“Some years ago, this one acre of land was rich with fine pepper and coffee. But the new owner is not doing any type of cultivation. I sold the land when I was in deep financial crisis,” says Jose Kalapurakkal, a middle-aged farmer in Thannitheruvu village here in Wayanad, pointing to the presently-barren land.
One can find several farmers in Wayanad who have a similar story to tell.
The deepening crisis of small property holders in agriculture in the once cash-rich agrarian panchayats in Wayanad is becoming synonymous with the alienation of land held by the small farmers. Panchayats like Pulpally, Mullankolly, Noolpuzha, Tholpetty, Thavinjal and Thirunelly were once vibrant with several types of agrarian activities.
It was very difficult to find barren land in these panchayats. But with crisis-ridden farmers selling their properties, new forms of absentee landlordism are emerging in these regions.
Field inputs say that specificity of absentee landlordism varies in different regions, even though it is woven by a larger story of exploitation and dispossession. “The dangerous fluctuation of prices of pepper and coffee and increasing cost of cultivation made several farmers in this region migrate to neighbouring districts in Karnataka to do ginger cultivation. Some of them succeeded, but many failed tragically. “Some committed suicide while others like me were forced to sell their agricultural land in Wayanad,” he says, recalling the dreadful deaths of two of his farmer friends who jumped into Hemavati River in Moodigiri taluk, Chikmagalur district, after a furious flood in the Hemavati destroyed their year-long labour and other productive investments.
Prakash Gagarin, local leader of the All-India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), says that an organised land mafia operates to corner land owned by farmers who are in distress.
“The crisis is deep-rooted in Pulpally and Mullankolly panchayats. When farmers were doing well, senior officials from regional offices of mainstream banks used to come to Pulpally to offer agricultural loans. They used to plead with farmers to increase their business. But now, banks, violating RBI guidelines, are not offering loans.
“ To repay the massive debts, farmers are forced to sell their land at a meager price,” he says.
A drive through the towns in these regions shows that increasing number of private money-lending establishments, which are actively connected to the land mafia, are the only thriving business. The parasitic money-lending class which usurps prime agricultural land treats it as a speculative asset.
The decline of farming activities is also evident in the closure of local cinema talkies which catered to a large number of Tamil Dalit agricultural labourers who have migrated to their home districts. “The worst hit are those households which do not have even a single member with a government job or decently-paying private sector job,” says K M Thomas, a small farmer. “We rely on private money lenders. But are forced to use this loan to pay off the earlier debts and, hence, productive activities are lessened. To tackle emergencies, we are compelled to sell our land,” he adds.