Mathamangalam village, located in the hill ranges of the Western Ghats in Wayanad district in Kerala, is freshly bathed from the south-west monsoon. The whole village is covered with lush green undergrowth. Ripe mangoes and jackfruit hang from the trees. The air is fresh and is a pleasure to breathe in. The whole village, sharing its borders with Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, is a picture of idyllic beauty, enough to make anyone fall in love with it. However, the charms of the village seem to be lost on the villagers themselves, who are abandoning it to migrate to hot, humid areas far away.
There are many stories of such migrations like that of 55-year-old N Chandran who left his 8 acres of land in the village to move to a nearby town called Bathery. “I used to grow food crops including paddy and cash crops such as pepper, coffee and arecanut on my land,” he says. “I finally left the village because I could no longer take risks at my age. The climate change, fall in prices and crop diseases landed me in heavy debt. The tipping point was when wild animals damaged my ready-toharvest crops. My educated sons persuaded me to move out,” he adds.
“To my knowledge, the man-animal conflict is the main reason behind the phenomenon of migration. The fear for one’s life is the worst fear. The agrarian crisis comes only next,” says Shobhi Ramdas, Junior Superintendent, in Poothadi panchayat. “How would you remain sane when coconut and arecanut trees which you have tended for 25 years get damaged by wild animals? How would you sleep peacefully when elephant herds try to break down the walls of your house?” asks 60-year-old Raman Kutty, who has left farming and is now dependent on his son. “While the luckier ones escape from this hopeless land, people like me are destined to die here,” he adds.
With the younger generation venturing out, Mathamangalam has become an ageing village. Most of the inhabitants are in their 50s and the future of the entire village is in doubt. In a few decades, only a ghost village with crumbling silhouettes of houses could remain.
Tehelka investigation revealed that during the last decade, very few families have moved into the village. Although the government officials remain clueless about the massive out-migration, villagers estimate that 20-25 families have moved out in the last one decade alone.
Mathamangalam is not the only village to be abandoned by its people. Koottankara, Kolur and Ammavayal villages in Noolppuzha panchayat have also shown this trend in the past, before government stepped in to resettle villagers to other parts of Wayanad. The process of migration continues in Kurichiayad village of the same panchayat. The foremost reason for the desertion in these villages is said attributed to the man-animal conflict. Sadly, even those who speak at length about agrarian crisis do not seem to notice this trend among farmers.
The Special Village officer in Irulam village, Shibu George, confirmed that similar cases have been reported from other villages. On questioning whether he has reported this trend to higher officials, the officer remained silent. There appears to be no hope of collecting any statistics on this alarming trend.
The high altitude district of Wayanad is characterised by the cultivation of perennial plantation crops and spices. The major plantation crops include coffee, pepper, cardamom and rubber. “The 1970s and ’80s were considered to be the golden period of Wayanad. The people toiled hard and the land rewarded them with abundant yield. However, as time passed, diseases began spreading and the prices crashed. Although all major cash crops were affected, it is the failure of pepper crop that has devastated the lives of many and led to many suicides,” says Vishwanathan, vice president of Poothadi Panchayat. The massive import of low-quality imported cheap pepper from Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other places affected the market. It is estimated that the losses from pepper amounts to more than 1,500 crore since 2001. The district saw 150 farmers or more take their lives in 2004 alone caught in the resultant debt-trap.
Today the price of one kilogram of pepper has gone up to 620 per kg compared to only 50 per kg in 2004. However, even this price has not proved to be a panacea for the farmers. “My pepper and coffee plantation had been completely destroyed by disease and animals. Regardless of the huge debts, I replanted the entire farm. But the yield has not been the same. The same land that yielded 150-200 quintals of pepper in the past, now yields only one or two quintals,” complains K Kunju Mon.
The relief measures introduced by the state and central governments have not reached the affected. The people have lost their faith in government policies and are highly dissatisfied with the way the changing governments deal with agrarian crisis.
Apparently, the agrarian crisis forced daily wage labourers to explore other options of livelihood. “Earlier, I used to get work throughout the year and had never known poverty. But it was sheer poverty that compelled me to seek the job of a house maid in the city, two years ago”, recounted S Sujatha.
The farmers find it difficult to find labour because of this migration of the labourers. The situation has played into the hands of the few labourers that remain, as they charge exorbitant prices. As a result, the production costs quadrupled in the last few years, leaving farmers devastated.
The slow death of agriculture is alarmingly evident in these parts. The farmers who have worked on their lands for their entire lives, now do not want their children to cultivate them. For the young generation who has witnessed the hardship of their parents, farming is the last option. Illustrating the point is the case of 38-year-old Biju who is the youngest member born in an agricultural family consisting of 8 members. “I have not cultivated anything in my land for the last few years. Now I’m planning to sell it but there are hardly any takers for it,” says Biju who currently works in a watch shop in the nearest city. The family’s 3 acres of land now lies fallow with his parents having died and his siblings having found other occupations.
The phenomenon of farmers leaving agriculture poses many questions about the economic policies pursued by successive governments. Our villages are fast disappearing and can no longer be called the backbone of our country. Why is the government taking no notice of the impact of climate change which spells doom for the agriculture sector? Why does the government have only scant regard for the lives of farmers? Do our politicians and bureaucrats ever introspect the reason for migration from villages to cities? According to the Economic Survey of India, food crop production had fallen dramatically in the last 20 years and is growing slowly compared to the population growth. What will happen to the food security of our country?