After the failure of both the southwest and northeast monsoons, the cardamom farmers of Idukki in Kerala are staring at massive losses.
By K Rajendran*, Idukki, Kerala
The scenario looks bleak for Mani, a small farmer cultivating cardamom in five acres of land in Kumily village Idukki in Kerala. "We were cheated by Edavapathy (southwest monsoon). If the same is repeated in Tulavarsham (North East monsoon), there will distress in these hills," he told VillageSquare.in.
The wait for the northeast monsoon showers may remain futile in the picturesque cardamom hills across the Western Ghats, according to predictions by the India Meteorological Centre at Thiruvananthapuram. On 31 October, in an urgently called meeting by Kerala State Disaster Management Authority, the state has been declared as drought-hit.
This harvest will likely witness a 65% dip in cardamom production due to adverse climate.
Cardamom-nourished Idukki district is supposed to be enriched by the four main rivers of the state —Periyar, Pampa, Thalayar, Thodupuzhayar—along with various rivulets and lakes. This year the hills have suffered a 25% dip in rainfall during the southwest monsoon and an alarming 66% dip in the northeast monsoon precipitation.
According to an assessment by Sunny Martin, leader of the Cardamom Growers Association Vandanmedu, this harvest will likely witness a 65% dip in cardamom production due to adverse climate.
A journey from Kattapana to Kumily, the heart of the cardamom hills, shows a dismal picture. Once thriving cardamom plants look withered all across the area.
"We are afraid of a 1983-like disaster" said an anxious K.S. Mathew, a cardamom farmer who has spent ₹2 lakh for cultivation in this season. In 1983, as Idukki suffered the worst-ever drought, the faded cardamom hills had witnessed abrupt impoverishment and migration.
Earlier, even in the peak summer, the maximum temperature across the hilly region hovers in the range of 20-25°C. In the last summer, the temperatures shot up to 35-36°C. "Almost all streams are dried up," Mathew told VillageSquare.in. "How do we irrigate our cardamom plants?"
Disaster hasn't come all of a sudden. In 2013, the Kerala Biodiversity Board predicted such a situation after it conducted a detailed field study on the impact of climate change on cardamom in Udumbanchola Taluk of Idukki district. Their report says:
"The whole area is hurting towards an imminent ecological disaster, underlining the need for urgent steps to conserve the biodiversity unique to the Cardamom Hill Reserve. The grasslands and forested areas adjoining the traditional cardamom plantation have become vulnerable to logging, poaching and land grabbing."
For a farmer, cardamom plantation is a painstaking process that usually begins in the month of May. The rainfall during the southwest monsoon in June and July, pest infections and coldness are the deciding factors of the volume of harvest. Harvesting season begins in September and stretches up to the end of December. In fact, plummeting harvesting trends in October and November indicate disaster.
Kumily, popularly known as the cardamom capital of Kerala and situated in the Periyar Tiger reserve, has suffered the worst setbacks. The spices market, groceries, hardware shops, hotels, etc., have all been feeling the heat in the last year.
A small jewellery shop owned by Mathukutty, for instance, usually fetches sales of ₹1 lakh every day. In the month of October, gold sales have been slashed by half, when they would have actually risen had there been a good harvest. "Slight variations of the cardamom production reflect on the sale of not only gold but also other items," Mathukutty told VillageSquare.in.
Idukki is a classic example of how an environmental phenomenon triggers social distress. Many educated women across cardamom villages are desperately waiting for suitable grooms. Ayyappan, proprietor of Anugraha, a leading matrimonial bureau at Kattapana town weighed in. "None of the grooms prefer a bride who is a daughter of a cardamom farmer unless she is economically very, very sound. A groom has no use for unproductive, debt-ridden cardamom land," Ayyappan told VillageSquare.in.
In comparison to the statistics of last year, marriage bureaus in the town have faced a 50% dip in marriage-related inquiries. Most women hailing from marginal or small-scale cardamom farmers' families who are registered with the bureaus are not getting any proposals, Ayyappan says. "I will remain unmarried until I find a groom who is not thirsty for dowry," said Beenamol, a media student in Kumily.
In the Saudi Arabian market, Idukki cardamom has the highest demand of $18 per kg (its main competitor, Guatemala cardamom, sells at $10 per kg). However, the benefit of this high demand is not reaching the common farmer.
"We are distressed by the high growth of expenses of cardamom farming. Including labour cost and fertilizer, a farmer has to spend ₹800 to produce 1kg of cardamom. This amount is not worthwhile unless we get a bumper crop," Lambodharan, convenor, Spices Planters Association, told VillageSquare.in.
The uncertainty over cardamom farming has been devastating for the district as a whole. Land sales have dwindled. Most banks are unwilling to provide loans by pledging land deeds.
As many as 23,000 farmers living in Udumbanchola, Devikulam and Peerumedu taluks of Idukki and 50,000 plantation workers depend solely on cardamom farming for their livelihood. The Spices Planters Association says factors like the discontinuance of a subsidy amount ₹75,000 per hectare for cardamom plantation and closing of field offices in Idukki have added to the crisis.
In 2011, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, appointed by the federal environment ministry, submitted a report that made several recommendations. In the wake of local protests against the report, the central government deputed a new committee to balance the two concerns of development and environmental protection.
Roiled by strikes
Even though the new committee suggested minimizing the amount of ecologically sensitive area (ESA) to 37% of the Western Ghats from 64% suggested by the earlier report, public ire did not end. In the past two years, Idukki district has been affected by at least 25 general strikes against the proposed regulations.
"If the recommendations are strictly implemented, almost all the inhabitants in Idukki district will be ousted from the valley," Father Sebastian Kochupurackal, general convenor of non-profit High Range Protection Council, told VillageSquare.in.
The uncertainty over cardamom farming has been devastating for the district as a whole. Land sales have dwindled. Most banks are unwilling to provide loans by pledging land deeds. Inflow of tourists has declined due to sporadic strikes.
Even though most political parties are supporting the local protests over the proposed environmental rules, Kerala Shasthra Sahithya Parisath (KSSP), a well-known environmental organization in Kerala, has been campaigning for the implementation of the guidelines. Ravindran, District secretary of KSSP is keen to connect the cardamom crisis to the recommendations of the Gadgil report.
"If the recommendations are implemented, cardamom farmers would be the biggest beneficiaries," Ravindran, district secretary of KSSP, told VillageSquare.in. "Quarry mafias, resort mafias and encroachers would be the biggest sufferers. They are the ones fuelling the ongoing agitation."
Amid the controversies, allegations and counter-allegations, the cardamom hills of Kerala are in turmoil even as farmers wait in vain for some rain.
K. Rajendran is a journalist based in Kerala.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.