Back to the Scorched Earth

Harsha Vadlamani
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A group of Tamil farmers made national headlines one year ago by kicking off a series of absurd protests in Delhi. V Shoba meets key characters from the landmark agitation who are back in their villages battling an unending farm crisis

It WAS A LITTLE after 9 pm when Pallavan Express pulled into Tiruchirappalli Junction. K Ramalingam was hungry-— the two-day journey from Delhi had been exhausting and there had been no time for lunch in Chennai—but he had only Rs 100 left in his pocket. The 45-km bus ride to Manapparai took an hour-and-a-half. At the town bus stand, where salesmen toted travel-size packs of the eponymous murukku with the rabid zeal of commercial writers peddling their latest holiday read, he bought a Rs 10 packet of biscuits for each of his two children, saving Rs 50 for petrol. The Bajaj M80 stood where he had parked it a month and a half ago. Under the starlit summer sky, the 15 km road to his village, passing through dark, desolate hamlets and dry paddies, did not, for once, seem to him a land crisscrossed by tragic stories. He was going home to a gutsy, hardworking wife, a son who was growing up to be quite the orator, and a daughter who played so much she often fell asleep before her father returned from the fields. We make that same journey with him tonight to Kaattayampatti, where the family lives on a five-acre farm with half a dozen goats, their glossy coats darker than the night, and the last of a herd of cows that they say is almost aware of its impending fate.

Ramalingam, 37, had left home in the second week of March 2017 to participate in the headline-grabbing 41-day protests by Tamil farmers in Delhi. Among the most dramatic agitations in the history of farmers’ movements in India, it was a reaction to the failure of the northeast monsoon in 2016. Over a hundred farmers from the Cauvery Delta districts of Tamil Nadu had tried their damndest, eating raw meat, stripping naked, playing dead and resorting to absurd protests to voice grievances including unsustainably low prices for their produce, creditor antipathy and not enough river water from Karnataka. “We stopped the protest after the Tamil Nadu chief minister duped us into believing that we will get unconditional farm loan waivers. But the Supreme Court ruled that only small and marginal farmers [with less than five acres] were eligible for waivers,” says Ramalingam, who later spent another 25 days in Delhi during the second, protracted, 100-day protest. Both protests were coordinated by advocate P Ayyakannu, president of the South Indian Rivers Inter-Linking Farmers Association. “We became a spectacle, but ultimately were treated like untouchables. We did not even get to meet Prime Minister Modi,” says Ramalingam, an Ayyakannu loyalist. (The two share the same caller tune—Uzhudhane Uzhudhane, a song about debt-trapped farmers by the late playback singer TM Soundarajan.) “The only thing we achieved with the protest was the groundswell of awareness it created among the common people about farmers’ plight.”

When Ramalingam returned from the agitation, with battered body and bruised ego, R Muthulakshmi, 34, cried her heart out and served his rasam and rice. The next day, Satyamoorthy, 11, and Bhavani, 10, did not go to school. The notoreity Ramalingam had gained in absentia had to be explained. “I could not tell them that we slashed our wrists, or that we were locked up in jail. They did watch us on TV wearing just loincloths and eating food off the ground, and I had to make them understand why we wore skulls of farmers who had lost their lives to mounting debt,” Ramalingam says. Half a dozen men snore away in their blankets across the length of the front yard, oblivious of the conversation and the bleating goats; others are asleep in the back of a truck parked to one side. Although it is almost midnight, Muthulakshmi is all smiles. Lakhs of devotees throng the festival underway at the Veerappur Kannimaaramman temple, about 5 km from here, where the men of this village have the honour of bearing the palanquin of the goddess and carrying it from a makeshift mandapam in the festival grounds in a procession to the temple. “The month of Masi is a happy time. We host guests even if we have to borrow to feed them. And it usually rains in this month—enough to sustain a crop of sugarcane. But this time, there is no sign of rain,” she says.

