WAYANAD (Kerala): There is no neighbourhood in Mullankolly that does not have its own church. Or churches. This single panchayat of Wayanad district has some 27 of them. Together with Pulpally next door, that number crosses 35. With its cash crops of pepper, coffee, cardamom, tea and spices, this district has been one of the biggest foreign exchange earners of Kerala. And the churches, says K.M. Thomas, a farmer with four acres here, are "a symbol of prosperity. Locals took pride in building them."

The 'locals' were mainly from the central and other parts of Kerala. Vast streams of settlers came mostly after World War II to this beautiful little Adivasi region on the north-eastern tip of the State. The strength and support of the Church made Wayanad a godsend for the settlers. (Indeed, one place in Mullankolly is called "Parudeesa" — Paradise). And so churches — built in thanks — dot the landscape in great profusion.

Churches in trouble

But the churches themselves — of most denominations — are now in trouble. Together, they have lost crores of rupees in a very short time. The Malankara Catholic Church alone may have seen a loss of Rs.70 lakhs in just the past year. Many places of worship have seen their Sunday collections fall to 10 per cent of normal. Monthly contributions are also down quite badly. A few churches work out of unfinished buildings. There is no money to complete their construction.

Many well-off parishes that once donated lakhs of rupees to their diocese centres now depend on the latter for life-support. Some priests have not got their meagre salaries for months. Weddings are far fewer than they were just five years ago. Which means that the two per cent charge on dowries that some churches extract also adds up to much less these days. Feasts and other activities occur less often. Students at some church-run schools — by far the best in Wayanad — struggle to pay even the nominal fees there. At least one church-run hospital with 20 beds in Mullankolly has shut its doors. Farmlands owned by most religious orders lie fallow and the income from these has crashed.

It all has to do with two words: "kaarshika prathisanthi." Or agrarian crisis. A phrase now firmly locked into the local lexicon. For many, regardless of faith or profession, this is Paradise Lost.

The crisis sweeping Wayanad did receive much attention in April-May. At that time it was also sharpened by drought. And by Quick Wilt, a disease that withered the pepper vines. Long after that phase has passed, the damage deepens. The crisis itself, which goes far beyond those disasters, is entrenched. It now reflects in every sphere of life. "With farming in trouble, everything will be affected," says Fr. George Vettikatil. He is Procurator at the Catholic Bishop's House in Sultan Bathery. And has a keen sense of how deep the process is biting. "Our links are to small farmers and daily wage labourers. So the impact of all this is greater on our members. That has to reflect in how the church is doing. If they starve, it affects us."

Mullankolly with 33,000 people and Pulpally with about 35,000, are where the Church is strongest. This is pepper territory. The huge fall in prices has savaged the district. And more so this region. Pepper prices have fallen from Rs. 27,000 a quintal in 1997 to about Rs. 5,400 a quintal now. In just two months of July and August this year, prices dropped by Rs. 900 a quintal. Grown on some 70,000 hectares, pepper keeps tens of thousands of farmers going here.

Lethal mix

Price rigging, the dumping of imports and crop failure have proved a lethal mix. "Foreign and domestic corporate and trade cartels are behind the price crash," says P. A. Muhammad, Convener of the South Indian Farmers Co-ordination Committee (SIFCO). "Those in coffee, pepper and tea in this district" he points out, "have suffered a loss of at least Rs. 1,003 crores a year since 2001. On pepper alone, cultivators have lost Rs. 1500 crores since that year."

The Church is the central social organisation of this belt. (In Mullankolly alone, over 60 per cent of people are Christians.) Thousands of small farmers are its members. So the chaos on the ground affects it strongly. Besides, the Church itself is a cultivator. Almost every place of worship owns some land on which it grows pepper and coffee. And employs labour. The Malankara Catholic Church has some 45 parishes, each of which own between three and five acres. It also has what the Coffee Board terms `a model coffee plantation' at Nambiarkunnu. And a 90-acre coffee and pepper plantation at Kattikulam.

"Last year," says Fr. Vettikatil, " we got just Rs. 50,000 from those 90 acres." In better times, that should have been Rs. 20 lakhs. Besides, each of the 45 parishes used to give between Rs. 1 lakh and Rs. 2 lakh every year to the diocese centre. Their farm base wrecked, most now depend on the centre.

The effects are across the board. "Our members, so many of them small farmers, have been badly hit," says Fr. A.K. Varghese in Padichira. "Most cannot pay their dues and are in arrears." A retired professor of English, he is the Vicar of the St. George Orthodox Church in Kolavalli. Fr. Varghese himself has not seen his salary for some months now.

"Our links are to small farmers and daily wage labourers. So the impact of all this is greater on our members. That has to reflect in how the church is doing. If they starve, it affects us."
In Mullankolly, Fr. Jose Mundakal of the St. Mary's Church confirms the picture. This church has about 1,000 families affiliated with or attending it. Sunday collections the week we visited, he says, "were below Rs. 500." That's 10 times less than what they touched in the good days. "Almost 100 per cent of our members are farmers," says Fr. Mundakal. "They have suffered a lot. Five years ago, the Feast of Our Lady, the main one at this church, was sponsored by just one person. Today, that's impossible. No one can afford it."

Many suicides

The crisis, of which the price fall has been one major part, has sparked off many suicides. "Small and marginal farmers have been devastated," says N. Surendran. A small farmer himself, he is also district secretary of the Indian Farmers Movement (INFAM). "Yes, drought and disease hurt us. And this high-pesticide chemical farming model must also go. But it is these free trade policies that have driven prices down."

Meanwhile, says Fr. Vettikatil, "the small farmers are in a debt trap. Their lands, and ours too, are lying fallow. One, prices have crashed. Two, we cannot invest. Neither can they. Their distress is ours. We are all badly affected now." (Courtesy: The Hindu)