Picture this: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami is on his way to Orathur in Nagapattinam to lay the foundation stone of a medical college. His convoy is passing through the agricultural fields in Tiruvarur district when he sees a group of labourers transplanting paddy seedlings in Siddhamalli village. He asks the car to stop, gets down, folds his veshti (dhoti), enters the ankle deep slush in the field, greets the workers, bends down and joins them in transplanting the paddy seedlings. Transplantation done, he cleans up and moves on, making a big impression on the workers, politicians and officials.
This could well be the defining image of the ‘son of the soil’ whose roots lie in the farmlands of Samalapuram village in Tiruppur before he entered politics. Palaniswami’s recent “field visit” where he planted paddy saplings had a positive influence on agriculturists. By doing so, he hopes to slowly position himself as a farmers’ leader in the crucial pre-election year. Remember how Prime Minister Narendra Modi leveraged on Mani Shankar Aiyar’s chaiwala comment? Modi made it a nationwide talking point with his chai pe charcha shows. Palaniswami is sending out the son of the soil vibes, contrasting it with the urban upbringing of the “rising son”, M K Stalin of the DMK.
Palaniswami started wooing the farm sector late last year, when he asked the agriculture department to devise a network of farmers on a digital platform. Creation of mobile applications like Vivasaai and Uzhavan and a portal, e-thottam, were to help farmers directly sell their produce, be aware of climatic conditions, know the stock of seeds and fertilisers and get information on crop maintenance. It is learnt that over 4.5 lakh farmers have downloaded the apps. The shift became more pronounced on a cool February evening, when he declared the Cauvery Delta as a protected special agriculture zone. In one sweep, he not only won over the farmers who had been protesting against hydrocarbon projects, but also put his critics on the backfoot. For, he had often been criticised for being too soft on the Modi government as he had allowed oil project studies, approved and backed by the Centre, in the Delta region.
The announcement also came at a time when the farm sector was expecting a good samba season following last year’s bountiful rains. The chief minister said the decision would ensure food security in the state that had been threatened by ecologically-devastating footprints of hydrocarbon projects in this zone. Effectively, Pudukottai, Cuddalore, Thanjavur, Ariyalur, Karur, Tiruchy, Tiruvarur, and Nagapattinam will be out of bounds for non-agricultural projects. The decision got legislative sanction 10 days later. Agriculture comes with multiple corollaries like seasonal dependencies, fluctuating yield and unpredictable market. Politically, the protected zone promise was on the election manifestos of both the DMK and the AIADMK. The ruling party had the first mover’s advantage, using which it tripped the Opposition. Economically speaking, the CM aimed to strike a balance between agriculture and industry, resetting the pro-industry image he had acquired when he went on a tour to the West and the Gulf to draw investment. The focus on agriculture is necessary to rejuvenate the sector that has often been taken for granted.
On the social landscape, the announcement that agro-based industries will be permitted is likely to quell protests by farmers and environment activists in the region. And the Rs 1,022-crore Advanced Institute for Integrated Research in Livestock and Animal Science to be set up in Salem are expected to strengthen the dairy and poultry sectors. In his letter to the PM, Palaniswami had said, “The negative aspect of these projects outweighs advantages claimed by the proponents.” Though the legislation has a lot of questions that need answers, at least a beginning has been made where farmers can do what they know best without worrying about their loss of land.
(Subhashini Dinesh is Deputy Resident Editor, Tamil Nadu email@example.com)