“Everywhere she goes, she keeps asking ‘Seiveergala?’ (Will you do it?), but I ask her ‘Neenga Senjingala?’ (What did you do?) She is announcing farm loan waivers now, what did she do for five years?” booms MK Stalin on his campaign trail through the Cauvery-Delta district of Thanjavur. He then breaks into a song calling Jayalalithaa a liar.
Not far from Mannargudi’s Big Bazaar Street where Stalin is stoking the rancor against Jayalalithaa, an AIADMK-sponsored ad playing on a TV shows a farmer’s life being changed after Amma came to power in 2011. Amma has fought for the rights of Tamil farmers over the Cauvery issue, the voiceover says.
Much like elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, in the Cauvery Delta known to be the fertile, agricultural crown-jewel of Tamil Nadu, the campaigning from either side is mostly make-believe. The DMK wants farmers to believe that their lives are miserable and that the AIADMK is to blame for it, while the AIADMK comes with its bag of goodies and lists out scheme after scheme that it says has helped farmers.
The reality is closer to the DMK’s version, but farmers only know too well that both parties are responsible for their situation.
The anger on the ground is more than palpable, and farmers burst out in anger when asked of their situation. “She says that she has fought on the Cauvery issue, but where is the water? It is all on paper,” says Selvam, a small-time farmer who owns an acre of land in Palayankottai village near Mannargudi in Tiruvarur.
Jayalalithaa too has sensed this anger, and has announced a slew of freebies and schemes for farmers in her manifesto. But the DMK beat her to it, and is hoping that their message will reach the farmers.
However, even the freebies – like farm subsidies and free veshti-shirt and cash for Pongal - have done nothing to assuage the anger. “Did I ask for alms? Are we beggars to be given Rs 500 for Pongal or anything free? We want our rights, we are fighting for better prices, why are they not giving us that?” asks Mugilan, coordinator of the Tamil Nadu Farmer’s Federation.
The viral video of Balan, a farmer, being beaten up and dragged away from his tractor for not repaying his loan, has become the calling card of agitators and opposition politicians alike.
And it is this anger, along with the promises of waiving education loans and bringing in alcohol prohibition, which the DMK is banking on.
Of the very few seats which the DMK won in 2011 was Mannargudi, and their candidate was TRB Rajaa. Son of DMK veteran TR Baalu, Rajaa is contesting again from the constituency he has strong roots in. His accented Tamil betrays his Western education, but he has the boy-next-door image.
TRB Rajaa with MK Stalin
“Farmers have got nothing in the last five years. Debt is huge, and it is the AIADMK that created the debt,” he says, as I stand next to him on his campaign van on the trail. He smiles and waves at every person he can spot, and every time he hears a complaint from a voter, he tells them, “Keep this anger with you. Don’t let it go away, and use the anger on May 16. Vote for DMK,” he says.
But TRB Rajaa also faces an added complication – he is the incumbent MLA of the DMK during AIADMK rule. So he does the balancing act of defending his actions and claiming credit for successes, while blaming the AIADMK for the problems of the people. “I have brought in the stadium worth Rs 6 crore in Vaduvur, and the railway projects worth Rs 1500 crore, and this despite all the problems I faced from the ruling AIADMK,” he says.
His opponent is S Kamaraj, a candidate backed by the Sasikala cartel. He too is a man with roots in the community, owns local businesses supporting several villages and has good support among the marginalized castes. “He goes to every sad and happy event in every family,” says an AIADMK supporter. But TRB Rajaa is unfazed, and says his only opponent is Jayalalithaa.
The Delta has one too many agricultural problems – rising debt, agricultural land losing fertility, and industrial projects. However, the one threatening farmers the most is the rapidly depleting ground-water level, with the indiscriminately increasing use of bore-well pumps.
“There is not much the state can do on the Cauvery issue, but they can maintain and restore water bodies. This is a project which is waiting to be done, but the government has failed,” says K Nagaraj, agricultural expert and professor.
“In the last 5 years, the situation of farmers has definitely worsened,” he adds.
Nagaraj also points out that a lot of land is going out of agriculture. Mugilan agrees, and sees a conspiracy to uproot agriculture and use the fertile land for gas exploration and coal mining instead.
But on all these problems, it’s a ping-pong match between the DMK and the AIADMK.
Methane project? The AIADMK says the DMK signed the MoU, but the DMK says it was with conditions, and that they want it scrapped now but the AIADMK is not doing it.
Vanishing land for agriculture? The AIADMK says the DMK is full of land-grabbers; the DMK says the AIADMK has killed farming with its lack of policies and is just sitting on the problem.
Farm debt? The DMK and the AIADMK point fingers at each other, and both have announced farm loan waivers.
Alcohol abuse? The DMK says they were the first to announce full prohibition, and are to be trusted more, but the AIADMK has also promised it.
This has the farming community irritated. “Both have been in power, what did they do then?” asks Mugilan.
But will this popular anger work more against the AIADMK? With the Delta being its bastion, the DMK sure hopes it does.
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Farm Image: (CC by 2.0 Flickr - mckaysavage)