Tamil Nadu

Under stress

Print edition : July 07, 2017

Agitating farmers from Tamil Nadu symbolically "eating" a mouse at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan

The farmers of Tamil Nadu blame the agricultural policies of the Centre and the State government for their plight, which, they say, has been compounded by monsoon failure.

In Tamil Nadu, 70 per cent of the population is engaged in agriculture in one capacity or the other. Farmers and farm labourers are in distress because farming activities have virtually come to a standstill in the State as a result of drought. The farmers have demanded of the Central and State governments an “acceptable drought relief” package besides a satisfactory minimum support price (MSP) for their crops.

They blame the agricultural policies of the State government and the Centre for their plight. Faulty implementation of various infrastructure and welfare schemes meant for the farm sector, coupled with unresolved inter-State river disputes, the worst-ever monsoon failure for two consecutive years in 100 years or so, and demonetisation are among factors that have crippled both rain-fed and irrigated agriculture. The State normally receives an average annual rainfall of 921 millimetres against the national average of 1,200 mm and has a gross irrigated area of 33.94 lakh hectares, 79 per cent of which is under food crops.

For its part, the Centre hit the farmers with a double whammy. The November 8, 2016, demonetisation of Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 notes reduced the currency-dependent farm-based rural economy to a shambles. Even as the farmers were trying to recover from the setback, a second blow was dealt in the form of fresh notifications under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulations of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2017, banning the sale of animals of slaughter in cattle markets.

A shortage of cash in the aftermath of demonetisation was reflected at the major cattle markets in Erode and other districts in Tamil Nadu, with business down by more than 50 per cent. The failure of monsoon had made fodder dearer, forcing farmers to resort to panic sale of livestock. The lack of cash flow meant that agriculturists could not buy seeds and fertilizers and pay wages to labourers, thus forcing them to turn to moneylenders who promptly flocked to the agrarian belts. Tamil Nadu, according to a Government of India report, recorded a 29 per cent year-on-year drop in overall crop sowing until February 2017. The report further claims that rice cultivation was undertaken on 29.55 lakh acres (one acre = 0.4 hectare) last year and 17.95 lakh acres this year. The coverage area of pulses, cereals and oilseeds, too, has dropped significantly.

The repeated failure of the monsoons resulted in crop loss and a fall in farm incomes and a bulging debt burden, which led to the farmer, faced with a blow to his dignity, to take his own life. Though different farmers associations and the media claim that about 150 farmers have committed suicide in the past six months, the State government maintained that only 17 had committed suicide because of agrarian distress. “The rest were suicides for reasons other than farming distress, and due to heart attacks,” it said.

Amid this distress came projects such as the drilling of oil wells, as part of the Centre’s Discovered Small Fields policy, in the Cauvery delta region and Pudukottai district. Local farmers feared that drilling-related activities would ruin agriculture, besides polluting groundwater. Experts and activists, however, blamed the suicides on drought and demonetisation. “Though drought has been the main reason for farmers’ suicides, demonetisation cannot be brushed aside,” said K. Balakrishnan, president of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He said demonetisation was a severe blow to farmers. “They could neither withdraw money from the banks nor take loans from cooperative banks; they could neither sell their produce nor purchase inputs for their crops. The rural economy has been totally shattered,” he said.

Nearly 40 deaths were reported from the Cauvery delta region where almost all farmers depended on loans from agricultural cooperative banks, the primary source of rural lending.

“The cooperative societies and rural banks went cashless. The farmers did not know whom to approach to tide over the crisis. And drought came with a vengeance. Today agriculture in Tamil Nadu is in total distress,” Balakrishnan said. The present crisis has affected not only the Cauvery delta, which has missed the kuruvai paddy crop for the second consecutive year owing to low storage levels in the Mettur reservoir, but also the entire State.

“It is time for us to evolve a holistic approach to the entire issue. Farmers demand good price for their produce. The government must come forward to implement the recommendations of the M.S. Swaminathan Commission report. The report suggests that the cost of cultivation plus 50 per cent as profit should be fixed as the basic price for a produce,” said S. Ranganathan, general secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association. With the Cauvery being a “deficit river”, he said the implementation of the Cauvery Management Board would solve many issues relating to agriculture, a suggestion other farmers’ representatives endorse.

In January, after assessing the situation, the Tamil Nadu government declared the State as “drought-hit” and dispatched its Ministers to the districts to assess the situation. It released over Rs.2,000 crore as relief, but farmers claim the amount is measly compared with the magnitude of the distress. The Madras High Court directed the State government to waive all cooperative farm loans irrespective of the size of the landholdings.

Contrary to the situation on the ground, the State government’s agricultural policy note for 2016-17 is dripping with optimism. It hopes to “usher in a Second Green Revolution”.

The crisis prompted the farmers to take the issue to the national capital. A group of farmers from Tamil Nadu sat in protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi for 41 days, with a set of demands that included a Rs.40,000-crore drought relief package, farm loan waiver, MSP for their produce and the setting up of the Cauvery Management Board. The agitation was called off on April 23.

P. Ayyakannu, president of the National South India River Linking Farmers Association, who led the stir, said their objective in displaying human skulls, symbolically eating mice, rolling naked on the road, and threatening to drink urine, was to shock the collective conscience of the nation.

Talking to Frontline in Chennai recently, the 70-year-old activist said farmers were being treated like beggars and slaves and were viewed as extremist elements whenever they protested. “We are fighting for our rights, which have been neglected for long. No one cares about us when we die in the fields. As our agitations in Tamil Nadu did not evince the response we expected, we shifted the venue to the national capital to make everyone understand our anguished living today,” he said.

Ayyakannu said farmers from Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab supported their agitation in New Delhi. “In fact, we provided the spark to the farmers’ stirs across the country today. We formed an All India Kisan Coordination Committee on May 21 so that farmers’ bodies across the country could unite and fight under a single banner. I am one of its conveners. The committee will chalk out its plan of action soon,” he said. He staged a two-day stir in Chennai on June 9 and 10. The agitation was withdrawn after Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami’s promise to intervene in the issue. Although the protest has been suspended, it highlights the precarious agrarian situation in the country in general and Tamil Nadu in particular. Farmers have urged the State government to take immediate corrective measures to prevent further loss of lives. Several fora, including the Makkal Adhigaram [People’s Power], attribute the farm crisis to the Centre’s move to “corporatise” the farm sector. To condemn this and to discuss other livelihood issues concerning farmers, it is organising a conference in Thanjavur on August 5.

The last time New Delhi witnessed a farmers’ agitation was in 1988 when five lakh farmers from Uttar Pradesh laid siege to the national capital. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi readily agreed to look into their demands. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not meet the Tamil Nadu farmers despite repeated requests.

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