A new ruling dispensation has started its tenure in the southern most state of India 8 months ago & it will be not be inappropriate to think about the state of Kerala. In fact, the backdrop of the various talks and deliberations about the Free Trade Agreements only makes it too appropriate a moment to spare some thoughts about India’s most well performing state, in terms of various Human Development Indices. The recent rise in the number of farmer suicides in the cash crop citadel of the state, Wayanad district also makes this issue more relevant & significant. The overwhelming participation of its subjects, cutting across religious differences, in the celebration of the harvest festival of Onam is nothing but a wonder of sorts, to say the least. But, that being said ,to say that, in the present times festivals like Vishu & Onam –for that matter all festivals transcending religious differences-are just marketing carnivals, on the side lines of which consumerism(too often conspicuous consumerism),alcoholism and matrimonial prodigality manifest themselves most blatantly, is nothing but stating the truth. The agricultural significance that these festivals had is lost without a trace. Agriculture in Kerala has now transpired to mean as farming of cash crops like rubber & cashew nut, spices like cardamom and plantations like tea and coffee. The pursuit for larger profits with an eye on the prospective & seemingly ever increasing demands from markets outside the state for the aforesaid cash crops has lead many a people to abandon farming of, staple food crops like rice, nutrient rich pulses, vegetables and diary products. The pressure from big plantations over small land holders only added fire to the fury and many traditional farmers had to half heartedly switch over to cash crops. All these have lead to a situation where in the state of Kerala is at present heavily dependent on its neighboring states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh & Karnataka for staple foods, pulses, vegetables & even milk & milk products. Traditional cash crops like coconut-from which the state derives its very name of ‘Kerala’- , areca nut, and betel leaves etc have also suffered severe blows.
But not all things are going well for the predominant cash crops as well. Due to their almost complete dependence on global markets any slight wave in the global scenario is able to make its effect felt in cash crop driven economy of Kerala. The fact that besides cash crops the remittance from almost 60 lack people working outside the geographical boundary of the state is the other major driving force of the economy only makes things more complex. It can easily be made out that the economy of Kerala is the most globalised among all states and any surge in the global economic scenario is sure to make its recuperations felt on the state. In the global level the trade and commerce of many of these cash crops are manipulated and stage managed by just a handful of corporations and this makes the fate of such cash crop growers all the more vulnerable. The subsistence and lively hood of such farmers are at perils of the whims and fancies of the games played by big corporations. The years 2005 to 2007 witnessed the highest price for coffee exported from India in markets like London and Maples. But ironically those were the same years when the highest number of coffee farmers in the district of Wayanad decided to bring there life to an abrupt end through suicide owing to agricultural debts. This exposes the glaring disconnect between the market price doled out by the consumers and the return for the farmers for their products, both the groups unable to comprehend the way market forces are being manipulated by the corporate business class.
Now the Year 2011 seems to have many more bad news for cash crop growers in its baggage. India is actively considering about inking Free Trade Agreements with a slew of nations including the mighty European Union. Such free trade agreements will open the flood gates for trade liberalization between the signing nations even in the field of cash crops and the same may bring the indigenous farm products under sever strain and competition from the products available from these countries and in the eventuality many an Indian cash crops can loose their grip even in the traditional home markets. It is needless to say that all these are surely going to have a negative bearing for the state of Kerala. The point is not to flare up hyper national or jingoistic passions & protectionist sentiments. Nor it is any ones case that India, aspiring to become a super power in the 21st century and to increase its geo-political influence, should not help in the progress and development of small and lesser developed countries by providing favorable conditions of trade to them. Globalisation can enhance prosperity and development across the countries if the same modalities are applied with the intent of exchange of mutually beneficial products. It can increase the avenues for people to people contact across the borders and there by it can provide a great impetus to the “One World” concept and to world peace. But for that to happen the control of the economy should rest with the society as whole which is, in the present scenario, seems to be a distant dream. On the contrary the sate of affairs in the economic sphere is being controlled by a few oligarchs. In such a scenario globalisation just becomes the kaleidoscope for the representatives of private capital to view the whole world as just a single market in purist for profit maximization. Private capital transcends all national barriers in its quest for profits. The neo-liberal ruling dispensations in many countries are just the political faces-save covert faces- of private capital. Many a regimes are but forced to fall in line or to act at their behest. The policies and decisions of such governments, not so infrequently and without many hindrances, are influenced by the agents and the proxies of profit seeking private capital. Developed countries by virtue of their technological advancements and concentrated financial and economic power too often become successful in thrusting down the throat of developed and under developed countries policies that are favorable to them albeit under the most hypocritical claim of ‘helping in the development of the lesser developed.’ Developed nations seek for level playing fields in the markets of the developing and lesser developed countries and urge and audaciously advocate the governments of the land to cut subsidies and scrap other positive discriminatory measures instituted to safe guard the interest of local inhabitants, majority of whom belonging to the economically bottom strata of the world population pyramid. All these are done not withstanding the subsidies the developed world doles out to products from its own countries. Level playing field will be welcomed by all if it is impartially applied or in other words if those who cry for such level playing fields ensure that the same principle is applicable to them also.
