A tree is the reason for Vattavada village to move away from farming
“Rice was cultivated here 20 years ago. But no more,” says SK Kanagaraj, a farmer in Koviloor hamlet in Vattavada village of Idukki district in Kerala.
Tending to his land he explains the problems faced by many like him. “As there is no water, I have to grow beans and vegetables. This is a problem faced by all farmers in Vattavada. We no longer grow crops around the year like we used to earlier. The three crop system has disappeared.”
“If soil becomes too dry, even these beans get sunburnt and the crop will be lost, like last year,” he says.
Vattavada village lying in the eastern side of the Western Ghats near Munnar is encircled by mountains on all sides and borders Kerala’s boundary with Tamil Nadu. The regions around Vattavada range in height from 1450 meters (4760 ft) to 2695 meters (8842 ft) above mean sea level.
Its population, mostly of Tamil origin, migrated there in the pre-colonial era, a rarity in Idukki district, where migrant arrivals have mostly occurred in the colonial and post-colonial times.
Said to belong to an ancestry composing of populations banished after the many local battles that were fought and lost in the nearby kingdom of Madurai, the people there speak a language which is Tamil mixed with Malayalam and an occasional Telugu word.
Located 45 kilometres by road from Munnar, a small stretch of which runs through Tamil Nadu, Vattavada traditionally nurtured grasslands at the higher slopes with stepped terraces of rice, wheat, beans and other vegetables below. It was during the last few decades that the grasslands have got converted into tree plantations.
“Earlier, the soil here used to be damp with water from the hills seeping all through the year. Now, because of the grandis plantations, there is no soil moisture,” says Lalitha D a farmer who lives in Koviloor hamlet.
“The grandis trees are even grown on terraces now,” she laments pointing to an adjacent plot where traditional crops have given way to grandis plantations.
“Rain is the only source of water for us. We don’t have wells or bore wells. Earlier the streams used to have water all year round. But now the situation is that within a few weeks of rains stopping, they dry up,” she says.
The agricultural villages of Vattavada comprises of the hamlets of Vattavada, Koviloor, Pazhathottam, Chilanthiyar, Kottakomboor and Kadaveri with Kadaveri now located inside a sanctuary being the most recent addition according to locals as well as forest officials.
Not so long ago, the stepped terraces of these villages were a haven for rice, wheat and other vegetables with year round cultivation. “But no more,” rues Lalitha.
“It is true that the farmers are facing water scarcity due to grandis plantations,” says Lakshmi R, Wildlife Warden for Munnar. “Grandis is a water draining crop. It can dry up an area fast,” she says.
Eucalyptus grandis, commonly called grandis, is a tall tree native to the humid subtropical and tropical regions of eastern Australia where the soil is so leached of nutrients that the trees stay much smaller.
In more fertile soil, the trees grow tall and fast. When grown in monocultures, especially outside their native range, they become a disaster like it has now in Vattavada.
“The area came to be planted with grandis as part of social forestry programs which aimed to raise trees useful for industrial purposes,” says Lakshmi.
“It was the government policy back then. To promote trees through social forestry for use as industrial inputs,” she explains. “The plantations really took off after the 1980s.”
“The British brought grandis, red gum and blue gum eucalyptus varieties here for stabilising swampy areas and for use as logwood,” says Imon Balakrishnan, tracing the origin of the tree in India. “They were measured in where they planted them. It was we who started growing them as plantations inside forests, on farmlands and anywhere and everywhere.
The idea was to provide for firewood, for which cow dung was otherwise used, thereby increasing the manure available for use in fields and to provide inputs for industrial use,” adds Imon.
“Vattavada had a very high cattle count back then. But with grazing lands shrinking under expanding grandis plantations, cattle disappeared. Moreover grandis is a very poor logwood, especially for household purposes, as they don’t give much heat owing to high water content,” he points out the irony. “It just gives off smoke.”
As for their use in industries, the demand from the plywood industry attracted profiteers into Vattavada and its poorly demarcated boundaries. With forest lands bleeding into revenue and private lands and none of them defined clearly, it provided ripe grounds for easy money.
“20 years back, when I came here for the first time, this place was a swamp,” recollects Imon Balakrishnan from Adimali, who came to Vattavada straight out of college in his twenties to work for one of the grandis plantations owners as an accountant.
“For the first three years here, I avoided going to Koviloor as the area was always slushy. Today, even the stream that runs through it dries up frequently. There is no doubt that water availability has reduced,” he agrees with the traditional farmers like Kanagaraj and Lalitha.
“Earlier the grandis here were limited to the plantations on forest lands which were meant for use by Hindustan Newsprint Limited, a government of India undertaking,” says Imon. “But when the plywood industry in Perumbavoor took off in the 1990s, grandis plantations exploded in number and size. There was money to be made.
