New Internationalist

Ferry To Revolution

Issue 241

new internationalist
issue 241 - March 1993


Ferry to revolution
On the backwaters from Quilon to Alleppey and into Kerala’s
communist heartland – where it all began.

Kerala, India. Three loud, bad-tempered crows are strutting up and down on the roof of the wooden ferry moored at Quilon jetty. It’s the backwater bus and it’s gradually filling with locals wanting to get from A to B – and tourists hoping to experience Kerala’s stunning network of canals and lagoons.

A woman in a bright yellow sari climbs aboard, followed by her crisp-shirted husband and two well-behaved children. The typical Kerala contraception-conscious, nuclear family – also known as the ‘the scooter family’ because they can all fit onto one. They sit a discreet distance from a pair of foreign travellers wearing pale dreadlocks, nose rings and clothes in the requisite faded shades.

The diesel engine belches a few times, then we start to cross Ashtamudi Lake, which is edged with huge fishing nets suspended by a series of weights and pulleys from strange wooden apparati. The nets are Chinese in origin – a reminder that Kerala was an important stop on the famous Europe-to-China trade route.

For the next eight hours we will glide through water that is alternately fresh and salty – as water from rivers joins with sea tides entering the lagoons to produce one of the most delicately balanced aquatic eco-systems in the world.

The backwaters may look tranquil but they function as vital arteries. Along their edges people live, fetch water, wash clothes, themselves and their animals. On the water they transport food, coconuts, building materials and, of course, fish.

The fishers use traditional ‘snake boats’ which are often co-operatively-owned and bear names like the Karl Marx. A young nun, carrying a huge black umbrella, waves at them from her shallow dugout. It’s a typical Keralite scene – where tradition, Marxism and Christianity are all rolled into one.

Further on we are proceeding along a dreamy green canal overhanging with trees when suddenly the amber sand becomes black and the trees thin out. Ashen men covered in dust glide up in boats laden with dark grey, oddly glittering earth. It’s eerie – and becomes more so as the landscape becomes a colourless wasteland which feels bleakly apocalytic, like one of Nostradamus’ visions of a post-nuclear world of pestilent dust.

A sign – Kerala Rare Earths – reveals all. This is monozite, one of the planet’s few deposits of the stuff. Monozite contains Rare Earths chloride, used in the petroleum industry and for making mirrors and chinaware. It also contains thorium, which is radioactive, and makes this area four times more radioactive than other parts of India. People living and working here are four times more likely to give birth to children with disabilities. There is a high incidence of Down’s Syndrome, deafness, cleft lip, blindness and infertility here – and no sign of any precautions being taken whatsoever.

Men carry the material in big sacks on their backs, then push it glistening in barges down the waterways. Families live in shacks just metres away. Women and children gather water, just as they do everywhere else on the backwaters – but here the scene is far from picturesque. An unctuous black rim marks where water ends and sand begins.

I am reminded of what Quilon-based environmental activist V Padmanabhan had told me the previous day: ‘The establishment does not want to learn what is happening to these people because it will involve multi-million dollars in compensation’.

Almost as quickly as we entered this nightmarish scene we are out of it and back in paradise. In another shallow lagoon a man in a dugout throws a net which opens out like a flower. Glistening fishers wearing bright yellow or orange turbans, and without an ounce of fat on them, lift boats and untangle wheat-blond nets.

By mid-afternoon the thick forest of coconut trees gives way to great open paddy fields, with their sheets of water mirroring the sky. We are entering the Kuttanad, the rice-bowl of Kerala, made up of reclaimed land in this otherwise waterlogged area. On the banks of the canal and between the fields people walk – their silhouetted forms looking proud and dignified. When people see or hear the boat coming they smile and wave – adults as well as children.

It’s hard to imagine that earlier this century the ancestors of these people would have dived into the fields if a person of higher caste came along. Today the caste system has been virtually dismantled and 90 per cent of Keralites own the land on which their homes stand. The little houses with their plots along the waterside stand as evidence.

What happened? The power of the high-caste Namboodiri landowners was overthrown by a combination of labourers, tenant farmers and educated radicals. Their common demand: land reform.

The first major challenges to the old order happened right here, in the back-waters near Alleppey. During a serious food shortage in 1941-42 the landowners announced that they would pay their workers not in rice as usual but in cash – and at a pre-war wage rate.

The agri-labourers went on strike – to remarkable effect. The landowners backed down, agreed to a 50-per-cent pay increase and recognized the newly formed union of agricultural labourers and the town-based workers of Alleppey.

Why did the landowners – so arrogant in the past – cave in so easily? The peculiarities of rice-growing in Kerala provide one reason. The below-sea-level paddy fields have to be drained before sowing. This is expensive and the costs have to be recouped with the harvest. The strike took place precisely at harvest time.

Another factor is that the landowners failed to take account of the Communist Party, growing in popularity and with scores of educated frontline workers eager to lead an agrarian class with such revolutionary potential.