“When our crops failed, we worked as agricultural labourers. I have lived, fought and lost like a farmer. Now I want to put it all behind me” - R Rani, wife of V Radhakrishnan, who killed himself over an outstanding loan of Rs 50,000

Not much has changed for Ramalingam since the protests. He still has outstanding loans of Rs 12 lakh, and he has spent another Rs 1 lakh this year on 2.5 acres each of sugarcane and chana dal—both of which are at risk of drying up. “I will harvest the dal in a month but the sugarcane is not doing well. The water in the bore is down to three-quarters of an inch at 600 feet below. If the rains fail, I will have to sell the goats and the cow,” Ramalingam says. At 4 am, he, in a yellow jersey with a picture of Tamil freedom fighter VO Chidambaram Pillai, prostrates before the goddess, seated on a white elephant, before marching in step with a small army of palanquin bearers. The shambolic charm of shopping streets overflowing with rainbow-coloured sweets, of roughhewn theatre groups performing to audiences who can neither sleep nor stay fully awake, of the grounds resembling an upturned trashcan—the festival, with all its activity, cannot hope to match the charged energy of the “struggle” at Jantar Mantar. “I try to attend every farmers’ protest that I can. It is the least I can do to prevent banks from seizing tractors. In our neighbourhood, there are 150 tractors that have been pledged to banks and if they are sold off, at least 30 farmers will kill themselves,” he says. “If only Tamil youth had rallied behind farmers the way they did for jallikattu, our voice would be louder today.”

For 54-year-old R Rani’s husband, it was already too late. On February 10th, 2017, V Radhakrishnan, 58, killed himself in a field a couple of kilometres from their home in Appanallur near Musiri in Tiruchirappalli district. With creditors knocking on his door— Rani alleges fraud by the cooperative society—he could not bear the disgrace of not repaying his farm loan, a mere Rs 50,000. “We were a respected family. We never fought once. We attended protests together. The crops failed three years in a row because of the borewells drying up and no rain. Even the corn planted for fodder came up stunted—it was two feet high when he died,” says Rani, a limpid-faced, softspoken woman who now manages a provision store in Musiri. It is Sunday and a constant stream of customers asking for eggs, Hamam soap, tobacco and detergent keeps her on her toes. She is still on trainer wheels, fumbling with the change and consulting price tags like a teenager on her first job. She has had to scarf down her breakfast—tamarind rice packed by one of her three daughters-in-law—and ask her brother S Vijayakumar, who was gracious enough to set up the store for her a month ago, for help with sourcing materials. Two of her sons manage the five-acre family farm and run a dairy business, and the third is employed at an ATM. “When our crops failed, we worked as agricultural labourers. I have lived, fought and lost like a farmer. Now I want to put it all behind me,” she says. “I am hoping I can make Rs 2,000 a month here, and give any profit we earn over and above that to my brother.”

“Men scolded me at the protest. My family called and said, ‘Don’t shame us.’ But I jumped over railings, I did whatever the men did and more” - M Manimegalai, the only woman to stay on for the entire duration of the 41-day protest in Delhi

Watching Rani try to reclaim her life from her intractable past, it is hard to imagine her as the farm widow holding her husband’s skull and declaiming her demands at Delhi’s theatre of protest. “When Ayyakannu asked me to join the first protest, I refused. It had not even been a month since my husband’s death. In the 100-day protest, I stayed put in Delhi for 92 days,” she says. She had only prepared for a 10-day visit—packing four saris and homemade snacks for the road—but a sense of social responsibility kept her going. The callused feet and the hunger pangs kept it real, she says, and helped her shed the ethereal stereotype of a disconsolate farm widow. “My sons were angry and worried. But I wanted to be part of this movement to show the world why my husband did not have to die,” she says. “I did not want to be one of those people watching ships pass by from the safety of the shore.” Her face still draws curious glances when we take the 8.35 pm bus with her from Musiri to Kolakkudi at the end of the day’s work. “We saw her on TV, and we were so proud. Can you imagine living on the street for a hundred days for a husband who is no more?” says Rani’s mother-in-law Pennachi Ammal, 80, as we sip tea in their bright courtyard, watching the inky black night wander into the shadows. “People ask me if I got paid for going to Delhi. The only financial assistance I have been offered is by actor Abi Saravanan, who has promised to contribute towards expanding the store, maybe even adding a fridge,” Rani says. “A part of my loan has been waived off, but I still have to pay back Rs 75,000.”

