In Troubled Waters

In Troubled  Waters Vast stretches of water-logged, fallow fields, blocked from the backwaters by low mud-and-rock boundary walls. Patches of golden brown rice crops partially submerged in the waters, surrounded by acres of tall kuthiraval weeds. Four women keeled over in waist-deep water, cutting rice stalks; a man pushing a small rowboat with harvested rice stalks on to a shallow canal; another man sitting on his haunches on the outer bund, supervising the work. It's pokkali (a variety of rice) harvesting time in Edavanakkadu on Vypeen island, off the Kochi backwaters in Kerala.

The man on the bund is C Bose, who's been cultivating pokkali for the last three decades in his 1.7 hectares (ha). In no time, his litany of woes bursts out: "These four women have been on the job for seven days. It's very hard to find farm hands for harvesting, these days.' Harvesting will be over in another day. Bose is now worried about leasing out the fields for chemmeen kettu (prawn farming). "This season, no offer has come my way,' he laments.

Like Bose, most farmers in the saline coastal tracts of Ernakulam, Thrissur and Alappuzha districts of central Kerala alternate pokkali cultivation with prawn farming. These marshy tracts are close to the Arabian Sea, and saline water floods the fields regularly. The high and low tides affect water and salinity levels. In normal course, soil acidity and high salinity would inhibit rice cultivation. "But pokkali is resistant to salinity, flood and soil acidity,' points out V Sreekumar, associate professor, Rice Research Centre at Vyttila, Kochi.

The process Rice is cultivated during June-October when water salinity is at its lowest; in November-April, when salinity reaches high levels, farmers resort to traditional prawn farming. Some cultivate the prawns themselves, while others lease out their lands to professional prawn farmers.

In April, farmers start preparing fields for pokkali farming: soil mounds

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