Kochi | The sudden proliferation of billboards advertising assistance for conversion of paddyfields and wetlands across the length and breadth of Kerala portends a distress sale giving indications of a crisis looming with lands up for sale and very few takers. There are up to lakhs of applications for conversion of such lands lying in agriculture offices in the State. For instance, a single office near Koothathukuam has over 300 such conversion requests awaiting processing.
Real estate agents Metro Vaartha spoke to acknowledge a trend where people, particularly a substantial number of NRIs who have migrated to Europe, the US, Canada and Australia, are keen on selling their land holdings. Raju K of Thodupuzha, who settled down in the US some 40 years ago and is back home after three years, has just one goal this time – selling a few acres of his rubber plantation that came to him as ancestral property. He owns a house in the US and proposes to use the money from this land sale to buy property there for his children.
The fervent action to convert land is because it falls under the category of paddyfields and wetlands which, given their restrictive use only for agriculture and no construction at all as part of the Kerala Conservation of Paddy land and Wetland Act, 2008, do not command an attractive price. Besides, most of such paddy fields and wetlands were converted into rubber plantations years ago when rubber was a lucrative and profitable crop.
Rubber farmers concede that international trade deals such as the Free Trade Agreement have rendered rubber cultivation financially unfeasible. The surge in rubber prices once to around Rs 200 a kg and stayed near that level for some time had led to higher wages for labourers, and these elevated wage levels did not drop when rubber prices dropped substantially. In response to these challenges, many plantations transitioned to vanilla gardens at the start of this century, a short-term response, and got converted into fruit gardens.
During the Gulf economic boom from the 1970s to as late as the first decade of this century, a significant portion of the earnings from overseas employment was invested in land, giving rise to construction of palatial buildings. This period also saw the proliferation of real estate brokers in substantial numbers.
A noticeable trend during that wave was that while most from northern Kerala moved to the Gulf, the central Kerala and Travancore regions witnessed a good number of people moving to Europe, Australia, the US and Canada.
As job opportunities in Kerala and the Gulf started dwindling and with investment in property not possible in the Gulf, many youths turned to migration for higher education, attracted by the two to three years of stay-back option. Consequently, a sizable portion of the younger generation chose to move abroad and establish settlements there. That also explains the mushrooming of consultancies for education abroad.
A senior political leader revealed that his son, currently studying in Canada, shares a villa with a few other students who are also from Kerala. Interestingly, the owner of the villa, originally hails from Tiruvalla and has more such villas in Canada, specifically designed to cater to students.
Despite the rush to sell land holdings and the eagerness to convert paddy lands and wetlands, there are few takers, admits a leading document writer in Ernakulam. Land transactions are infrequent, unlike till a few years ago, and now typically involve small housing plots.
However, former MLA Anil Akkara envisions a silver lining in this situation. Having spearheaded paddy farmers in successfully launching an organic rice brand called ‘Adat’, he contends that in a few years, there will be ample land available for agriculture purposes across Kerala.
Given the current scenario where farming is increasingly becoming economically unviable with farmers struggling to get money for their produce bought even by government agencies, and incidents of farmer suicides rising, Akkara’s perspective, though optimistic, appears far-fetched, given the ground reality. Ironically, it was only very recently that a Kerala Minister, representing the CPM that was built on the strength of farm labourers, proclaiming at a public meeting in the presence of the Agriculture Minister that if distressed farmers refused to grow paddy, the State had nothing to lose and could rely on rice from neighbouring States. If this had been said some two decades ago, he would be out of the Cabinet and also expelled from the party. But certainly not so now in this age of compromises.