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Dire straits, dire ways

P Anima | Updated on March 10, 2018

Eaten by worry: The protests at Jantar Mantar have gained the farmers many unlikely supporters Image: V Sudershan   -  V_Sudershan

On their heads: The protests at Jantar Mantar have gained the farmers many unlikely supporters Image: Ramesh Sharma   -  v sudershan

Their mode of protest is intense and dramatic, but the farmers from Tamil Nadu are desperate to be heard in their hour of misery

It is Day 22. But not much has changed for the Tamil Nadu farmers staying put in Jantar Mantar — the Capital’s protest central — demanding loan waiver and drought relief. Most are weary and old. Days and nights on an unfamiliar street have taken a toll. About 40 of them took ill and left. New ones have come in their place.

Despite the odds, the farmers have kept their cause in the news. Protests are quotidian at Jantar Mantar. Veterans demanding One Rank One Pension are here for over a year. Others, living here for months, have merged with the milieu. The melee, though, is around the Tamil Nadu farmers. Television cameras circle them, reporters scurry for bytes, fellow farmers from elsewhere tend to them, politicians, activists, students and ordinary folk listen when they talk. Their unusual protest has gained them unlikely supporters. Every day, over the past three weeks, they have ritualistically presented their loss of dignity, as scanty rain in the region has drained their livelihood. Their heads half-tonsured, moustaches half-shaven, stripped to loincloth, they stood on their head, crawled on the road, held dead snakes and rats in their mouths, and protested with skulls that they claimed were of farmers who had killed themselves. Debt-ridden and water-starved, they left no one in doubt about what they have been reduced to.

The severity of the protest, they say, is not a patch on their misery. N Shanmughan, a farmer from Karur, has been at Jantar Mantar since the protest began on March 14. He met farmers from eight districts of Tamil Nadu at the venue. Over meals and free time, they heard each other’s stories. He shares one — of a farmer’s wife who set herself ablaze when officials arrived to impound her tractor after repeated loan default. “Her husband is here,” Shanmughan says. Dire plight, it appears, demands dire measures. Shanmughan has enough woes of his own. His 12-acre fields where he once grew sugar cane, paddy and practised sericulture are now swathes of fallow land. Drought has steadily destroyed his crops in the last four years and things have come to a head. “I grew tomatoes on three acres and they sold for as low as ₹3 a kg.” After he repeatedly defaulted on a ₹12-lakh loan, the bank recently auctioned the family’s jewellery worth nearly ₹5 lakh. He produces the notice and counterfoils of receipts from nationalised banks — “All of this is gone.” The family meets its daily needs selling the 20 litres of milk it gets from its cows. But his worry is his daughter, who has enrolled for a Master’s in agriculture. She did not get a loan since Shanmughan has defaulted. The soft-spoken farmer insists he will be at Jantar Mantar, sleeping on the streets and protesting, until those like him too get a waiver.

Soon though, there is some cheer. Moments ago, the Madras High Court extended waiver of loans from co-operative banks to farmers owning more than five acres.

Dinesh’s six-acre paddy field in Nalladisenai village, Tiruvannamalai, has long been empty. He banks on Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) work to see his family through. He has defaulted on his almost 10-year-old tractor loan and is desperate for a waiver. An active member of the South Indian River Interlinking Agriculturists Association, he has tonsured half of his head and shaved part of his moustache in protest. He reels out the number of times their representatives have met Union ministers for finance, agriculture and home. “There are petitions in the Supreme Court. We have given memorandums. Our loans are from nationalised banks and we want them waived,” he says. Though ministers have promised to look into the matter, they haven’t yet received a positive response. “I will stay here till I die,” Dinesh says defiantly.

Sixty-two-year-old Sadasivan introduces himself as the leader of the milk producers’ association from Tiruchirapalli. Nothing much grows on the three acres in which he once cultivated groundnut and millets. “Everything, including my wife’s thali, is in the bank,” he says. Ayyakkannu P, their leader, is busy giving bytes and holding meetings. “We are being treated as second-grade citizens,” he says. “But we will be here till our demands are met.”

The protest has drawn political leaders from across the spectrum. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi paid them a visit. So did the DMK working president MK Stalin. Members of the Aam Aadmi Party mingled with farmers even as Swami Agnivesh heard their demands. But the protest has also drawn in those who habitually steered clear of Jantar Mantar. Residents from the National Capital Region have taken care of the protesters’ needs. Koteswari and her mother-in-law Velumani know none of the protesting farmers. But the visuals from Jantar Mantar broke their heart. And the housewives from Gurugram knew they had to show their support. Koteswari hails from Gobichettipalayam, a once-scenic town that has metamorphosed into something she no longer recognises. “Gobichettipalayam had always been green. Not any more. I come from a family of agriculturists. The situation is bad; there is no water. Land is lying empty.” Velumani, quiet till now, asks in Tamil, “If the farmers do not have enough to eat, how can they work wholeheartedly?”

Published on April 07, 2017

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