Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad today: Farmers, Adivasis offer Congress chief chance to show he can fulfil poll promises
Wayanad farmers bear the brunt of the free-trade treaties that the successive Union governments have signed with various countries and regional partners. It has opened the door for cheap farm produces, especially spices, from these countries resulting in a price crash.
Farmers and Adivasis, the two major segments of Wayanad population, are the most worried groups even though they together form a formidable 40 percent of voter base in the constituency
Wayanad farmers bear the brunt of the free-trade treaties that the successive Union governments have signed with various countries and regional partners
Connectivity is another problem for this landlocked hilly district. There is no rail connectivity in the five of seven Assembly segments in Wayanad Lok Sabha Constituency which spreads over three revenue districts of Wayanad, Malappuram, and Kozhikode
Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, who recently announced his candidature from two seats — Amethi in Uttar Pradesh and Wayanad in Kerala — is expected to visit the southern constituency on Thursday to file his nomination papers. In Wayanad, Rahul will be greeted not just by the ecstatic mob of Congressmen alone, but a motley crowd of grim-faced farmers and Adivasis as well.
Farmers and Adivasis, the two major segments of Wayanad population, are the most worried groups even though they together form a formidable 40 percent of voter base in the constituency. Farmers are the hapless victims of climate change attaining monstrous forms, blood sucking public and private money lenders, free fall of produces' price, straying wild beasts and a slew of other problems.
Life of Adivasis has reached a dead end. Alienation from their land, a dearth of safe housing, lack of clean drinking water, insufficient food, lack of proper healthcare, inefficient education system, and the list goes on. Wayanad is the largest tribal settlement in Kerala.
Both farmers and Adivasis hoping to see a saviour in Rahul. The problems in the constituency will not disappear overnight under Rahul, but the Congress claims that Kerala offers the party chief an opportunity to prove that he is able to deliver what he promises, as he claims at his public meetings.
Farmers of Wayanad and what they expect from Rahul
Wayanad farmers are the descendants of landless Christian farmers from Central Kerala who moved in masses with families from to Wayanad in search of land in the early decades of the last century. Each family bought a large piece of land for peanuts from upper caste Hindu landlords or simply grabbed lands of tribal people. In either case, the indigenous peoples were pushed further into the forest.
Braving several odds — biting cold, marauding wild beasts and several diseases — they changed the virgin land into fertile farmland. Their posterity reaped a bumper harvest of their toil and made fortunes from the big prices fetched their spices. The generations’ endurance and hard work have changed the economical-cultural-political destiny of the land. With a money might and a large slice, nearly 21 percent of the population, they have emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the constituency. But unprecedented crises being faced by the farm sector has cast a shadow over their lives.
Wayanad farmers bear the brunt of the free-trade treaties that the successive Union governments have signed with various countries and regional partners. It has opened the door for cheap farm produces, especially spices, from these countries resulting in a price crash. For instance, pepper which fetched Rs 1,250 per kg two years ago, is now offered at Rs 350. Incidentally, Wayanad is heartland for pepper farming in the country.
Similarly, coffee, another major spice produced by the district is sold at Rs 50 per kg which used to be sold at Rs 120-150 earlier.
Farmers can hardly withstand the price crash as they have designed their lifestyle based on the high-end prices of the commodities they produce. As income falls, they struggle to make both ends meet.
"We have linked our lives with higher prices of commodities. We take bank loans on the basis of it. When the price crashes or crops fail, we are in deep trouble. There is hardly any farmer who hasn't availed loans. All are under debt and banks and private lenders are after these farmers threating them to either settle their dues or face the inevitable (confiscation of landed properties which are the collateral security against the loan). This will drive many to suicide. Only a revisit of the policy can save Wayanad farmers," said award-winning farmer Shaji NM of Sultan Bathery, a municipal town in Wayanad.
Sixty-two-year-old farmer Balakrishnan killed himself recently. A native of Thirunelli village, Balakrishnan committed suicide as he had no money to repay a loan of Rs 7 lakh. It is the sixth such incident since the devastating floods hit Kerala in 2018 September. At least 9,000 farmers are facing revenue recovery as they have failed to repay the loan. Majority of them have hardly any income from farming.
Even before recovering from the devastation inflicted by the floods, the area is now reeling under acute drought. All rivers and other water bodies have dried up. Standing crops, including pepper vines, are wilting fast. As most parts of the district are the rain-fed areas, Wayanad is extremely prone to drought. The main cash crops in the area — pepper and coffee — are highly climate-sensitive and even a small change in nature will affect their growth and yield.
"Once, Wayanad was cool round the year. It drizzled even in mid-summer. It is just a memory now. Massive deforestation, levelling of hills by land sharks and illegal construction by tourism mafia have inflicted irreparable damage to Wayanad's climate. If the Madhav Gadgil report was accepted and implemented, the climate condition would not have been so severe. The situation can be addressed only by adding more green cover and checking the illegal human intervention on the land," said Binu George, Wayanad bureau chief of Mangalam, a leading Malayalam daily and a native of Wayanad.
