The Shrinking Fields of Pokkali
By K.P.M. Basheer
A centuries-old organic farming in the backwaters of Kerala, making use of a symbiotic relationship between rice crop and prawns, is slowly disappearing as it is not commercially viable anymore and because of the high demand for real estate. K.P.M. BASHEER
Under the huge canopy of a gray-blue sky, the water-logged Pokkali rice fields lay silent. A faint fishy odour mixed with the smell of decaying paddy stubbles wafted through the salty breeze. Coconut palms, semi-circling the fields, stood in elegant aloofness. The feeble wail of the Arabian Sea waded across the backwaters.
A black waterfowl springs up from the rice field and after a brief flight, lands on the mud-and-wood bund that separates the field from the vast spread of backwaters. With its eyes hunting for tiny fish in the water close to the thoompu (sluice gate that regulates water flow during the tides), the bird sits in mock meditation.
In the ancient Pokkali fields on Vypeen island in the Kochi backwaters, time stands still.
“The Pokkali rice cultivation has not changed much over the centuries,” Thomas Chettan, clad in a pink lungi and a white banian, says as he removes a weed from the edge of the field. “We do not u se fertilizers or manure; and insecticides are a strict no-no.” No ploughing or transplantation either. “It’s a purely natural way of cultivation that relies on the monsoon and the sea tides,” the farmer says. And, the prawn breeding that follows the harvest is also carried out in a natural way. “The rice plants and the prawns feed each other and there is no need for any other outside input,” Thomas Chettan explains.
Pokkali (pronounced Pokkaalli) is a unique variety of rice that is cultivated in an organic way in the water-logged coastal regions of Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Thrissur districts of Kerala. Its resistance to salinity is remarkable. The rice is cultivated from June to early November when the salinity level of the water in the fields is low. From mid-November to mid-April, when the salinity is high, prawn farming takes over. The prawn seedlings, which swim in from the sea and the backwaters after the rice harvest, feed on the leftovers of the harvested crop. The rice crop, which get no other fertilizer or manure, draw nutrients from the prawns’ excrement and other remnants.
“The rice and the prawns have a symbiotic relationship,” says rice researcher Dr. V. Sreekumaran of the Kerala Agricultural University.
The Pokkali system of cultivation evolved naturally in the saline and water-logged coastal strip of central Kerala. According to Pokkali Land Development Agency officials, there used to be some 25,000 hectares of Pokkali fields in Kerala a few decades ago, but now the extent is down to roughly 8,000 hectares. But only 2,000-3,000 hectares, mainly on the islands in the Kochi backwaters and Vembanad Lake, are under cultivation, Dr. Sreekumaran says.
The organically-grown Pokkali is famed for its peculiar taste and its high protein content. Farmers claim that the rice — its grains are extra large — has several medicinal properties. In the past, Pokkali provided the energy to fishermen to stay at sea all day.
Xavier Ousa, a 70-year-old farmer in the remote Pizhala island of Kadamakkudy Panchayat in the Kochi backwaters, who owns four acres of Pokkali fields, explains the process of cultivation:
“After all the prawns are caught by the end of April, water level is kept to the minimum using the thoompu contraption, and earthen mounds of one metre base and 50 cm height are formed all across the field. In June, after the southwest monsoon brings in a few good showers, germinated Pokkali seeds are sown on the flattened tops of the mounds. In a month, the mounds are dismantled and the seedlings in clefts are dispersed around the flattened mounds.
“Since the tidal flows make the fields highly fertile, no manure or fertilizer need to be applied; the seedlings just grow the natural way. In order to survive in the water-logged field, the rice plants grow up to two metres. But, as they mature, they bend over and collapse with only the panicles standing upright. Harvesting takes place by end-October. Only the panicles are cut and the rest of the stalks are left to decay in the water, which in time become feed for the prawns that start arriving in November-December. Then, the second phase of the Pokkali farming, the prawn filtration, begins.”
In an annual existential ritual, the prawn larvae swim in from the Arabian Sea in search of the rich feed in the Pokkali fields. To lure the tiny prawns into the fields, the farmers place a burning hurricane lantern at the mouth of the sluice gate on high-tide nights. Attracted by the light, the seedlings stay in the fields for up to four months and grow big. During low tide, when the water from the fields flows out, the farmers trap the grown prawns at the thoompu using the tradit ional conical nets. The thoompu is a critical facilitator in the Pokkali system of rice and prawn farming.
Mr. Ousa admits that because of the acute shortage and high cost of labour, the farmers are forced to compromise on many traditional practices. For example, the practice of mound formation is slowly disappearing. Instead, sprouts are dispersed randomly across the field and are left to grow and mature on their own. Dr. Sreekumaran says that the mound formation is very scientific as the salts, acids and toxic elements in the soil get leached and washed out by the monsoon rains.
Modern farming technologies are alien to the Pokkali fields. The waterlogged, swampy fields have no use for labour-saving heavy equipment like tractors and harvesters. The Rice Research Centre, Kochi, has developed some high-yielding rice varieties, such as VTL-6, but the farmers generally prefer the 40-odd traditional Pokkali varieties.
In spite of governmental and scientists’ efforts to promote Pokkali, the fields are shrinking alarmingly. Scientists fear that the cultivation might vanish in a few years. “It’s hard to get labourers as the Pokkali work is strenuous,” a labour contractor says. Farm hands have to toil in knee-deep, itchy water. Harvesting, traditionally done by women, is the hardest part. Mr. Ousa says none of his five children has any interest in farming and his 60-year-old wife has to step in to help him with harvesting.
“The Pokkali rice cultivation is a loss-making venture as the rice price is far too low to cover the cost,” says Thomas Mathew. “But, we make both ends meet by the returns from the prawn farming.” Many farmers let their farms lie fallow and rent them out to professional prawn breeders. These breeders, in order to maximise profits, bring in prawn seeds from hatcheries and artificial feeds. “This risks drastically changing the very character of the centuries-old Pokkali way of life,” he says.
In order to fetch better prices for the farmers, the authorities are now trying to market Pokkali as branded organic rice. They have also applied for Geographic Identification (under the intellectual property rights regime) for Pokkali. Dr. N.S. Gopalakrishnan of Cochin University’s Intellectual Property Rights Chair, hopes that GI would help create a niche market for the rice.
But tumbling production as cultivation shrinks is a major concern. The biggest threat to the Pokkali fields comes from the real estate boom. In the past five years, real estate prices in the Kochi region have skyrocketed and the real estate companies, in their quest for more and more lands for construction, have bought up large tracts of Pokkali fields. The Goshree network of roads and bridges that link up the islands with Kochi city has opened road access to the islands, thus jacking up land prices. Once the proposed coastal highway that will pass through the Pokkali heartland materialises, the prices of the fields will shoot up and the farmers would not think twice before selling off their loss-making fields.
Then the Pokkali farming might fade into history.