The first to resort to farming in the interiors and non-traditional areas had been ganja cultivators”, he says. “I remember how people used to casually carry ganja on their heads or on horses in places like Chilanthiyar. When government scrutiny increased, many sold their lands to outsiders.”
The change of land ownership pushed the native farmers of Vattavada to the bottom of the hierarchy, a position they have now come to occupy to this day and changed the nature of Vattavada from an agricultural village to that of a plantation periphery.
“Many of the former agricultural laborers took to work as loggers in plantations and helped them with transportation of wood. Women were employed for removing barks from the trees,” says Imon. “Plantations gave better wages as compared to the paltry sums that the farmers could then afford.” This changed Vattavada and made agriculture a secondary activity.
“Grandis suited many of these new owners who lived in faraway towns and cities like Ernakulam, Kottayam and Trivandrum as it needed no investment, no maintenance and very little work,” he says.
“You just plant the seedlings and leave. After 6-7 years, the trees are ready to be cut and sold. An acre fetched more than Rs 1 lakh even then. There is no need to replant either, as the new saplings grow from the left over stump. For people who bought these lands at throwaway prices, it was easy money.”
With people holding possession of acreages of 100 and more, many of them held under benami schemes, the windfalls were huge.
“Nobody had any papers back then. The outsiders just bought possession from the locals and then arranged the papers and deeds by working the system,” he explains.
This was in keeping with the general trend in Idukki district where land possessions were converted into ownership since the advent of its existence as part of Kerala, something which the government itself had encouraged for long. In Vattavada, the windfall profits attracted more outsiders who encroached surrounding areas.
“A planting of grandis can be cropped thrice with good tonnage, once every 7 years after which the growth slows down. There are people here who have completed three cuttings. And there were many who with a few acres of land under possession would use it as a cover to cut and sell trees standing on forest or revenue lands with the connivance of the officials,” he explains.
“A lot of trees from forest and revenue lands have been cut and sold off by private parties,” says Imon. “I know it because I used to work with such private plantations then.”
Grandis had already been propagated as part of social forestry programmes on forest and revenue lands since the 1980s. They merged easily with the new plantings and were standing crops ready to be cut for those who could grease the system into turning a blind eye.
“Seeing the money, even the traditional farmers started planting grandis,” says Imon. “It made sense for them as grandis never got destroyed by animals, didn’t need constant care like traditional crops nor any cost inducing inputs and fetched ready advance from wood traders.”
But for many farmers like Durai Raja who have inherited their ancestors’ lands which were once fertile, grandis is an existential threat.
Blaming the outsiders for his plight he says - “They don’t live here, they just get the seedlings planted and go back to their comfortable lives elsewhere. We live and die on this land and suffer.”
The reason behind Durairaja’s gripe is that thousands of acres of land in and around the towering mountains surrounding Vattavada have seen a take-over by Grandis plantations with no solutions in sight. His helplessness is evident.
“It is my understanding that these trees are the reason behind the water scarcity here. We never had issues of water earlier.” And he has his reasons.
“If you cut these trees, water gushes out from them like milk from rubber. None of the other trees here holds this much water,” he asserts.
But, Durai Raja too now has a standing grandis plantation which he wants to remove, a contradiction shared all too commonly by most traditional farmers in Vattavada.
“I planted them when everyone did the same,” he says. “People like us don’t get as much money as these planters. We will get Rs 50,000 for an acres tonnage even though the rates will be above Rs 1 lakh as we take advance from the traders for our needs and then they decide the prices.”
Murugan P, who has a landholding of 50 cents also blame the trees for the water scarcity. “Unless these trees are removed, we cannot farm here,” he says.
“There is no doubt that grandis is responsible for our water problems. Because of grandis we don’t have water,” he repeats. “And since there is no water, area under farming and the number of crops have reduced too.” But removing these resilient trees is no easy task.
“Eucalyptus has affected the lands there because of all the outsiders who bought lands to sell the wood and make money,” says S Rajendran MLA of Devikulam constituency.
“The present scenario is that inspite of the revenue secretary giving orders to allow cutting of trees and uprooting of stumps, the RDO has not allowed it to happen in Vattavada at the request of the Wildlife warden Lakshmi,” he says. Rajendran has publicly sparred with the two officials in the past.
“Farmers here wants the trees cut and uprooted,” says Ratheesh R, village officer of Vattavada village panchayat. “Only then can farming return to Vattavada.”
“Water scarcity has made farming unsustainable. People are leaving traditional agriculture cycles,” he says, referring to the perennial farming that was the norm in Vattavada. “But the agriculture department and Krishi Bhavan have been actively promoting farming”.
“Our plan is to promote agriculture in the village and make it a source region for vegetable cultivation in Kerala,” Kerala’s Agricultural Minister VS Sunilkumar tells The Lede. “I had personally visited the village and recommended that the trees be cut. For solving the water crisis, we have constructed two check dams. This summer there won’t be any water scarcity,” he assures.
