"EVEN when Karnataka refused to give water to us, we maintained our dignity. But when you, Jayalalithaa, made us beggars in the name of providing a (free) noon meal to us, we lost our dignity too," reads a poster on a compound wall at Michaelpatti, a few kilometres from Tirukattupalli in Thanjavur district. It sums up the groundswell of anger among farmers over the January 8 announcement by the State government of provisioning a free noon meal every day to landless farm labourers and small and marginal farmers from January 15, Pongal day. The scheme was to be implemented in 28 districts of the State.
The resentment is evident everywhere. At Vadukkusethi village near Vallam town, Singaram is tending his goats grazing on a field which should have been abloom with paddy at this time of the year. But the fields are overgrown with grass and weeds. "Instead of the meal, the government could give us rice. How can we go at 12 noon and receive the food? Who will look after my cattle?" he asked.
At Alakkudi, 20-year-old student K. Madhavan, said: "This noon meal scheme aims at making us beggars. Instead, the government can keep us in jail and feed us three times a day."
At a balwadi in Michaelpatti, the noon meal - rice mixed with sambar and vegetables - has just been cooked in the open yard. People line up with plates and vessels brought from their homes to receive the food. M. Chellakannu, child welfare organiser, and her two assistants, say the scheme has been welcomed by people. The meal is served between 12 noon and 3 p.m., and no food is wasted, Chellakannu says.
The scheme, which got off to a start on January 15 with servings of sweet pongal, is being implemented in 26,074 balwadis. Each family is to receive a coupon and all family members can get meals. The scheme came after two farmers committed suicide owing to the debts they incurred in raising the crop.
A majority of landless peasants and farmers with lands, however, view the scheme as an insult to human dignity. They feel insulted by the diktat that they should come with plates or vessels to receive the food.
ALL Opposition parties have condemned the scheme as impractical and hare-brained. Taking the cue from the suggestion of R. Nallakannu, secretary of the State council of the CPI, all parties have demanded that instead of a free cooked meal, the government could distribute free of cost 30 kg of rice every month to the farmers. They suggested that a "food for work" scheme also be implemented.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) called the scheme "a begging bowl scheme". N. Varadarajan, secretary, State committee of the CPI(M), called it "an eyewash" and a publicity gimmick. G. Veeraiyan, president, Tamil Nadu unit of the All India Agricultural Workers' Association, said that the scheme had converted Tamil Nadu into "a choultry". It belittled the dignity of agricultural labourers and farmers, he said.
V. Duraimanickam, State general secretary, Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, branded it "a fraudulent scheme". L. Ganesan, chairman of the presidium, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), said the scheme had been prepared in great haste and that it would not reach all the affected persons.
Tokens were issued to only 50 families in each panchayat, which may comprise one to three villages. Most of the panchayats had several hundred families. When fights broke out over which families should receive tokens, the authorities refused to take up the job of distributing them. According to Varadarajan, 474 people of Thoppampatti village in Dindigul district registered themselves with the panchayat but the district administration ordained that only 104 be issued tokens. "A similar situation prevails all over the State," the CPI(M) leader alleged. According to Duraimanickam, there were 1,652 "pure landless peasants" at Avanam Periyanatchipuram panchayat, but only 150 were to receive the meal tokens. Only150 tokens had been issued at Vallam, which has a population of about 30,000 people. At Alakkudi, which has a population of 7,000 people, only 50 tokens have been issued, its residents complained.
The scheme has practical difficulties too. If people go out in search of small jobs, they will miss the meal. The old and the infirm cannot walk to the balwadis, which are sometimes a kilometre away. All members of a family should be present to receive their share of the meal. According to Duraimanickam, balwadis do not have adequate facilities to cook food for 50 people. The balwadi organisers have to go out to buy vegetables, ignoring their routine duty of looking after the children.
Jayalalithaa strongly defended the noon meal scheme, calling it "nonpareil" and "incomparable". The State government had not laid down any restriction that the beneficiaries should be limited to 50 for a centre, she said. In 5,739 centres there were more than 50 beneficiaries. Of this, there were 100 to 499 beneficiaries in 1,037 centres. There were more than 500 beneficiaries in 30 centres. According to her, in Nagapattinam and Tiruvarur districts, there were more than a thousand beneficiaries in several centres. As on January 20, about nine lakh persons had registered themselves on their own, and 77 per cent of them had received food. "This makes it clear how popular the scheme is among the people," the Chief Minister said.
Jayalalithaa had also ordered a vigorous implementation of the food-for-work programme. Under this scheme, canals, lakes and ponds in the villages were being desilted. Those who took part in this would get rice and cash as wages. Only those who could not go to work under this programme were to benefit from the meal scheme, she said.