MANY WHO WENT to the capital were accused of being charlatans in the guise of farmers, rues C Palanisamy, 65, who spent 105 days in Delhi, leaving P Silambai, 49, behind with their two college-going sons. Their eldest son is employed as an incubator service engineer in Chennai. At the threshold of an old house in Sadavelampatti, a time-worn village near Thuvarankurichi in Tiruchirappalli district, Palanisamy breaks open tender coconuts with a machete. “The way we cut a coconut is not straightforward, right? We chip pieces off the top and make a small hole to drink from. The Modi Government has been doing the same— taking small sips of farmers’ problems by deflecting the big issues. And we are the most populous category in India’s workforce,” he says. Silambai is more direct. “The enormous load of work that we do on our land has given me backpain [caused by lumbar disc prolapse], but the lack of any sort of income from the toil is what killed my brother,” she says. Her 36-year-old brother, P Balusami, killed himself at his residence in Pudukkotai district a year ago, leaving his wife and three children with nothing but a pile of debt and his mother’s old age pension. Silambai’s efforts to reclaim some of her sister-in-law’s pawned-off jewellery have been in vain. “There is never enough money—we subsist on nearly-free rice and whatever grows on the farm,” she says. Her monthly income of Rs 4,000 from working as a supervisor at the midday meal programme in a village nearby is ploughed back into the farm, only to dry up.

“Where there is sharp discontent among the people, movements are the only way, however much we may intellectualise it” - P Ayyakannu, president of the South Indian Rivers Inter-Linking Farmers Association

On the terrace, a couple of kilos of horsegram dry in the afternoon blaze. It is all that they have to show for an acre of crop, Palanisamy says. Their coconut plantation of over 150 trees, of which many stand bare and stunted, their tops lopped off by winds of chance, is where he comes to reminisce about Delhi, a city where people eat dry food and speak a dry language, he jokes. “I know a lot of our protests were based on intuition rather than logic,” he says. Cultural references were often lost in translation, but unyielding self-dramatisation seemed to be the only way to finagle the media’s attention. “It didn’t matter so much to us if we were understood; we wanted to be noticed. It had not occurred to us that fame did not guarantee results.”

His cousin and neighbour, M Manimegalai, better known as Nachamma, was an implacable activist in Delhi, braving sidelong appraisals and questions about her ‘character’ to sit in protest in a green inskirt. “Men scolded me. My family called and said, ‘Don’t shame us.’ But I jumped over railings, I did whatever the men did and more,” says the 58-year-old, walking us through her mango orchards, occasionally stopping to pick ripe elantha pazham off the litter of leaves on the ground. The only woman to protest all 41 days starting March 14th last year, she is shunned by her husband, her sons and daughters-in-law and lives and works at Hamsavalli Hotel, a small restaurant with a thatched roof where she washes dishes and chops vegetables. “My family has five acres under chilli but there is very little water,” she says, as her daughter-in-law P Meenakshi, 32, smiles obligingly. She is cutting channels into the hard ground so water from the borewell, which flows feebly into a tarpaulin tub—for the benefit of the family livestock—and from there to the fields via a pipe, can drain well. “My husband doesn’t work and now the children run the farm, I just tend to the fruit trees. I wish I could put a roof over my head one day. Working at the restaurant doesn’t pay much—just Rs 100 a day and that too not every day,” Nachamma says. In a sense, she admits, Jantar Mantar set her free from the prison of her family life. “We became the faces of a greater good. Like MGR and Jayalalithaa, only much poorer,” she jokes. Palanisamy and Nachamma say they will go wherever Ayyakannu takes them—their next soujourn being a padayatra covering all the districts of Tamil Nadu.

