Pinarayi Vijayan, chief minister of Kerala — a region with one of the highest success rates in arresting Coronavirus spread anywhere in the world — today warned the people of the state about a possible famine-like situation if the infection gets out of hand in other parts of India.
Kerala, with one of the highest wage levels in the country, imports most of the grains, pulses and food items it requires from nearby states like Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
However, these states have not been able to control COVID-19 in the same way that Kerala has been able to, and this may have implications for food availability for Keralites in the near future, Vijayan said.
“We cannot predict how this will evolve, hence, we must start acting now,” he pointed out.
While Kerala has managed to cure over 70% of the Coronavirus infected persons in the state and currently has only 117 active COVID-19 patients, the number of currently infected patients in the neighboring Tamil Nadu is 943, while that in Telangana is 711 and that in Andhra Pradesh is 639.
Vijayan said that there is a possibility that the situation in other states can get out of hand.
His comments come after a nationwide lock-down, which is in its 27th day, failed to arrest the spread of the Coronavirus infection to the expected degree.
The lock-down, imposed on March 25, should have led to a sharp decline in the number of new Coronavirus infections after the initial 21 days.
However, the number of new cases reported every day has continued to increase, and now stands at around 1,500 on a national level — up from around 150 at the time the lock-down was imposed.
This failure to arrest the spread of the virus has sent alarm bells ringing in policy-making circles.
India has already exhausted its most potent weapon — a total lock-down across the country — in the fight against COVID-19.
If the number of new cases do not fall, forcing an extension of the lock-down, it would severely disrupt economic activities in the country, including the production of food.
Vijayan said Kerala has enough food to last several months, but that was not enough. “We must do what we can in our state to face any possible difficulties in the future,” he urged.
If the situation doesn’t get resolved in a few months, he said, other states may not be able to send food items to Kerala as they have been doing for nearly 25 years now.
When countries and states are faced with a sudden fall in agricultural output, the first thing to be curtailed are exports of food items.
“Hence, it is very important to adopt strategies to make ourselves famine proof,” he said.
FARM LAND NOT TO BE ALLOWED TO LIE IDLE
The most important step announced by the chief minister today was that local government bodies — such as elected Panchayat and municipal organizations — will be tasked with the job of ‘persuading’ land owners not to let their cultivable land lie fallow.
At present, about half of the traditional rice paddies in Kerala are lying fallow. These have been snapped up by speculators, ‘investors’ and ‘land mafias’ at cheap rates in recent years with the hope that they would be able to turn them into residential plots sooner or later.
However, various Left Front governments in Kerala have passed several regulations and legislation to block the conversion of rice paddies into residential complexes — pointing to both the threat to the food security of the state as well as the negative environmental fallout of filling these low-lying lands that act as rainwater sinks.
As such, a large chunk of Kerala’s paddy fields currently lie with people who have zero interest or experience in cultivation.
Vijayan said, going forward, the decision on whether or not rice paddies will be subjected to cultivation or not will not be left entirely to the discretion of the land-owners, as is the case now.
This, he said, is because even if all these paddies and farmland are brought under cultivation, it still won’t be enough to feed the 3.7 cr population of Kerala.
Perhaps expecting some resistance, Vijayan urged landowners to cooperate with the initiative.
“There should be no controversy on this aspect. If those who are letting the land lie fallow are interested in cultivation, let them. If not, arrive at a mutually acceptable arrangement after talking to them.
“The land will still belong to them. But there has to be crops growing on it. An arrangement has to be put in place by the local self-government body,” he said.
It is likely that many land-owners will opt to give the paddies and farmland on lease, instead of taking on the onerous, risky and often financially harmful responsibility of organizing the various elements required to carry out farming in the state.
The biggest impediment to rice cultivation in Kerala has been the high cost of labor — currently around Rs 700 for women and Rs 900 for men, even though mechanization has helped address some of the cost-of-labor issues.
Another problem is fragmentation of land holdings, with many plots being less than an acre in size.
The Chief Minister indicated that the government will overcome these challenges by pushing for mechanization and by giving a larger role to self-government bodies, which can aggregate several small plots into one for the purposes of farming.
Besides, many self-government bodies have access to a large workforce associated with Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or MGNREGS.
Vijayan said the government’s target is to bring 25,000 hectares of land under rice cultivation in the next two years.
However, given that all of the rice paddies in Kerala will not be enough to feed the population, Vijayan said other options too will have to be explored.
“If we end up facing a famine, we cannot tackle it only via rice cultivation,” he said. “We used to know how to grow certain grains even in our residential compounds.”
In hilly and dry areas, the focus must be to grow roots and tubers — which can also be used to substitute for grains in times of scarcity, he said, specially mentioning tapioca, which does not require as much water as rice.
The Chief Minister also asked the citizens of the state to grow banana and other fruits as well as vegetables wherever they have space.
He asked the youth to focus some of their energies on ensuring food security for their state.
“I request everyone to cooperate, even if it’s only a 3 cent plot.
In the next two years, 25,000 hectares will be brought under rice cultivation. We should take the COVID crisis as a reminder to reform and overhaul our agricultural sector,” he said.
LEAKAGE OF INFECTION FROM OTHER STATES
Separately, Vijayan also pointed out that three cases of Coronavirus infection tracing from Tamil Nadu has come to notice today.
Two districts — Kollam and Malappuram — reported 1 new case each today, both of which were traced to travelers from Tamil Nadu.
Similarly, 1 out of the 4 new cases reported from Palakkad district was traced to Tamil Nadu.
The northern district of Kannur contributed 10 out of the 19 new cases recorded today. Out of the 10, 9 were in people who came from outside the country more than a month ago, Vijayan said.
Similarly, three new cases were reported in the adjoining Kasargode district, all of which were in people who came from outside the country more than a month ago.
Vijayan said he was not sure why these people were turning positive after more than a month of landing in Kerala.
“This is something for the experts to study,” he said.
“We are hearing all kinds of opinions and interpretations around this; some say that the virus can lie dormant in the body for some days and start manifesting when circumstances change. But ultimately, it’s the experts who have to study and arrive at a conclusion,” he said.
The total number of people under home quarantine has dropped from around 1.7 lakh in early April to around 36,300 at present.
The number of ‘high risk’ persons — kept in hospital isolation — saw a sharp increase today as 102 people were admitted to the COVID-19 isolation wards of various hospitals in the last 24 hours.
With this, the total number of people in isolation under such facilities has risen to 332, the chief minister said.
Vijayan also said the strict controls imposed in Kannur district — which accounts for a fourth of the 426 cases reported in Kerala so far — have been tightened further.
He said 10 people from a single family was found positive for Coronavirus in the district, and that there were still 53 active cases there.
Because of the spread, everyone in the district who arrived from outside the country later than March 12 and their primary contacts are being tested for Coronavirus, he added.
To discourage people from stepping out, call centers have been set up to ensure doorstep delivery of grocery items in the district, he added.