of paddy lands.
Despite this carrot and stick approach, widespread conversion of paddy lands continues to be a developmental issue in Kerala. The decade between 2000-01 and 2021-22 saw a 39 percent drop in area under paddy. In 2021-22, paddy accounted for about 7.69 percent of the total cultivable area in the state.
Farmers cite the poor economic viability of paddy, even when compared to its competing land use within agriculture, as a reason for conversion. The most common paddy in Kerala is wetland paddy and these are privately owned agro-ecosystems and often the only source of livelihood for most farmers. The competing crops for wetland paddy are banana and areca nut.
A study on the relative profitability of crops, reveals that the average cost of cultivating paddy is in the range of $826 to $907 per ha across the three cropping seasons in a year. The average costs of cultivating banana and areca nut are $2,680 per ha and $1,262 per ha, respectively. The average net return per ha for paddy is in the range of $418 to $742, while for banana and areca nut, the returns are $3,723 and $1,918 per ha, respectively — six and three times higher than that of paddy.
The case of paddy land conversion establishes that private land use choice by farmers involves a trade-off between short-term profitability and long-term environmental/ecological sustainability. However, environmentalists and ecologists worldwide have contrasting views on the utility of paddy wetlands. One section recognises paddy lands as human-made wetlands that play a significant role in groundwater recharge, water regulation, flood and drought control and conservation of biodiversity, in addition to their primary role in food production.
They emphasise that paddy systems are landscapes that are not only integral to the food and livelihood security of people but are also a valuable source of ecosystem services. The habitat services and biodiversity conservation services offered by wetland paddy fields are well documented as are their regulating services in terms of eco-disaster risk reduction. Hence, wetland paddy is also increasingly being touted as valuable green infrastructure. However, a section of environmentalists’ view paddy lands as contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and thereby to global warming.
Ecological significance of wetland paddy
In this context, a study was launched to understand the rationale behind the environmental/ecological argument for conservation of wetland paddy. A key determinant of the ecosystem services potential of wetlands is their ecological health. An important ecosystem service of paddy fields is their role in facilitating biodiversity, both flora and fauna. Hence, in studies comparing land use changes involving paddy, a key element of comparison is the gain or loss of useful biodiversity.
Although paddy lands are home to various flora and fauna, the study quantifies the amphibian diversity, with a specific focus on frogs. Among the faunal species found in paddy lands, frogs are common and representative of the health of the ecosystem. They are natural enemies of crop pests and are, therefore, good bio-control agents. Frogs are considered keystone species in food webs as they prey on arthropods, while they in turn are prey to snakes, birds and even humans. A decline in their population is bound to have a significant impact on other organisms in the food web.
Most importantly, frogs are used as bio-indicators of ecological health as they are highly sensitive to changes in ecosystems. The response of frogs to ecosystem changes has been used as an indicator in studies on the impacts of anthropogenic activities, habitat fragmentation and general ecosystem stress. Furthermore, among the faunal species observed in paddy lands, frogs are unique in that they need both aquatic (e.g., paddy) and terrestrial habitats (e.g., banana and areca nut) to complete their life cycle. Thus, frog abundance and species diversity, were used as indicators of ecosystem health for a comparative analysis across land uses.
The study was carried out in the Wayanad district in the state of Kerala in southwest India, which is in the ecologically fragile Western Ghats. In addition to frog abundance and species diversity, a host of plot level measurements such as biophysical parameters, history and boundary effects, agronomic practices adopted were collected.
The result of the study shows that shifting from paddy to banana or areca nut has adverse effects on both frog abundance and species diversity. Paddy lands are not only important as breeding sites due to the presence of standing water but also as foraging sites (ecological data sheets). Cultivated paddy lands, compared to banana and areca nut lands, offer an advantage to frogs in terms of foraging, as insects and microorganisms thrive on them. This can also be attributed to the fact that of the three crops, paddy is associated with the lowest pesticide use, thus providing a conducive environment for the sustenance of faunal biodiversity in general. Furthermore, even the terrestrial frogs found in banana and areca nut plots need water bodies for their sustenance. Thus, the presence of cultivated paddy fields with standing water for a large part of the year helps with the multiplication and sustenance of the amphibian population and promotes diversity within the agro-ecosystem. This is further corroborated by the fact that the level of water in the observation plots positively influenced frog abundance and species diversity across all regression models.
The empirical results of the study suggest that paddy lands play a significant role in supporting frog abundance and diversity. The result provides strong empirical evidence for the role of paddy lands in sustaining ecosystem health and providing ecosystem services. Furthermore, paddy lands being human-made wetlands with all the characteristics of natural wetlands offer valuable ecological and environmental benefits to society. The results of the study lend credence to the legislation in Kerala that regulates the conversion of paddy lands on grounds of ecological sustenance.
Case for Piguovian subsidy for wetland paddy
Paddy farmers across Kerala incur significant personal losses by continuing with paddy cultivation, as is reflected in the benefits forgone due to conservation. The regulatory mechanism restricting paddy land conversion in the state of Kerala penalises paddy farmers without adequately compensating them for private economic losses. Considering the results of the study, the current regulatory mechanism needs to be complemented by market-based policy instruments over and above the prevailing subsidy and production bonus to incentivise conservation efforts.
This recommendation is in line with suggestions that call for the payment of an “ecological incentive” to paddy farmers, which were put forth in the draft Kerala State Agricultural Development Plan of 2013 and the Gadgil Committee recommendation to pay a “conservation service charge” to farmers who adopt environmentally sustainable farming practices in the Western Ghats region.
The market-based policy instrument could be a “Pigouvian subsidy” or an “ecological incentive” that is at least equivalent to the opportunity cost of conservation, which is the “economic rent” forgone by paddy farmers who do not shift to banana — the first stage of conversion, which is still reversible. Having said this, it is also important to acknowledge that an appropriate value for the Pigouvian subsidy or ecological incentive can only be arrived at through an economic valuation of the non-market ecosystem services provided by wetland paddy. A Pigouvian subsidy, suggested by British economist A. C. Pigou, is one that provides subsidies for activities that confer external social benefits.
Many a political battle has been fought around paddy in Kerala. The state recognises paddy lands as unique ecological systems and has legislations put in place preventing their conversion to alternate land uses. The study provides evidence of the significance of paddy agro-ecosystems in sustaining ecological health. However, paddy farming in Kerala, is estimated to be not economically viable. Thus, paddy farmers, who supply valuable non-market ecosystems services, by continuing in paddy incur huge private losses for providing social benefits. The state, recognising this, should in addition to promulgating legislations controlling land use, pitch in with a Pigouvian subsidy (ecological incentives) to encourage paddy farmers to continue to cultivate paddy, at the risk of personal economic losses, for larger societal benefit.
M. Manjula is a faculty at Azim Premji University. Vipindas P. and Girigan Gopi are part of the Community Agrobiodiversity Centre at the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. Their commentary is based on their study, ‘Wetlands and Ecosystem Services: Empirical Evidence for Incentivizing Paddy Wetlands’ which appeared in the July 2023 volume of Ecology, Economy, and Society – the INSEE Journal.
Banner image: Rice farmers in Kerala. Photo by Mikko Koponen/Flickr.