CHENNAI: Clean and whitewashed houses, a hunt for intricate rangoli designs, bustling markets, shops stocking sugar canes and jaggery — Pongal festivities are in full swing in most parts of the city. But farmers on the outskirts are gearing up for a not-so-sweet Pongal this year.
Courtesy: inadequate rains.
On a weekday evening, we boarded a bus to Mukundagiri, a village about 90 km from the city. On reaching Melmaruvathur, Jemburaj, a farmer-cum-cooperative bank official (retired) gave us a ride to the village. Driving through green fields and narrow lanes, Jemburaj laments, “There is a misconception among city folks about how green fields mean a good harvest season. It doesn’t.
By now, what you see should be yellow hulls, ready to be harvested during Pongal. But due to lack of rains, it has been delayed.”We stop in front of a small house laced with fodder for cows and dung. As we saunter inside, the backyard of the house opens to acres of farmland. A group of farmers gathers around us, and we sit in the middle of the field to find the ground reality.
“Pongal is just a few days away, but the celebration in the village is muted. Pongal is the day where we perform puja for the fields, for a good harvest, harvest the crops, use the grains to cook fresh Pongal and celebrate the day. But this year, I am afraid that none of it is going to happen,” rues Selvam.
Selvam, a father of two, also works as a school bus driver. “What I get in farming isn’t enough to run a family. The school fee for my children is Rs 25,000, how will I pay for it when there’s no profit in farming? Everyone in the village has a second job — painting, construction work, driving...farming feeds everyone in the country, except the farmer. That’s the reality,” he rues.
A 62-year-old Indrani has been working in the fields for five decades now. She talks to us while digging a groundnut field, “The labour charge has also shot up in the last year. From Rs 100 it has gone up to Rs 130, excluding food and accommodation. It has become hard to find dedicated people who will work in the field. But people of my age don’t know anything except farming. This is what I enjoy doing despite the hardships,” she smiles.
Her husband, a 70-something-old Subramanyam heaves fodder for the cattle and feeds them every day. “Our grandchildren are either working as daily wage labourers or studying. They take care of the farms when they get time. I don’t know what the future holds,” he says. Crops that don’t require excess water — groundnut, black gram, sesame and a few variants of rice are sown and cultivated in Mukundagiri. “This year, due to lack of rain, most farmers have cultivated the only groundnut. We are expecting close to zero profit this time,” says Jemburaj.
The average cultivation has been less than 50 per cent this year and issues in pricing pose as another problem for the 150 farming families in Mukundagiri. “If I am supposed to get Rs 1,000-2,000 for a quintal, I end up getting only Rs 850. We spend money on manure, irrigation and sometimes transportation. So, when the profit is less or scant, how can we recover the input cost?,” asks Jemburaj.
The mood in the village is sombre, but the annual cow race is something the farmers are looking forward to. “Due to unseasonal rainfall, we will start harvest only in March. So, our Pongal celebrations are going to be very simple. But we will all go to the cow race in the nearby town,” enthuses Selvam.
Eight-year-old Hemalatha, and 10-year-old Valli, carrying fodder for the cows, walk past us. “These children know everything about farming. But, we also know that they won’t take to this profession when they grow up as they have seen that there is hardly any profit against the huge investments,” says Jemburaj.“Engaluku vivasayam romba pudikum (We love farming). We will do this once we grow up mama,” announces Valli, and walks away. The others nod their head, smile bleakly and say, “We hope they do.”