Political wisdom with the right perspective from rural folk, I have found most times, is the best. Sample this from M Subbayan in Tiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu, 360 kilometres from Chennai.
"Over 270 farmers have died in Tamil Nadu since October but no one cares. We asked for Rs 25,000 as compensation per acre. They gave us Rs 5,465 per acre. Today, for one vote in the RK Nagar by-election, we hear they are giving Rs 15,000. This is democracy. When votes are available for sale, why would they care for us?" asks Subbayan.
He knew all about what was happening in RK Nagar, thanks to his friends in Chennai. Even if they did not tell him, Subbayan would know: Because you cannot find a single MLA or an AIADMK leader of consequence in any district. Everyone is camping in Chennai, having been made in charge of streets and lanes of RK Nagar, to ensure TTV Dinakaran wins.
In effect, there are two Tamil Nadus today. RK Nagar and the rest of the state. The countryside is reeling under the worst drought in 140 years. The statistical shocker aside, the optics of a Tamil Nadu withering away is only too obvious to anyone who steps out of Chennai. No longer are the people in rural Tamil Nadu crying out for water for irrigation, this summer they only want drinking water.
What makes it worse is the feeling of humiliation. The fact that 150 of their brethren, dressed in no more than a loincloth are protesting since mid-March at Jantar Mantar is household news in these parts. They are aghast that their protest has not moved the powers-that-be in Delhi enough. This, despite every attempt to catch media and public attention by clutching rats and snakes in their mouth, shaving off half their heads and moustaches. All they are asking for is their legitimate share of Cauvery water and a loan waiver.
But there is immense gratitude for what the farmers are doing in Delhi. In Thanjavur, I meet Karthikeyan, whose brother Ganesan died in January after his paddy crop dried up on his four acres of land, leaving him gaping at a debt of Rs 2.75 lakh. Kartikeyan says the Centre's don't care attitude will mean the next generation will not touch farming with a barge pole in Tamil Nadu.
"With great difficulty, those few farmers went to Delhi. If a farmer does not work even for a single day, it is loss of money for his family. These farmers have sacrificed their income and gone in the hope that the government will help,'' says Kartikeyan.
Not everyone shares Kartikeyan's optimism. Karnan's wife, Manimeghalai, who helped him on the farm, reached for the noose on the intervening night of 18 and 19 January. This was after their crop on 2 acres of land, on which the couple had sown paddy and pulses, dried up. She simply awoke at midnight, let the goat loose and used that rope to hang herself from a tree outside their hut.
Karnan lives in Tiruvarur, which is former chief minister M Karunanidhi's constituency. I ask him if he voted for the DMK. He nods. But farmers have been trained to believe their job is only to vote and not to expect anything in return. When he goes to attend protest meetings, he hears leaders berating Karnataka for not releasing Cauvery water. The more distanced the villain of the story, the more remote are the chances, farmers like Karnan believe, they will get any help.
The loan documents and reminders from banks are a burden of despair. It weighs down Anthony Ammal, whose 42-year-old husband Anthony Das collapsed on the field in Nagapattinam district, leaving behind a loan of Rs 4 lakh on the family's head. Every piece of jewellery the family owned has either been sold or pawned with the moneylender. Anthony Ammal fights back her tears as her three children look on. Helplessness is a constant in these parts.
"The moneylender comes and makes a noise. Even last Sunday, he came and created a ruckus. I said I will try to return it,'' says Anthony Ammal. She has the responsibility of her elderly mother-in-law and mentally handicapped sister-in-law as well. The moneylender's threats and abuse in the presence of neighbours reduces self-respect to a stranger.
Anthony Ammal's two daughters have already been pulled out of private school and put in to a government school. When crisis knocks at the door, quality education for the girl child is the first casualty. Anthony Ammal's dry 2.5 acres, even if she wants to sell, won't fetch a buyer. With no water in the Cauvery and the Northeast monsoon failing in 2016, the land in rural Tamil Nadu has no takers in the realty market.
Since farmers are at the forefront of the agitation, the mistake governments, civil society and the media make is to treat it only as an agrarian crisis in the narrow sense. It is a rural crisis to which a serious lack of governance has contributed in a significant measure.
"There is nothing more disgraceful for a country that even in this day and age, people are so desperate that they are forced to take extreme measures,'' says Jayaprakash Narayan, Founder of Foundation for Democratic Reforms. "What is the farmer's biggest expenditure outside of agricultural operations? It is on health care and education. Officially, you have free education but why are the poorest people from rural areas compelled to spend lot of money on private schooling? Because the government has abdicated its responsibility and the people no longer believe that the government needs to provide quality education free of cost. Likewise, no one believes that quality healthcare will be available at a government health facility.''
The contrast hits you the moment you step into RK Nagar. Where free money and TASMAC liquor flow 24x7. The run up to the by-election on 12 April is like festival time as political parties convert themselves into clandestine at-your-doorstep ATMs.
There is death here too. The victim's name : Democracy.
Updated Date: Apr 09, 2017 13:53 PM