When the world is trying to grapple with another food crisis, I am taken back to the food crisis of 1930's in Travancore. This is the story of my neighbour Mr. Thomman Joseph, Murickummoottl alias the "Kayal Raja" (King of Lakes) or "Kayal Murickan" who responded to the desperate calls of the then Travancore Raja to enhance food production. He asked for freedom of operation and Raja granted it readily thus making Murickan the first farm-entrepreneur of the region.
What makes Kayal Murickan Unique?
Murickan is a saviour to those who faced the famine during and after the World War II. Since his first harvest of 1935, he used to bring out 4000 tonnes of rice per annum by cultivating below the sea level, on the lake bed, similar to dykes of Holland. Under high risk conditions he cultivated perhaps, for the first time below the sea level, without posing any environmental hazards and by employing around 3000 people. Kuttanadu has not known famine since the time of Murickan .
His Entrepreneurial Strategy
Murickan identified the shallow fertile region at the conjugation of rivers and constructed a rounded bund of around 15 feet width, using coconut logs, bamboo poles and river silt. Then, from inside the rounded bund the water was drained (initially manually and in later years using motors) and on the clear fertile lake bed farming was done. The bund was further strengthened using rocks and coconut trees and tillers lived in the small huts built on the bunds. Thus he created around 2152 acres of cultivable lake bed divided into three, each one named after the royal member of the Travancore Palace who inaugurated it.
I. Chithira kayal [Q block] = 900 acres
II Marthandam kayal [S block] = 652 acres
III. Rani kayal [T block] = 600 acres
The lakes received the much needed constant vigil and uncompromising commitment from Murickan and his tillers. The land was fertile and did not command the use of fertilizers. He reaped the economies of scale and had gainful cultivation for around 37 years till the left Govt. in Kerala identified him as a petty bourgeois. (click here to see the animated graphics of his farming technique)
History of destruction
The trail of destruction starts with the rift created between farmers and tillers on the wings of communist ideology. In 1969 farmers asked for a wage hike, which was not agreeable to Murickan and other farmers in the Kuttanadu region and the latter threatened to keep the land fallow. In 1972, left govt. of Kerala issued an arrest warrant for him and seized around 1935 acres of land from Murickan. The legal battle (1972-84) went up to Supreme Court but Murickan's compensation was just enough to meet the court expenses. This proud farmer did not bother to divide his land in binami names to manipulate the ceiling level, like many big farmers in the region and had to content with the fragments.
During 1972-75 farming in QST blocks were directly under the control of Dept. of Agriculture and revenue. In 1975 the declared surplus land of 1600 acres were distributed among 1580 "tillers" from among 16,000 applications. The curious twist is that land was divided mainly according to political affiliations rather than based on tiller status. (CPM = 480, Congress = 380, CPI= 360, RSP= 360) From 1975-1990 farmers co-operatives were formed under the directives of the Govt but could not make profit except during 1984-86 when the Dy. Collector of the region took a direct involvement in the farming. By 1990 the cumulative losses from the lakes were too high and Govt withdrew from the scene. In 1990, the then Nayanar Govt (left) formed three Paddy Producing Societies in 3 lakes, each one dominated by a political party.
Marthandam - Congress
Chithira - RSP
Rani - CPI & CPM
Societies decided to take farm loans by keeping farmers' property deeds as collateral. However, only Marthandam lake could repay the loan. Rani & Chithira lake incurred losses [Rs. 7 lakhs and 5 lakhs respectively]
The CPI, CPM and RSP party leaders secretly contracted the land to outsiders who in turn sub-contracted it to others. The bank loans were not repaid by the political leaders (3.75 lakh repaid in Chithira lake) and farmers lost their land leading to ultimate stoppage of farming. By 1995 Chithira and Rani became fallow and farming continues for namesake in Marthandam. In one of the blocks, auctioned land was purchased by the CPM controlled co-operative bank itself and was later sold out for a paltry sum of Rs. 60 lakhs to tourist lobbies, though Govt had asked to sell it at Rs. 75 lakhs. Upon enquiry by the Dept of Co-operation the governing board of the bank was dismissed. Even now no action has been taken in repatriating the land to the farmers, as political parties consider it as a loss of face.
At present lakes are illegally dredged to mine white shells worth crores of rupees and to let boats in, bunds were breached. Thus the mighty 15 feet wide bunds which survived the fury of nature for around half a century succumbed to exploitative forces. In many places the reclaimed land merged with the lake. Deep trenches on the lakebed created out of mining makes paddy cultivation almost impossible now.
What went wrong? The lessons learned
Take over of Murickan's land is a case of mindless political intervention arose out of the failure in distinguishing between an entrepreneur and a landlord. The crime lies in dividing the seized land on party lines. Any political event could derail the timing of sowing or harvesting. In the name of socialism the Paddy Producing Societies engaged in competitive overstaffing and political fights between left party workers and Societies were quite common. Large scale corruption emerged starting from the purchase of seeds, pesticides etc to harvesting. The officers of the Govt were also too costly to be pleased. Often low quality seeds and fertilizers were used which increased the cost of operation substantially. The owner cultivators now had no connection with their land as many stayed outside the Kuttanadu region and commuting was too time consuming and costly. Farming needs constant vigil and guard and here government nor contractors / sub contractors could guarantee that. Another major factor is fragmentation and the resultant loss in economies of scale. Even high yielding varieties of seeds or technology couldn't be a substitute for scale economies.
Was the finder-keeper ethics sufficient enough to retain the property rights to Murickan who created that land out of water? Is the destruction of private property justified in the case of entrepreneurs? Who is right- Raja who assured the freedom of operation or the modern welfare Govt? Even now use of harvest machines in Kuttanad, which faces a sever shortage of farm labourers, is not a welcome move for the Govt. Sometimes I wonder who can be another Murickan- incentivized to come out with innovative technologies to save the farmers and the farm sector.
(Author acknowledges the conversations with members of Murickan's family: Jose Murickan, Kavalam, Kerala and Joseph Murickan, Peerumedu Development Society, Kerala. I also acknowledge the help received from Sunny Joseph [Malayala Manorama] and Lijo, St. Joseph's College of Communication Chry. in recreating the story. )
The story was first presented for Center for Civil Society in the Communicating Freedom Workshop held in May 25-29, 2005 at Gurgaon and later on November 12, 2005 at the Liberty and Society Seminar at Calicut Kerala
-  Kayal or lake refers to backwaters here. The land created out of lake bed is also known as kayal.
- Out of this 700 tonnes was the wage component. This translates to around 20 Kg of rice per month per family, sufficient enough for a 6 member family. Around 500 were the permanent employees in the farm. As per another record wages come to around 4 kooliyan for male (around 2.5 kg) and 2 kooliyans for females (around 1.5 kg) per day.
- He was arrested under “National Securities Act” which is generally used against terrorists
- Only recently Kuttanadu region got connected with roads. Till then people had to come by boats.
- The acquisition of Murickan’s land is generally considered as a “mistake” in land reforms even by the left party who acquired it and has publicly acknowledged it to a great extent.