It was a shocking sight that awaited political leaders who reside in Lutyen's Delhi on Tuesday morning. Dressed in loin cloths and dhotis, 174 farmers from Tamil Nadu stood outside the residence of former Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma, while women were wearing only their petticoat. The objects in the hands of the agitators however, lead to even more attention. While some of these men and women carried begging bowls made of clay, the others carried skulls of dead farmers.
These farmers from Trichy, Karur and Thanjavur belonged to the Desiya Thenidhiya Nathigal Inaippu Vivasayigal Sangam. They had arrived at the Delhi station at 8am on Tuesday morning and immediately left to protest outside the Prime Minister's 7 Lok Kalyan Marg residence. They were, however, stopped well ahead by authorities. They had left Tamil Nadu on March 12, with three demands for the centre.
Their protests, fuelled a by spate of farmer suicides caused by one of the worst droughts the state has faced in 140 years.
"Over 400 farmers have died in Tamil Nadu because our crops have failed," says Iyyakannu, the Tamil Nadu chief of the Desiya Thenidhiya Nathigal Inaippu Vivasayigal Sangam. "The state has given us Rs 3000 each. How is that enough to make up for the losses we have faced? We have mortgaged all our jewellery. We have nothing but our lives left," he argues.
"We have come with these bowls to indicate that we have been reduced to beggars and have taken off our shirts to show we have nothing left. These are the skulls of farmers who have committed suicide in Tamil Nadu. This is to show the Modi Government that the Centre's failure to help and provide drought relief is killing us all," Iyyakannu told TNM angrily.
In January, the National Human Rights Council had issued a notice to the Tamil Nadu government regarding continuing farmer deaths in the state. According to a Livemint report, the notice said, “The National Human Rights Commission has taken suo motu cognizance of media reports regarding the deaths of 106 farmers during a period of one month in Tamil Nadu which it considers as a matter of concern."
A month later, Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami, sanctioned the release of a Rs 2,247-crore package for drought-hit farmers. According to media reports, farmers who depend on irrigation for their crop were to get Rs 5,465 per acre while those who depend on seasonal rain would get Rs 3,000 per acre.
"We have come with these bowls to indicate that we have been reduced to beggars and have taken off our shirts to show we have nothing left. These are the skulls of farmers who have committed suicide in Tamil Nadu. This is to show the Modi government that the Centre's failure to help and provide drought relief is killing us all," he said angrily.
The farmers, however, were not allowed to carry on their agitation in the pivotal part of the capital for too long. After noon, around 50 policemen, reportedly made them board two buses and said they will be taken to Jantar Mantar where they can continue their agitation. "We got permission from the Madras High Court to carry out these protests," claims Iyyakannu, unable to restrain his sobs. "They forcibly removed us from the road. How much more will we be made to suffer?" he asks.
On March 10, Agriculture Minister Radha Ram Mohan Singh had said in the Rajya Sabha that "substantial financial assistance would be given to Tamil Nadu for tackling the drought situation in the state.” He said a central team had visited Tamil Nadu to assess the drought situation. The team, he said, has submitted its report, which will be taken up at a meeting of the high-level committee soon. The state government, meanwhile, has submitted a memorandum seeking assistance of Rs 39,565 crore from NDRF for drought relief.
These farmers, however, allege that the Centre's delayed response will worsen the situation back home. "How long will our families survive with no income?" asks a Premkumar, a farmer from Trichy. "The Centre must think of the ordinary farmer's livelihood. We have three demands and these include - immediate release of funds as compensation for crop loss, a pension scheme where farmers over 60 years of age get Rs 5000 each and writing off of loans taken by farmers from banks," he explains.
The agitators now claim that till their demands are met, they will not go back to their hometowns. "We will stay in Delhi for however long it takes. We will sleep on the pavements, we have nothing left to go to anyway. Bank authorities insult and abuse us because we are unable to pay our loans. We will die here to show the Central Government the reality of our plight," says Iyyakannu.