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Mainstream, Vol. XLIX, No 14, March 26, 2011

Food Deficit in Kerala: Exploring the Possibility of NREGS

Monday 28 March 2011

by A.D. Manikandan

Kerala has a long history of foodgrains deficit, especially in rice. For instance, deficit in rice has increased steadily in the State from 45 per cent to 85 per cent between 1957 and 2008. However, not enough attention has been paid to mitigate the food insecurity problem in the State in the context where there has been a large scale decline in the area and production of paddy. This paper gives a theoretical analysis on the application of the NREGS in the agricultural sector of Kerala, especially in the food crop sector, in order to minimise the labour cost of production in the paddy fields. This is because the labour cost of production of paddy is too high in Kerala compared to other States in India. Recent studies show that 60-70 per cent of the total cost of production of paddy is labour cost.

In order to mitigate the higher labour cost of production of farmers we argue for the intro-duction of the NREGS in the food crop sector, especially in the small and marginal paddy lands owned by the vulnerable sections like SC/STs, and women. Hence, farmers can reduce the costs of labour in the production process considerably. As a result, the net return of farmers will increase due to increased competitiveness. In addition to this, we can improve not only food security by enhancing the supply of food but also the bio-diversity and eco-system in the State.

In sum, the intervention of the NREGS in the small and marginal paddy lands is nothing but giving the unskilled agricultural labourers to farmers in ‘zero’ wage. This paper argues that the policy needs to be changed in order to help the farmers in the country to get direct benefit from the NREGS in terms of free labourers.

History of Foodgrains Deficit in Kerala

KERALA has a long history of foodgrain deficit. Coastal Travancore passed through food famines due to unemployment and high prices in 1941 and 1942, and due to food shortage and high prices in the whole State in 1943 and the first quarter of 1944. During these years the quantity of rice that was required for consumption at the rate of 240 lbs of rice per capita per annum for an adult population of 55 lakhs (treating one-fourth of the population as non-adults) was six lakh tonnes. The total annual production of rice was estimated to be 2.4 lakh tonnes. The net deficit in rice was thus 3.6 lakh tonnes in Travancore. For Cochin, it was 90,000 tonnes during the period 1944-1945. (Sivaswamy et al., 1945)

Since then the deficit in rice has increased steadily from 45 per cent to 85 per cent between 1957 and 2007 in Kerala. In 1956, the State of Kerala was an acutely food deficit region with 7.59 lakh hectares of land under food crops. However, the per capita availability of rice was only 182 gms against the minimum requirement of 330 gms. In fact, the area under food crops, especially paddy, increased to 10.8 lakh hectares and the per capita rice availability increased to 213 gms between 1956-57 and 1980-81. The production increased from 8.83 to 12.9 lakh tonnes and productivity increased from 1164 to 1638 kgs per hectare during this period. Since then, rice production has declined drastically in Kerala. (Chib, 1988)

During the past two decades, Kerala has witnessed a decline in foodgrains production at an annual rate of 1.09 per cent. The area under foodgrains fell from 9.60 lakh hectares in 1970-71 to 5.60 lakh hectares in 1990-91. The share of cultivators in the total workforce declined from 17.8 to 12.24 between 1970-71 and 1990-91. In the country as a whole the area under foodgrains declined marginally during the nineties but the output increased by around 15 per cent. However, Kerala experienced a different trend: the area under foodgrains declined of 37 per cent and the output by 33 per cent.

The Current Situation of Rice Deficit

LATEST figures (for 2008-09) show that rice production in the State has declined from 7.3 lakh tonnes in 1998-1999 to 5.90 lakh tonnes in 2008-09, that is, only around 15 per cent of the requirement is produced in the State and more than 80 per cent is imported rice. (Government of Kerala, 2010) Paradoxically, Kerala has also been experiencing an unprecedented boom in consumption and the State increasingly becoming a consumer State compared to other states in India. This is largely because of the increase in the standard of living of the Keralites as a result of the remittances and wage income from the NRIs.

Despite Kerala having a remarkable and somewhat unique development experience in social (human) indicators, the State is passing through a severe foodgrains deficit, especially in rice. In fact, there are a number of reasons behind it. The most important among them are as follows: i) the paradigm shift in the cropping system from food crops to non-food crops, namely, the shift from paddy to non-paddy cultivation; ii) labour cost in paddy cultivation is very high in Kerala due to higher wages of unskilled agricultural labour, as compared to other States, among other things has led to a severe crisis in the production of food crops, especially paddy, in the State.

Supply and Demand for Rice in India

THE available data shows that supply is higher than demand for rice in India. It means India’s production of rice would exceed the demand for rice in 2011, 2021 and 2026. However, surplus of rice which we have projected would be nominal. For instance, the Keralites’ demand for rice is about 4.0 million tonnes per year. However, India’s surplus of rice is 1.26 million tonnes in 2011 which is equivalent to one-fourth of the total demand for rice in Kerala per year. India’s claim for surplus rice in 2011 will come to just 25 per cent of the total demand rice in Kerala per year. In other words, India’s rice surplus in 2011 will be absorbed by the Keralites within three months.

It is to be noted that India’s expected surplus of rice would be about nine million MT in 2021 and 2026—just sufficient to meet the rice requirements of Keralites for the two years. It gives an interesting lesson to the policy-makers, academicians, and research scholars that surplus of rice may not be sufficient to meet the requirement of rice for a longer time. Therefore, they have to re-think on agricultural strategies, policies and also must give higher priorities to the agricultural sector, especially in the food crop sector in the context of global warming and climate change.

Moreover, in India around 60 per cent of the total population are still depending on the agricultural sector as a prime source of income, employment, and livelihood. Unfortunately, the growth rate of the agricultural sector is increasingly stagnating and this includes the food crop sector, especially since the 1990s. For instance, the growth rate of rice in India was 1.8 per cent in 1990-91 between 2000-01 compared to 3.7 per cent to 1980-81 and 1990-91. Since then it decreased upto 0.1 per cent between 2000-01 and 2005-06.

Policy Suggestion

THE work in the food crop sector, especially work in the small and marginal paddy fields owned by vulnerable sections like the SC/STs/women, should be treated as NREGS work. This is because supply of unskilled agricultural labourers is very low but the wage rates are high in Kerala. This would have a serious impact on cost of production of paddy in the State. The availability of the NREGS workers in small and marginal paddy lands would be more helpful to avoid this deadlock.

In order to get direct benefit from the NREGS the government has to do some changes in the NREGA. That is, the unskilled labour work in the agricultural sector, for instance, work in the paddy fields should be handed over to the workers of the NREGS. This will reduce the labour cost of production of paddy in the State. In addition, it would increase the net return of small and marginal farmers belonging to the SC/STs and women of Kerala.

The author is currently working as Research Associate, Centre for Wage Employment and Poverty Alleviation (CWEPA), NIRD, Hyderabad.

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