Rice cultivation has declined in Kerala for the last four decades. The gross cropped area of rice in Kerala shrunk from around 9 lakh hectares in 1974-75 to less than 2 lakh hectares in 2015-16. The production of rice fell from 13 lakh tonnes to about 5 lakh tonnes in the same period.
There is, however, a traditional rice-growing region where rice cultivation continues, and is characterised by rising levels of productivity. This is the kole wetlands region, an area of 13,632 hectares with a vast expanse of fields below sea level spread across the districts of Thrissur and Malappuram. Rice is the principal crop of cultivation. Kole wetlands form about 41 per cent of the combined area under rice cultivation in Thrissur and Malappuram districts. These two districts together accounted for about 19 per cent of the total production of rice in Kerala in 2015-16.
Data collected by Muraleedharan (1984) and Jeena (2011) show that the average productivity of rice in the kole wetlands increased from 2.5 tonnes per hectare in the early 1980s to about 5 tonnes per hectare in 2009-10. During the same period, rice productivity for Kerala as a whole showed increased from 1.6 tonnes per hectare to about 2.5 tonnes per hectare. During a recent visit to kole wetlands, some farmers reported yields of 8 tonnes per hectare (all yields are of rough rice or paddy).
The Malayalam word kole roughly means “luck,” a reference to the nature of cultivation in these regions. The Kole wetlands lie between the Chalakudy river in Thrissur district and Bharathapuzha river in Malappuram district. These wetlands get submerged in the monsoon and cultivation is carried out in the summer months when water levels are low. One of the most authoritative studies on kole wetlands, Johnkutty and Venugopal (1993), indicates that shallow lagoons in the Karuvannur and Kecheri river basins (two rivers lying between Chalakudy and Bharathapuzha rivers) were reclaimed in the 18th century for the cultivation of rice. Cultivation in low-lying fields required raising bunds to prevent the entry of floodwater. Over the years, the State government has invested in the construction of permanent bunds around the fields and on irrigation projects to reduce flooding and to expand and sustain rice cultivation in the region.
A distinctive socio-economic feature of this region is that agricultural land is owned by around 50,000 individual farmers (most farmers own less than an acre each) organised into about 150 farming societies. From around the 1960s, the owners of contiguous fields (the consolidated extent is called a padasekharam in Malayalam), formed joint-farming cooperative societies. The padasekharam samiti or committees function even today, managing major joint operations as described below.
Rice cultivation in the kole wetland starts with dewatering low-lying fields, an operation facilitated by the committees. In most places, permanent bunds have been constructed around fields. Water is pumped out using old axial-flow pumps (pettiyum parayaum; a loose translation is “box and cylinder”) or modern pump-sets, to channels around these bunds. In addition to dewatering, the committees maintain channels used as outlets for water, provide seeds, lime, and other inputs, and regulate the flow of water to fields. Some committees even undertake sowing and transplanting.
There were more than 150 societies functioning in the kole wetlands in 2014. The societies varied in terms of the number of members in each and the extent of land they covered. They are divided into three zones, grouped broadly on a geographical basis, and cultivation is organised in phases in the three zones so as to optimise the use of water. The cultivating period is from October to May.
In summer, when the supply of water is low, irrigation water is released mainly from the reservoirs of Peechi and Chimoni irrigation projects in Thrissur district. According to some farmers, with the commissioning of Chimoni Irrigation Project in 1996, water supply increased and societies have relaxed the norms for zone-wise cultivation. Some cooperative societies follow a crop rotation in which fields are used for aquaculture when water levels are high (June to October) and later for rice cultivation (“one rice, one fish”).
In addition to rice cultivation and fish farming, the kole wetlands are also known for being a habitat and nesting place for migratory birds. They form a part of the Vembanad-Kol wetlands that has been recognised as a Ramsar site, or wetland of international importance. The Ramsar Site Information Service states that these regions support a large population of waterfowl and aquatic life.
While the kole wetland continues to be an important rice-growing area in Kerala, urbanisation and the real estate needs of Thrissur city has led, in some cases, to the conversion of kole lands to non-agricultural uses. It is generally difficult to convert the low-lying kole wetlands, but not altogether impossible. Jeena (2011) has estimated that built-up area has increased from less than 1 per cent of the region that encompasses the kole wetland area in 1981 to more than 4 per cent in 2007. There was a significant reduction in the area under rice cultivation during these years and this remains a matter of concern. The present State Government has taken some measures to revive the cultivation of rice and discourage conversion of rice-growing land to other uses.
Jeena, T. S. (2011), Agriculture-wetland Interactions: A Case Study of the Kole land Kerala, RULNR Monograph No. 6, Research Unit for Livelihoods and Natural Resources, Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad.
Johnkutty, I. and Venugopal, V. K. (1993), Kole Lands of Kerala, Kerala Agricultural University, Thrissur.
Muraleedharan, P. K. (1984), Economics of Kole (Paddy) Cultivation in Thrissur district, Ph.D. thesis submitted to Department of Economics, University of Calicut.
Sarath, S., Sreekumar, E. R., and Nameer, P. O. (2017) “Butterflies of the Kole Wetlands, a Ramsar Site in Kerala, India”, Journal of Threatened Taxa, Volume 9, Number 5, pp. 10208–10215, available at http://doi.org/10.11609/jott.35126.96.36.19908-10215
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