AGRICULTURE, WHICH HAS A 12 PER CENT share in the Net State Domestic Product, continues to be the single largest provider of employment in Tamil Nadu, with 40 per cent of the population engaged in farming and allied activities. Urbanisation and industrialisation have reduced the area under cultivation significantly. The impact of this has been felt most by small and marginal landholders, who constitute 92 per cent of the farming community.
Increasing instances of land acquisition for non-farm activities and the reluctance of political parties to reach a consensus on issues relating to agriculture have affected the agricultural sector. The woes of farmers have increased since the police crackdown on their movement in the early 1980s, when the State witnessed its only major agrarian struggle.
With the opening up of the economy in 1990, farmers began to face new threats. The proposed dams across the Cauvery in Karnataka and attempts by the soft drink major Coca-Cola to erect a plant in the SIPCOT Industrial Estate in Perundurai in Erode district are some of the new issues facing farmers.
Farmers of Sivarakottai in Tirumangalam taluk of Madurai district have been staging protests since 2008 against the government’s move to acquire 2,326 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare), of which 1,471.5 acres is rain-fed, for special economic zones (SEZs). M. Ramalingam, president of the farmers’ forum at Sivarakottai, who is leading the struggle, said the State transferred farmlands to the government without following the legally mandated procedures. He said Tamil Nadu already had 53 SEZs (a third of the total number of SEZs in the country), which occupied vast tracts of lands and waterbodies. Another 69 SEZs are in the pipeline, while applications for 18 more are pending before the appropriate authorities. “These SEZs have affected our livelihood resources,” said C. Vaiyapuri, president of the United Farmers Front of Tamil Nadu.
Farmers of Kannankottai, a village in Gummidipoondi taluk in Tiruvallur district, are fighting a losing battle against the State government, which has taken about 2,000 acres of their land and destroyed their paddy crops to construct a reservoir to supply 1 tmc ft of water to Chennai. Besides, two major “anti-farmer” projects in the State have courted controversy—the project to be implemented by GAIL India Ltd under which natural gas pipelines will be laid in seven districts in the western zone and the coalbed methane gas project in the Cauvery delta.
In 2002, farmers joined hands with activists to oppose the government’s move to “corporatise villages” through a Comprehensive Wasteland Development Programme that could reclaim 20 lakh ha of cultivable wasteland under a private-public participation scheme.
What farmers dread the most is the attempt by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre to enact the amended Land Acquisition Ordinance. At the political level, the party ruling the State, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), finds itself isolated in its support to the Land Acquisition Bill.
Other factors that worry the farmers are price volatility and non-remunerative prices. Last year, the State government fixed the minimum support price (MSP) for paddy at Rs.1,360 a quintal for the common variety and Rs.1,415 a quintal for the fine variety. The Tamilnadu Vivasayigal Sangam, a farmers organisation, has asked the government to fix the MSP for sugarcane at Rs.4,000 a tonne against the current price of Rs.2,650. The total land under cane cultivation is about 5.8 lakh acres and sugar production stands at 23 lakh tonnes.
A study done by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, some years ago, noted that the agricultural growth rate had slowed down after the 1990s owing to stagnation in the gross cropped area. In the past decade, the area under paddy decreased while areas under sugarcane, maize and coconut increased owing to low labour requirement, low cost of cultivation, and increasing industrial demand.
But, reports tabled in the State Assembly in the last Budget session presented a totally different picture. Although the government admitted to a drop in the cultivable area, it claimed that its “innovative initiatives” had resulted in an all-time high foodgrain production of 110.65 lakh tonnes in 2013-14 against 101.52 lakh tonnes in 2011-12. The production target for 2014-15 is fixed at 145 lakh tonnes.
Media reports claimed that 13 farmers committed suicide in 2013 in the delta and surrounding districts. But the government rubbished the reports saying that it had implemented special schemes to encourage farmers to take up paddy cultivation. Farmers are sceptical about the government’s claims. Large parcels of land abutting the State and national highways and in interior villages remain fallow today. Agricultural lands have been converted into industrial and housing plots.