The observation by former diplomat and the flamboyant Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram, Mr. Shashi Tharoor covers it all “The amount that the developed nations spends for susidising their animal husbandry products per year is so much so that when taken per livestock that will suffice each one of the cattle population in those countries to fly around the world in Business Class Flight Tickets not just once but twice an year!”. “Physicians heal thy self”………. “Thou strain the gnats and swallow the camel”, can be the best reply that can be given to Uncle Sam & Co. With regard to the liberal trade regimes with small and lesser developed nations belonging to leagues of ASEAN, SAARC, LDC etc it should be ensured that the benefits are not appropriated by just a handful. Many a times business consortiums which are in no way related to such countries are found to gain advantages. Lessons can be learned from past experiences. The free trade regimes that Indian envisages with countries like Sri Lanka -which includes among the other things some spices also in its preview-should be watched and monitored with utmost caution. Big business can find the Island nation as a gate way to India to escape import duty. Huge quantities of spices may be first imported to Sri Lanka by global conglomerates and from there they can find its way to India- at virtually zero tariff rates -with an eye on the huge Indian markets. It can even end up in such a scenario that the quantity of spices that will be exported form the Lakan nation to India may be so big that even if the total land area of that country is converted for cultivation of spices the quantity won’t be able to match the tones that are exported to India!
True that in 2009 while inking the FTA pact with ASEAN nations the state of Kerala was able to convince the Govt of India to exclude almost 200 items, that were critical for its farmers, from the no tariff regime .That owes much to the political clout of the state which saw the unequivocal criticisms & condemnation, of the India Govt’s initial plan for allowing complete free trade of all products, by the various bipartisan political parties of the state , cutting across political patronages and affiliations, surprising the whole nation. But will that maneuverability be effective against the arm twisting modus operandi of the mighty European Union Nations is a question worth asking. Also it will be good to introspect whether an economy can be substained always with the help of revenue from cash crops and foreign remittances. Policy makers, intellectuals, scientists, technocrats, politicians, literary figures, social and cultural activists, religious leaders, artists and the vast pool of the educated intelligentsia of the sate should unite at the earliest to find a way out of this imbroglio besieging the state and to save it from the clutches of the rampant consumerism orchestrated, engendered and fostered by the agents of the ongoing neo-liberal version of competitive free-market capitalism.
After all, it is not at all in the best interest of the state and its people to be branded as the “mouth watering and dream destination for marketing executives” which was once hallmarked for its intellectual disturbances and ferments amidst the intelligentsia , idealist romanticism among the artists, heightened political consciousness and activism by its general public, principle based religious and political leadership, its revolutionary fight against inequalities, exploitation and exclusionism based on the outdated & antiquated principle of the so called nobility of birth and last but not the least its longing pursuit of egalitarianism which finds its ultimate expression in the most widely celebrated festival of Onam which is conceptualised and woven around the much cherished and fallaciously constructed myth about the benevolent Socialist dictator Maveli and his classless empire.