In the years that followed there were many confrontations – some of them bloody. Awareness was raised but by the time the Communists were elected to power in 1957 most Keralites were still impoverished and landless. Attempts to push through land reform faced tremendous resistance from landowners, judges, the churches, and the Indian Government. It was 1969 before the Land Reform Amendment Act was finally passed.

It was to be the most thorough and radical land reform ever put into practice in South Asia. Tenants became virtual owners, hut-dwellers received the land on which their huts stood (up to 20 square metres), and the maximum any family could own was eight hectares.

Alleppey comes into sight – a bustling provincial town. Its canals give it the name ‘the Venice of Kerala’. This is a bit of an exaggeration – but as one well-travelled Keralite pointed out, it’s very much greener than Venice. The skies open with yet more monsoon offerings as we disembark.

The town is bedecked with multi-coloured bunting. In a clearing two loudspeakers play two quite different tunes. It’s Kerala’s big festival of the year – Onam – and people are busy spending their three-month pay bonus. ‘Keralites are very clothes-conscious,’ a chatty bookseller explains.

I try to work out if there are any noticeable caste differences between the shoppers – men in neat dhotis, women in saris, children in Western-style clothes. ‘Caste isn’t really an issue, any more,’ says the bookseller. ‘There are only a few very old and very traditional people for whom it matters.’

The next day I hire a small backwater boat and set out in search of the fruits of land reform – 23 years on. What have the rice growers on their smallholdings got to say today? Are they happy?

Er… no. Are farmers ever happy? Probably not, but Chakro Mathew, a farmer from the community of Kanniakarri, is particularly unhappy. He’s lost nearly half his rice harvest this year. The reasons are manifold.

First, there was too much rain (a complaint to make African farmers weep). Second, the price of rice is too low to make its growing profitable. Third, the cost of the inputs – fertilizers and pesticides – is too high. And to cap it all the centre-right coalition government, which has been in power since 1991, is threatening to withdraw the input subsidies for smaller farmers.

So should the state government increase such subsidies? Certainly not, say environmentalists. The Kuttanad and its waterways are already heavily polluted. Chemicals are seriously over-used – about 900 tonnes of pesticides and 40,000 tonnes of fertilizers are sprayed onto the Kuttanad’s 60,000 hectares of paddy fields annually. DDT is still used and so is HC – a carcinogen twice as toxic as DDT. Pesticide water pollution has been blamed for the outbreak in 1992 of a hitherto unknown fish disease called Epizoodic Ulcerated Syndrome.

In Alleppey that morning I talk with a man who sells pesticides and fertilizers. What has he to say for himself? ‘Too much pesticide and fertilizer is used,’ he admits. ‘The problem is farmers don’t follow the safety guidelines.’

‘Do they know the guidelines?’

‘Oh yes, we tell them to use so much, and to always wear masks and they tell us to go to hell. They are the farmers, they say. They know what they are doing.’

‘Granddad’ Kurian Varkey is a veteran farmer, viewed as an expert in his community of Kanniakarri. He does not think the answer lies in fertilizers or pesticides, whether used or abused. Kerala’s agriculture today is stagnant – and the problem is fundamental, he says.

‘We are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,’ he says, speaking from the sick bed where he has been confined with a fever for the past two weeks. ‘There’s no future in rice. But we are not allowed to grow anything else.’

For a long time Kerala has tried to be self-sufficient in rice. It can never happen – even with 26 per cent of the state given over to rice production this only meets a quarter of demand from a population of 29 million people.

The rice-growers say their main problem is that there are too many of them trying to eke out a living on too little land. And – wait for it – that agricultural wages are ‘too high’. Kurian Varkey, who usually hires workers during harvest time, says he cannot now afford to pay their wages.

Hmm… not really what I had expected to hear and a bit of a blow for the redistribution theory of development of which Kerala is supposed to be a model. This theory says there is enough for everyone as long as it is shared out evenly.

It’s also a blow to the radical ideal of aiming towards food self-sufficiency as opposed to cash-cropping. But then many of Kerala’s radicals are themselves abandoning the idea. Marxist economist Thomas Isaac admits: ‘Kerala has not been self-sufficient in food since the mid-nineteenth century’. He and others argue that the way forward is to develop agricultural industries to make cash-cropping more profitable. For example, prawns could be exported frozen and packaged so that they could go straight to the foreign supermarket shelf, instead of leaving that value-adding function to the importer. Others talk of allowing farmers in the region to grow crops other than rice.

Change has to come, all are agreed. But few look to the current United Democratic Front Government – a extremely disunited centrist coalition – for ideas. A Leftist programme which might have helped – Village Level Resource Mapping – has been shelved. The idea was to launch a mass popular movement to study resources and make the information easily accessible to villagers, using the highly successful mass literacy campaign of the 1970s as a model.

The challenges of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s hinged on land ownership. The challenge of the 1990s will be to use land in a way that ensures the survival of those living on it. That does not mean poisoning the Kuttanad with pesticides or exposing its people to radioactive thorium.

If Kerala can find ways of balancing its high population with its limited environmental resources then it will become another kind of model the world could turn to. Red alone won’t do any more – Kerala needs green politics too. And Keralites know it.

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