A former divorce lawyer, P Ayyakannu, 68, is incessantly ironic. The face of the farmers’ movement that made India sit up and take note last year, he knows the fraught inner workings of government, and isn’t afraid to curl like a whispering river around hillocked issues. And yet, there is vanity in him, as he constantly tests his associates’ fealty, calling someone an idiot, and another a police informant—to their face. “There are two ways for a farmer. Either struggle together until all our demands are fulfilled. Or if you have a mangalsutra or a piece of land, sell it and pay off your debts. You have to choose one way,” he tells a couple of dithering farmers. Like overlapping characters from a well-conceived piece of theatre, men in green scarves tail him reverentially at a farmers’ grievances meeting at the Tiruchirappalli Collectorate, where he negotiates a settlement from Collector K Rajamani towards a crop insurance scheme. Later, a handful of them follow him home, a house set in a copse of fruit trees, with the patio serving as a slapdash conference room littered with leaflets, newspapers, wedding invites, and journals with meticulous entries on the visitors of the day. Ayyakannu is hooked to his phone, never missing a call, his face rumpled as he debunks a journalist’s latest canard about sugarcane prices, accepts congratulations for the release on bail of a fresh bunch of protesters who were prematurely arrested in Delhi and Nizamuddin, and listens to thick descriptions of a criminal case against a farmer and his family. Cobbling together a force of tens of thousands of farmers is like playing a well-conceived piece of music. Things still go wrong. “We will continue fighting, even if the crowds thin. There were over 300 people at the beginning of the 100-day protest, but not even half were left on the 100th day,” he says. “Where there is sharp discontent among the people, movements are the only way, however much we may intellectualise it.”

The seige of Jantar Mantar often felt like a holiday in a town square, says E Kamaraj, a 61-year-old from Ammangudi, near Kolakkudi in Tiruchirappalli district. “I was so excited to join the protest that I harvested the sesame in a rush at 6 am, threw it in a heap and caught the train to Chennai. In Delhi, we talked strategies every morning—how to source bones and skulls, catch rats and snakes for meat, paint ourselves red,” says Kamaraj, a permanent fixture at Jantar Mantar for nearly every day the protests lasted. While he was raising his fists to the sky, his absence weighed heavy on his wife Manimegalai, 47, who carried on a struggle of her own back at their six-acre farm. The chana dal crop failed, so she planted corn for fodder in July. It dries in the fields now. A crop of urad has come up well, but weeding has taken a lot of her time. “I doused myself in cool water in the morning and kept working till half an acre was de-weeded. Labour is expensive and not thorough,” she says, calling out to her goats as darkness creeps over the countryside. Under her right arm, she clutches a basket with drumstick picked for next morning’s sambar, and balls of green fodder for the goats. She is hungry, she says, and she hopes her daughter, Sheila, has cooked dinner. The house is large and as-yet-unfinished, an entire room filled with pamphlets and newpaper cuttings from Kamaraj’s defining stint in Delhi. Over plump kuzhi paniyaram (a savoury made of dosa batter), and ginger coffee, K Sheila, a second-year B Com student, says the responsibility of supervising construction fell upon her shoulders when her father left abruptly. “I fought a lot with him. My two brothers had just got their first jobs, and they couldn’t be expected to take charge of the house. Father just didn’t listen. What have they achieved with their protest?” she says. “We had to sell a couple of goats to meet the needs of the family, and there is also an outstanding loan of Rs 6 lakh taken for constructing the house.”

P Palanivel, a 60-year-old farmer from Kulithalai, about 40 km from Tiruchirappalli, says the movement was not for nothing. “We created widespread awareness about Tamil farmers for the first time in Independent India,” he says. “Eighty per cent of the area in the Delta districts is supposed to be under paddy, but we haven’t had a single good crop in 10 years. Growing smaller grains is not viable here—there is shortage of labour. Most of all, agricultural prices haven’t kept pace with rising costs: eight grams of gold cost Rs 120 in 1970 and Rs 24,000 in 2017, whereas a 60-kg sack of rice which cost Rs 40 back them is worth only Rs 900 now.” Despite the language gap, Palanival hopes that Tamil farmers can keep such hard-hitting facts flushing through the capillaries of the nation. “It is a war without a victor. But we must keep fighting,” he says.