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Kerala is a tiny strip of land, located in the southwestern tip of India occupying only 1.2 percent of India's land area. Its geographical contours can be described as an elongated strip of land, cushioned between the Western Ghats on the east and the sandy shores of the Arabian Sea on the west. Its land area is 38,863 sq:km stretching 580 km in length and 30.130 km in breadth. In terms of area, though Kerala forms only 1.2% of the total area of India (3,287,263 sq. km), 3 percent of country's population inhabits this land of incredible scenic beauty and high development indicators. However, in terms of area there exists wide disparity among the fourteen districts in state of Kerala. With a total area of 4480, 'Palakkad' which is situated at the foot of the Western Ghats is the largest district in Kerala. This district opens the state to the rest of the country and it is rightfully known as a 'Gateway of Kerala'. Whereas, 'Alappuzha' that lies at the western part of the Kerala is the smallest district with an area of 1,414 sq:km and it is the only district in the state having no forest cover.

Geographically, the state is divided into three regions - the coastal lowlands, the fertile midlands and the highlands. The lowland, where the population density is the highest, consists of sandy and fertile soils of the river valleys, lakes and backwater, providing the basis for fishing, rice and coconut cultivation and horticulture. In the midland region, cultivation viz. coconut, rice, cassava, arecanut and cashew along with rubber, pepper and ginger on the slopes predominate. The highlands, where the population density is the lowest, and which consists of natural evergreen tropical forests, gave way to plantations of tea, coffee and rubber. The total area under wetland in the state is 127930.07 ha whereas, the natural coastal wetlands and manmade coastal wetlands extends to 85671.50 and 80.59 hectors respectively.

Land use changes in Kerala are unprecedented during the past half-century. Agricultural expansion coupled with over-exploitation of forests has affected the State's forest eco-system. As such there are only few small pockets of genuine forests left in Kerala. Out of the total geographical area of the state (3,885,000 ha.) only 28 percent (1,082,000 ha.) are under forests. However, agriculture is the dominant land use type of the state, which accounts for 54 percent of the geographical area. Another feature of the state is that, unlike other states in the country, only very small portion of Kerala's area is kept under permanent pastures. Data pertaining to the land use pattern in Kerala revealed that the net sown area is declining over the period and the land under non-agricultural uses has increased from 9 percent in 1999-2000 to 11.3 percent in 2006-2007. Meanwhile, the current fallow and the fallow other than current fallow increased at the annual rate of 6.18 and 2.46 percent. The area under cultivable waste has also increased by 24155 ha. and barren and uncultivated land declined by 332 ha. respectively.

The diverse topographic, climatic and soil related conditions in Kerala enable its people to cultivate both cash crops and food crops. Out of the gross cropped area of 29.18 lakh ha. in 2006-2007, food crops such as rice, pulses, tapioca, minor millets occupy only 12.25 percent. Over the years, a substantial decline in the area under rice (predominant food crop in the state) and tapioca and an increase in coconut ( principal competitor of rice) and rubber cultivation are paramount in this respect. Rice cultivation is no longer seen as economically viable as it does not provide what is regarded as an adequate return due to shortage of labour, their high wages, the high cost of inputs and problems connected with marketing deters the cultivators from cultivation of paddy and other traditional crops. An analysis of the changes in the cropping pattern of the state, since its formation in 1956 clearly shows that there has been a persistent shift in favour of plantation crops at the expense of food crops. Moreover, land at present in Kerala is seen only as a real estate needed for residence and status and it is also considered as the safest and best investment. Thus, many speculative investors without any genuine interest in farming have already entered the land market as buyers.

Unabated massive conversion of paddy fields for building houses, destruction of hillocks and the filling up of low-lying lands, paddy fields, water bodies and deforestation has been widespread in the state causing serious ecological and environmental problems and complex feedback effects on agricultural production. After the recent spurt in real estate prices, which began taking its toll on paddy fields in Kerala, forced the state government to pass a bill banning any other commercial activity on the paddy fields. In light of this, government has also brought a paradigm shift in approach towards paddy cultivation and implemented various schemes/projects for cultivators and the bane in the conversion of paddy fields resulted in the perking up of paddy sector to more places thereby recovering the lost vigour of paddy cultivation of Kerala.

Even a decade ago, though this state in the southwest corner of the Indian sub continent was very little known outside India, today it began to draw the attention from all over the world when the so-called 'Kerala Model of development' became a part of the broad global debate about the ideal pattern of development in the 'third world' countries. The varied and unusual social characteristics of the state with its unique social indicators even make KERALA, the most interesting state in India.

Courtesy : Economic Review 2007 - published by Kerala State Planning Board

Human Development Report 2005, published by Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

Source: IT Department, Government of Kerala