A few years ago, when former Army man V. Gopakumar, a native of Kattakada, took to polyhouse cultivation, an emerging commercial activity at that time, he had hopes of a steady income and a bright future that would inspire more people to follow in his footsteps. But, today, Mr. Gopakumar, and many others who took the plunge find their dreams in tatters. With losses mounting, some of them have either given up or relocated to neighbouring States where polyhouse cultivation has proved to be a booming business.

“Hi-tech farmers in Kerala find themselves in a desperate struggle to remain afloat,” says Mr. Gopakumar. “Even six years after the government encouraged us to take up polyhouse farming, there is no clear policy framework in place. The government has failed to honour its commitment to provide technical assistance or extend tax benefits. The staggered disbursal of subsidy has made it all the more difficult. We are running out of options,” he says.

Suman Chandra R.V., a youngster from Thiruvananthapuram who gave up a lucrative public relations business to take up polyhouse farming in 2016, too feels despondent. He recalls how he had to return from the market with his first crop of salad cucumber after traders refused to buy the produce citing high price. “I had to bury part of the consignment in my farm and dump the rest on dairy farmers for use as cattle feed.”

High costs

Polyhouse farmers incur high costs on seeds, water soluble fertilizers, pesticides and biocontrol agents imported from other States. They complain that agricultural officers are quite ignorant of the technical aspects of protected agriculture. One of the major problems faced by farmers is the failure of the government to provide market linkage for vegetables produced in polyhouses. The absence of cold chain facilities, the lack of processing and value addition units and the failure to provide crop advisory are other major issues. To make matters worse, plant diseases and pests have led to decline in productivity.

“Polyhouse cultivation seems to be unsuitable for climatic conditions in Kerala,” says Jose George, a farmer from Kothamangalam who has been unable to generate a decent income from hi-tech agriculture even after years of struggle. Mr. George recounts how he has had to fight a losing battle for years with traders in the Kottayam market who sourced cheaper produce from farmers in Tamil Nadu. “It is difficult to find domestic market for non-pollinated crops like salad cucumber and colour capsicum that are suited for polyhouse farming. If farmers are to generate sustainable income, the government has to provide an assured market,” he says.

“Many farmers are now using their abandoned polyhouses to dry copra,” says an agricultural scientist who was associated with the hi-tech farming scheme in the early stages. “In many cases, the subsidy was not reaching the farmers. The only beneficiaries were consultants, seed suppliers and fertilizer companies.” Scientists advocate a shift from the advance subsidy scheme to production-oriented incentive to salvage the situation.

Flagship scheme falters

Under the hi-tech agriculture scheme launched in 2012 for promotion of protected cultivation, as many as 557 farmers across the State had availed themselves of government assistance to the tune of Rs. 23.09 crore to construct polyhouses. The flagship scheme implemented by the State Horticulture Mission – Kerala provides assistance up to 75% of the unit cost for the beneficiaries. The major crops cultivated in polyhouses include salad cucumber, capsicum, cowpea, amaranthus, gerbera, cabbage and cauliflower.

According to Justin Mohan, Director, SHM – Kerala, the assistance was revised in 2014 with an additional assistance for farmers in hilly areas. Subsequently, the government also announced a special assistance for repair and maintenance of polyhouses. “Notwithstanding our efforts to promote protected cultivation in the State, farmers are finding it difficult to take up the programme as the cost of installation is higher when compared to government norms. Lack of technical know-how for constructing polyhouses suitable for local conditions, lack of technical expertise and the absence of reliable construction agencies are other reasons for the low success rate,” says Mr. Mohan.

Revival effort

Faced with the prospect of a floundering programme, SHM-K has requested the Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) to study the situation and come up with recommendations for its improvement. An expert panel comprising the State Agricultural Engineer, experts from KAU, members of the Technical Support Group, officials of SHM-K and the Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council, Keralam (VFPCK) has been set up to assess the impact of the hi-tech farming scheme and the suitability of polyhouse cultivation in Kerala. “Based on the report of the committee, the Mission will initiate steps to take the scheme forward,” Mr. Mohan said.

Mr.Suman wonders why Kerala could not do what States like Maharashtra have done where an ecosystem for hi-tech agriculture is in place. “There, every polyhouse farmer has to go through a training programme to get the certification required for allotment of polyhouses.” He, however, feels that hi-tech agriculture could yet be revived in Kerala if the government came up with the right policy initiatives and market intervention. “Technical guidance and market linkage are key to this effort. A crop calendar linked to market dynamics will go a long way to help farmers,” he says.

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