Since farmlands and forest are overlapping each other in Wayanad, farmers are facing threat to life, cattle and standing crops from straying wildlife, including elephants and big cats. Many farmers have abandoned farming as they are not able to protect their crops from stray wild animals.
Connectivity is another problem for this landlocked hilly district. There is no rail connectivity in the five of seven Assembly segments in Wayanad Lok Sabha Constituency which spreads over three revenue districts of Wayanad, Malappuram, and Kozhikode. Two lines – Thalassery-Mysore and Nilambur-Nanjangud — are proposed and the preliminary survey of the two lines has been completed. The most feasible one will be selected. Since the line will pass through the reserve forests in Kerala and Karnataka, getting the Environmental Ministry clearance will be a big challenge.
Rail connectivity is a must for Wayanad. If the arterial Mysore-Sultan Bethery-Kalpetta-Kozhikdoe National Highway is shut, moving in and out of Wayanad by road is almost impossible. Thamarassery Churam, a mountain pass across the Western Ghats, on the road at the southern end of Wayanad district is especially prone to landslip during the Monsoon season that lasts for six-seven months in a year.
Wayanad is under severe pressure to extend the road networks to more areas but it is not an easy process since road construction in the area also needs forest clearance. For any infrastructural development, forest clearance is the main bottleneck. Only with the active intervention of the Centre, the projects get clearance. A good section of voters believes that Rahul could be helpful to them.
The area is devoid of centres providing advanced medical care. The biggest hospital in the constituency is the government hospital at district headquarters in Kalpetta. The nearest super-speciality hospital is in Kozhikode which is 75 km from Kalpetta and at least 120 km from other nearby villages. The government had started constructing a medical college in Wayanad, but the project was abandoned because it was being constructed at the ecologically-sensitive area.
Tribal population of Wayanad
Wayanad is home to over 12 tribal communities and they account for over 20 percent of the total population in the constituency. Despite this, they cannot emerge as a strong vote bank. Two Assembly segments in the Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency are reserved for Adivasi candidates.
Alienation of land, lack of housing and education for their children are the main problems for the Adivasis in the constituency, says Ramakrishnan, a tribal activist in Wayanad. Ramakrishnan claims that Adivasi voters constitute 25 percent of the total electorate in the constituency.
He said that Rahul is not fully unfamiliar with Wayanad. He had visited the area earlier for campaigning for P K Jayalakshmi, who he had handpicked to contest from Mananthavady (ST) Assembly Constituency in the 2011 Assembly election. She, belonging to Kurichya tribal community, won the seat and became Youth Affair and Scheduled Tribe Welfare Minister in the Oommen Chandy government.
Ramakrishnan said that he believes that Rahul has a general idea about the present state of affairs of Adivasis in Wayanad. And if a government in which he has a say comes into power, he may take initiative to improve their life. "But the problem is who will present their case before him. I don’t think that any politician will take the task," Ramakrishnan said
Wayanad District Congress Committee (DCC) president I C Balakrishnan, MLA, said that the Congress president has chosen Wayanad as his second constituency after having studied it thoroughly. "So, he is well aware of all the serious issues and problems being faced by the constituency. I have no doubt that he will come out with the solution for each issue with the help of the best experts in the respective fields."’’
Balakrishnan, who is an Adivasi himself, earnestly believes that Wayanad has given Rahul a chance to prove that he is a leader who delivers what he promises to people. He argued against allegations that Rahul is a total failure when it comes to development front in Amethi. In his opinion, it is nothing but a campaign being carried out by the ruthless Rahul bashers.
"I have visited Amethi several times being a member of the legislative committee and in other capacities. My inference is that Rahul has taken a lot pain to implement various projects that could improve the lives of people in the area." Balakrishnan added that Rahul has been marked by the BJP and that is why funds and decisions are purposely delayed. "They are propagating across the country that he is leader who is not capable of delivering what he promises," Balakrishnan added.
The DCC chief promised that there will be a system in place to translate Rahul's "dream for Wayanad" into reality. There will be a dedicated group comprising Congressmen and members of other constituents in the United Democratic Front (UDF) for each segment to implement the projects. The implementation will be monitored and evaluated at various levels frequently. Rahul will be informed regularly. The participation of local self-government will be ensured in the whole process.
"We have done the spadework and the final shape will be given after the election," Balakrishnan said. "Here people are politically literate. They will air their woes and demands. The ubiquitous and strong media will amplify them. So politicians cannot sit idle. They have to work and deliver."
Expectations are mountain high, but one will have to wait and see if Rahul will pull a rabbit out of the hat.
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