Monday, May 29, 2017

Exclusive Interview with V S Sunil Kumar, Agriculture Minister, Kerala

The agrarian revolution in Kerala has its roots in the state’s socialist ethos dominated by its Communist Parties. A Young Turk of the Communist Party of India (CPI), VS Sunil Kumar, has this agrarian blood running in his veins, and his first stint as a Minister in Kerala is causing rapid changes in the Agriculture Ministry and sector that he heads. His hands-on approach was evident during an hour-long interaction where he articulated eloquently on the various initiatives including insurance enhancement for crops, organic farming, paddy farming revival, pesticide usage enforcement, attracting youth to farming through value-added products, and turning around agri-PSUs.  At the heart of all initiatives is Sunil Kumar’s priority – the farmer.

Seasonal Magazine recently met VS Sunil Kumar for an exclusive interview, excerpts of which are given below:

When the government completes its first year, what is the primary achievement of the agriculture ministry?

Farmers who farm for their daily living were highly insecure in Kerala. The prime reason for this was that the insurance scheme against crop damage wasn’t updated with reasonable compensation since 1995. We changed that. Compensation against damage has been increased multi-fold now. For paddy, it has been increased from Rs.12,500 to Rs.35,000. Similarly for a banana plant it has been raised from Rs.50 to Rs.300, for a nutmeg tree from Rs.200 to Rs.3000, for a coconut palm from Rs.700 to Rs.2000, and likewise for 26 different agricultural crops. This has made the lives of farmers in Kerala more secure.

As a state dependent on rice as the staple food, what all have been your achievements in the paddy sector?

The government had announced the year as the ‘Nel Varsham’ (Year of Paddy). For the last several years the trend was paddy fields either lying waste or being converted into plots for real estate and construction activities. Within one year, we have reversed that trend. We could cultivate 15,000 acres of land lying waste, this year. Even once-famous fields like Methran Kayal, the rejected Aranmula Airport land, and Kanimangalam field have been cultivated. Also, we are encouraging everyone to be farmers. Paddy can be cultivated even in regular lands adjoining houses. We encouraged that, and under that scheme around 3000 acres of land were cultivated for paddy. This on-going year, we will increase this to 10,000 acres. The budget allocated for paddy cultivation has doubled from Rs.35 crores to Rs.70 crores.

Promotion of vegetable cultivation, especially organic vegetables has been a focus area. What are the achievements in this regard?

Yes, this is one of the areas where maximum achievements have been made by this government. For the first time in India, a state has launched an organic brand of its own, called ‘Kerala Organic’. We are encouraging organic clusters of farmers and they are producing organic vegetables in over 10,000 hectares now. For ensuring quality, we have introduced Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), and farmers are being trained for it, and agricultural officers have been given authority to enforce the standards. A Honey Mission has been launched. Organic honey is being promoted under the Central scheme of Participatory Guarantee Certification (PGC) for which Vegetable & Fruit Promotion Council (VFPC) has been appointed the nodal agency. Organic manures and pesticides using micronutrients, microorganisms, beneficial bacteria etc are being produced in a decentralised manner by giving scientific training to farmers.

Overuse of pesticides has been a major issue in Kerala. How are you battling it, and is organic farming a real alternative to fertilizers and pesticides?

Yes. Around 1250 metric tons of pesticides are consumed in Kerala. This is way too much. Over the last year, we have introduced strict controls to curb this abuse. The problem was that the Pesticide Act of 1966 was not being enforced. Direct demonstration of pesticides to farmers by pesticide companies and agencies has been banned now. Companies still resorting to it will lose their license. Tons of banned pesticides have been confiscated in around a dozen cases. Farmers have been instructed to use pesticides only according to the guidelines given by agricultural officers, and the officers have been given enforcement powers to routinely inspect pesticide stocks lying with companies and agencies. We can’t totally ban pesticides and fertilizers, and introduce everything organic. Organic farming needs animal inputs, and without growing animal wealth in proportion, we can’t scale up organic farming. It can be done only step by step without affecting production and costs. The focus is to introduce and grow organic farming as the alternative in a scientific and systematic way.

Is the high cost or poor quality of seeds affecting agriculture in a big way?

Yes, it is a major issue in Kerala. Now the situation is such that anyone can produce seeds and sell it anywhere, and this is being done to exploit the newfound interest of the masses in agriculture. This has resulted in very poor seed quality, and the government is now acting forcefully to curb this malaise. On the other hand, several bigger companies are touting their so-called high-breed seeds which are often unsuitable for Kerala. So to curb all these we have given a notice to all these operators to publish all essential disclosures within six months and thus obtain a valid licence to sell standardised seeds in the state. This is going to be enforced strictly.

Farmer suicides have been an issue in Kerala. How are you tackling it?

It was an issue, but not anymore. Not even one farmer has committed suicide during our first year, and I am hopeful that no farmer will in our full term just because government didn’t support them. Apart from the insurance enhancement I mentioned, we have introduced Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) in paddy, urea etc. Whenever and wherever there are farming contingencies like it recently happened in Alappuzha and Palakkad, we have rushed there with emergency financial aid which ensures that farmers don’t lose their financial security, and that they come back to farming in the next season.

What are your plans for attracting youngsters into agriculture?

Already many youngsters in Kerala are opting for farming. But to make this sustainable, our plan is to direct them more to the production of value added agricultural products. We conducted a well-attended seminar in December to study this issue in detail, and a slew of measures are now being implemented. Agro Parks are going to be established in all districts. Around 1000 entrepreneurs will be enabled to start their agro produce units with the support of NABARD. Producer companies, procurement facilities, and marketing systems are being created so that middlemen are eliminated, farmers get good remuneration, and consumers get excellent produce at fair prices. The effect of this will be evident in the upcoming Onam and Vishu seasons.

How are you making the contributions from Kerala Agricultural University more productive?

KAU does a lot of good research but it should benefit the farmers in the state. Towards this, we are forming a new triangular relationship between agricultural department, KAU, and farmers. One initiative that we have facilitated in this regard is publishing their ‘Package of Practice’ in Malayalam. Until now, this Bible for agriculture professionals including our officers was available only in English. Also, a new Organic Package of Practice has been introduced.

What are the other achievements of the Agriculture Ministry during this past year?

One notable achievement is that we have made some agri PSUs profitable again like in KERAFED; cut losses in some agri PSUs like Plantation Corporation, Farming Corporation etc; and revived defunct PSUs in the sector like Jive, Coconut Development Corporation etc. Equipment companies like KAMCO have been given revival plans with new tie-ups. Corruption at PSUs like Horticorp has been addressed and a synergy formed with Vegetable & Fruit Promotion Council (VHPC). Haritha Keralam Mission has been launched which is addressing water availability and afforestation issues effectively.

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