On the links between Kerala floods and the Plantation sector | Tom Pious

The recent flood in the state of Kerala known for its beaches and high range mountains throws light on many questions starting from flood management, significance of dams, ecological sensitivity and many more. I would like to pinpoint the importance of plantation crops and the environmental and socio political significance in the wake of recent flood. The entire plantation sector of Kerala had suffered huge loss due to the flood, one of the crucial question at this juncture is that  if the loss is counted only in economic terms then what about the environmental as well as the labour issues in  the plantation sector.

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Kerala is regarded as plantation state of India, which shares nearly 45 percent of plantation crops cultivated in India, plantation crops also occupy 34 percent of total cropped area of the state. The emergence of plantation cultivation is directly related to the colonialism during the 19th and 20th century and this phenomenon is visible across the globe. Plantations in Kerala especially tea, coffee and rubber are just the micro examples that shows the global nature of plantation sector. According to dependency school, colonial capitalism created export-oriented plantations for extensive exploitation of nature and land. Plantation caused persistent underdevelopment of less developed countries, large scale deforestation and degradation of land. Samir Amin, well known Marxist scholar has specifically examined the dependent agricultural capitalist economy in India. British colonialism created forms of private ownership of agricultural land that denied majority of peasant’s access to land, leading to the development of larger plantations and exploitation of people. In pre-colonial India too, the access to land has been based on the hierarchical caste system at the grass root level (Samir Amin). Kerala is not exceptional in the above mentioned scenario; of the total geographical area of Kerala the share of major plantation land is 14.72 percent as per 2012 government of Kerala report. The major plantations for cash crops include Rubber, Tea, Coffee and Cardamom.

The need of a controlling mechanism over the planters and land pattern in plantation has always been a concern for rulers from the very inception of plantation in Kerala. The plantation lobby defeated the move of the state government led by the Communist Party in 1957 to bring plantation under the land ceiling through the Kerala Agrarian Relations Bill. The demand of labour movement to nationalize plantation was also defeated. These events culminated into the formation of struggle against the democratically elected communist government and the imposition of state emergency by the then central government. Therefore, it is evident from the above mentioned historical fact that plantation and other land related issues are very crucial factors that determine the socio-political scenario of the region.  The crisis in plantation industry intensified when the managers of these plantations started searching for ways to increase their profitability. They tried to quench their thirst by cutting wages of employees, attempts to curb welfare measures for workers, disposing or selling land for other activities like real estate and tourism. All this was in strict violation of established law.

PLANTATION AND ENVIRONMENT

The state of Kerala witnessed drought condition in 2015 and 2016 and quite unexpectedly in 2018 experienced excess rainfall and the worst flood in a century. Kerala accounts for 90 percent of the total domestic rubber production. Flood caused huge loss to rubber and tea plantation due to landslides in the region. All this gives ample scope for us to think about the land use pattern and the impact of ruthless exploitation of land and of the fragile environment. Plantations in Kerala are located mainly in Western Ghats – a biodiversity hotspot in the world. The greater share of the plantations is government land which was originally forest and grasslands. Disregarding the recommendation by Madhav Gadgil committee and other subsequent committees to protect Western Ghats is also regarded as the reason for flood. These committees had repeatedly pointed out the role of plantations in intensifying the fragile condition of land. The landslides that had happened in the regions substantiate the arguments put forward in this reports. The plantation sector should take some mitigating steps like sustainable management of plantation farming, integrated farming with new crops which could increase biodiversity and restore soil fertility, prevents soil erosion and landslides by holding the soil structure. This can be achieved only by moving away from present mono-cropped plantations.

The plight of plantation workers shall not be ignored at this crucial juncture. They were the ones who lost their assets, daily wages, and other sources of income and were perhaps worst hit by the recent flood. The recovery of plantation sector in the aftermath of the flood should not stop with rehabilitation and rebuilding. It should be planned for future disaster preparedness along with altercation in land ownership patterns, improved working condition in plantation sector especially that of migrant workers. The current Left Democratic Front government of Kerala had taken significant steps to address the issues faced by plantation workers. Justice Krishnan Nair committee was constituted to look into the issues in the plantation sector. Based on its report the current government had taken some significant policy decisions, such as, a necessary legislation would be brought advocating either state take-over of closed/defunct plantations or to be run through societies of workers. The government is also planning to bring plantation workers under the Employees State Insurance Corporation which would provide certain social security to the workers. The Kerala government is also taking necessary steps for timely revision of wages of plantation workers.

In the wake of recent flood, the plantation sector is been analyzed from the ecological perspective and the existing socio-political significance of plantation in Kerala. The existing collective amnesia among certain sections of civil society in Kerala leads them to ignore the environmental as well as labour issues persisting in the plantation sector (and focus only on economic factors like fall in market price of plantation crops) will never mitigate the larger questions raised by the ecology and labour movements. The post-flood analysis would definitely throw light on these issues and a few positive steps from the part of the Kerala civil society are also expected.

Tom Pious is currently pursuing his Law Degree from Delhi University. He was previously a student of Hyderabad Central University. He is currently a State Committee member of the Students’ Federation of India. Views articulated in the article are personal. 

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