Caste equations

Print edition : September 28, 2018

Vanniyars, a Most Backward Caste (MBC) group, and Dalit Parayars constitute about 80 per cent of the farming community in the districts of Kancheepuram, Tiruvannamalai, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri and Salem in Tamil Nadu where land is being acquired for a 277-km access-controlled expressway. They form 36 per cent and 28 per cent respectively of the total population in these districts.

Both communities are dependent on agriculture and are economically weak, though caste hierarchy largely keeps Dalits socially oppressed. The other important caste in these districts is Mudaliyar, members of which are mostly engaged in weaving and trade enterprises. They too hold land but not in significant numbers.

According to the statistical reports of the five districts for 2016-17, small and medium holdings of up to 0.5 hectare and 0.5 to 2 hectares remain largely with the Vanniyars, followed by Dalits. Large landholdings are few and far between and are disbursed among a small population of Vanniyars and other caste Hindu groups.

The Scheduled Caste (S.C.) and Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) populations that are involved in agriculture in these districts are significant. About 3.69 lakh Dalits and tribal people in Dharmapuri district share among themselves about 20,000 hectares of medium and small holdings, while in Tiruvannamalai, six lakh of their combined population hold 50,000 hectares of medium and small holdings. Kancheepuram’s Dalit population, 47 per cent of whom are engaged in agriculture, owns 39,870 hectares. Uthiramerur in the district, from where large tracts of land are being annexed, has a strong Dalit population of 32.6 per cent. Salem district’s 15.5 per cent Dalits and 3.5 per cent tribal people share 34,134 small and medium holdings among them. The farmers here depend on wells and borewells for irrigation and other purposes.

Nearly 75 per cent of the women in the rural pockets depend on farm and farm-related work for sustenance. Very few pockets receive river and dam water. A total of 1.85 lakh wells, both bore and tube, irrigate 1.42 lakh ha of land in Tiruvannamalai district alone, while in Kancheepuram, some 64,000 wells irrigate 42,000 ha. Salem has 1.13 lakh wells that irrigate 94,000 hectares of land. Dharmapuri, mainly a hill region, has fewer wells in comparison, with 30 per cent of the population in the district engaged in agriculture and related work. Borewell irrigation is unique for Salem where tapioca is grown on 7,326 ha, besides high-yielding coconut crop that produces 558 tonnes a year, the highest after Pollachi.

Tiruvannamalai district is the worst hit by the proposed project. The road will cut through Vandavasi, Chengam, Polur and Tiruvannamalai blocks, lapping up vast tracts of land. In 2006, the Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj declared the district as one of the most backward districts in the country and allocated special funds for its overall development.

A decade or so later, the district stands second in rice production after the Cauvery delta in the State. Government-run regulated markets recorded the arrival of 2,74,411 tonnes of paddy from 1.05 lakh hectares in 2017. Groundnut, pulses, millets and sugar cane are the other major crops of the district. It is the second largest producer of milk—2.43 lakh litres a day in the State. Almost half of the district population is engaged in agriculture and related works—21.42 per cent are engaged in agriculture and 28.37 per cent are agricultural labourers. Nearly 70 per cent of the population, Vanniyars and Dalits, lives in rural pockets. This profile is more or less similar for other districts too.

As Prof. S. Janakarajan, president of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studes, pointed out, land is the basic source of livelihood in Tamil Nadu. “It gives them food security, livelihood security and psychological security. How can one attach economic value to one’s livelihood needs, livelihood and psychological security? Therefore, even if economic compensation is given to the affected farmers, they will be psychologically very upset since for generations their dependence on agriculture is intensified and tied,” he said.

He added: “Do not forget that in Tamil Nadu over 80 per cent of holdings are small, marginal and poor. In most of the cases, farmers protect and prepare their lands with all kinds of soil nutrients. They groomed the land spread over generations. Who is going to pay for it? Their attachments to land can never be reduced to economic compensation. The affected are least respected.”

The project would also affect women who contribute to the agricultural economy of the five districts. Nearly 75 per cent of the women in these predominantly rural pockets depend on farm and farm-related works to sustain their income.


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