Asked about the pending issue of ban on cutting of grandis plantations and their uprooting, Sunilkumar says - “Full uprooting is not possible at one go. It can cause landslides.”
“The agricultural department had brought a scheme to help fund removal of stumps,” says Imon. “But the fund lapsed without much work being completed. Only a handful of people got them.” The expenses involved are not affordable for the farmers with small landholdings.
“We will be starting that scheme again,” assures agriculture minister VS Sunilkumar. But stump removal can begin only after the ban on cutting in Vattavada is lifted. “Government has agreed to allow the trees to be cut down and traditional farming to be revamped once the joint verification by forest and revenue departments are completed and land deeds settled.”
While it sounds good, for the actual small farmers of Vattavada, reality is curdled every which way.
“These canals don’t hold enough water for our crops to survive a full year,” says Kanagaraj about the check dams and their water channels which the minister claims have solved all water issues. As for land reclamation, the issue is muddled with challenges posed by departments trying to serve their own individual ends by putting the powerless at the most disadvantage.
“First the trees have to be cut and then the remaining stumps uprooted carefully one by one,” agrees Imon. “For that, first the trees have to be cut. Shouldn’t that be a priority for anyone?” he asks.
While the government has allowed cutting and uprooting of grandis in other villages as per the orders of the Revenue Principal Secretary V Venu, there is still a ban on the same in Vattavada village.
“Title deeds haven’t been verified yet. The process is still going on. Until that is complete it can’t be allowed,” says Lakshmi, the wildlife warden.
And when will that be completed? “It is really the revenue department’s area. They have appointed a special officer but that will not be enough.”
“The boundaries of the Kurunjimala sanctuary have not been realised as yet. There are still areas which need to be verified and settled. Also, places like Kadaveri which are inside the sanctuary have not been decided upon. Till the 1980s Kadaveri was forest land with no human settlement is what we hold. These things have to be settled once and for all. Until then cutting of trees cannot happen as the ownership questions have not been settled,” she says.
“They are afraid that trees on government lands will be cut and sold by private people. But the boundary question remains to be settled only in blocks 58 and 62 of Vattavada. Instead of stopping cutting in these two blocks alone, they have banned cutting of grandis in the whole of Vattavada,” says Devikulam MLA S Rajendran.
Political representatives cutting across political parties have been known to side with encroachers in the past. This was in display when the Gadgil report made its recommendations. Hence the common perception that they are taking these stands to help the encroachers, widely persist in the public eye.
“Why can’t they ban cutting in only the two blocks where boundaries are unclear and allow it go on in other areas?” Durai Raja asks pointing to the controversial blocks up the slope visible from his farmland below.
“The forest department wants to maintain those lands as forests for the UNDP fund they will get,” is how the MLA S Rajendran puts it. “This is the same forest department who can’t protect the forest lands under their absolute control,” he says scoffing at their enthusiasm.
“It is true that we have been granted a fund of Rs 42 crore for removal of exotic species from the sanctuary. But it is over a three year period,” says Wildlife Warden Lakshmi. “The first tranche of Rs 8 crore is expected shortly. It will take 3 to 4 years. After removal, we will be going for reforestation,” she adds.
Presently according to the forest department official 25% to 30% of the Kurinjimala sanctuary is covered by grandis and wattle - another of the social forestry imports.
As for the traditional and pre-existing farmers - “No, we don’t have any plans for them,” says Lakshmi making it clear that the forest department is fighting for its turf alone. That this is the same department which promoted grandis plantations seems to be forgotten.
The minister of Forests, Wildlife Protection, Animal husbandry, Dairy Development, Milk Cooperatives, Zoos, K Raju makes it clear that it is all being done as per the wishes of the officials on ground. “You will have to talk to the DFO or Wildlife Warden only for that,” he says when asked about why forest department has asked for a ban on cutting of grandis in Vattavada.
“Revenue department wants to prevent loss of revenue in lieu of the grandis woods which are taken out by private parties,” contends MLA S Rajendran. The Devikulam RDO has remained unavailable to comment inspite of multiple efforts to reach them.
This battle of fraud, fiction and the see sawing quarrels between the occupiers, elected representatives and the departments has been dragging the issue on endlessly. That it is those who can least afford the delays who are suffering seems to be of little consequence for all.
That there exist bogus title deeds behind many private ownership claims is widely accepted by all.
It is inside this larger mess which was not of their making that the farmers of Vattavada who have lived there for centuries, express concerns about the quickly falling soil moisture.
Only once the mess is cleared can they expect any respite. And many like Durai Raja express their helplessness. “Even if the trees are uprooted, the soil won’t become normal for years,” he says.
“Farming is the least preferred job for a reason.”