“This Country has Forgotten Us”: How the Tamil Farmers’ Protest Received Media and Political Attention Without Any Resolution

The absence of an efficient response from the central government had not weakened the resolve of the Tamil farmers to continue their struggle. Cathal McNaughton/REUTERS
28 June, 2017

In April 2017, the newly-formed Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh announced a waiver of loansfrom cooperative banks that were pending with small and marginal farmers in the state, cumulatively amounting to more than Rs 36,000 crore. In June, large scale farmers’ agitations erupted in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. In the aftermath of the demonstrations, the Madhya Pradesh government announced a new debt relief scheme to aid farmers defaulting on loans, while the Maharashtra government announced a loan waiver of Rs 30,000 crore for small and marginal farmers. In light of the growing farmers’ unrest across the country, the Punjab and Karnataka state governments also announced a loan waiver for farmers in their respective states. Amid all this, however, farmers from Tamil Nadu who led a 41-day protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi well before the UP loan waiver, conducting macabre demonstrations symbolic of their plight on each day of their protest, appear to have been forgotten.

Almost a month into their protest, on a tepid morning on10 April, nine among the group of 100-strong protesting Tamil farmers stripped naked outside Rashtrapati Bhavan. Three of them rolled along the road, while a few of them jumped around, almost playfully running from the confused police. According to Perumal, a member of the protesting farmers belonging Valasaramani village in Tiruchirapalli district, the protest was a reflexive response to the farmers being prevented from meeting the prime minister despite having an appointment. He told me similar protests have been adopted by the group in the past to symbolise the government depriving them of their self-respect. The shock of the instance was chafed only slightly because the previous weeks had seen the farmers intensify their protests at Jantar Mantar with growing levels of absurdity and desperation.

The protesting farmers are members of the National South-Indian Rivers Interlinking Agriculturists Association, or the Sangam, which consists of more than two lakh members. It was formed in 2015 to address the grievances of farmers in Tamil Nadu. The Sangam began its protest on 14 March. Aweek prior to the Rashtrapati Bhavan incident, the farmers had shaved off half their moustaches, and when that elicited lukewarm interest from the media, each of them shaved off hair from half of their heads. That week, starting 15 March, the Sangam began its campaign of provocative protests. Its members wore nooses around their necks, carried skulls they claimed belonged to farmers who committed suicide, held dead rats and snakes in their mouths and conducted mock funerals of their comrades. Although these protests, owing to their extraordinary nature, received attention from the news media and politicians, it did not result in any of their demands being addressed.

Since 2016, Tamil Nadu has been facing its worst drought in 140 years as a result of which, multiple crops failed. The drought severely affected Karnataka as well, which led to the state’s refusal to release any water from the Cauvery river to Tamil Nadu despite Supreme Court directives. The dry riverbeds in the state that arose because of this refusal and sand mining in the state’s rivers compounded the farmers’ struggles in Tamil Nadu. As the water crisis in the states led to failing crops, most farmers were left with unpayable debts because of the loans that they had taken for the cultivation of these crops. Perumal, another farmer with the same name as the famer from Varasamani village, who is a member of the Sangam and belongs to Sallapatti village of Thiruchirapalli district, told me, “The people from the bank come and abuse us every day, they take what they want from our house. They humiliate us every day in front of our entire village.”

The Sangam is only one of many farmer groups of Tamil Nadu, but it has cemented itself as one that is able to get the attention when necessary. In June 2016, in Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, various banks took the tractors of several farmers into custody. The farmers were late on paying the interest on their loans and the Supreme Court had reportedly directed the banks not to seize the tractors. Dhinesh, the head of the Thiruvannamalai wing of the Sangam, told me that the farmers from the group marched in to the local State Bank of India branch wearing only their loincloths, symbolizing that they were forced to beg, protesting for the tractors to be released. He added that the tractors were eventually released but the loans were not waived.

Over the course of the Sangam’s 41-day protest at Jantar Mantar, I visited the site of the group’s protest almost every day. Although the group had initially comprised at least 100 members, when it started its protest in March, that number fell and stabilised at around 50, due to farmers falling sick and returning to Tamil Nadu. My conversations with the farmers revealed that many of them were disillusioned with the lack of response despite the attention their protests received in the national capital. However, the absence of an efficient response from the central government had not weakened their resolve to continue their struggle through March and April. Senthil, a farmer from Krishnagiri district and a member of the Sangam, told me, “All the politicians have asked us to go back. But why should I go back and die, I’ll die right here, at least they will have to do the job of burying me.”

The Sangam’s protest against the water crisis in the state began in December 2016, in Tiruchirapalli district in Tamil Nadu. At that time, the group demanded that the central governmentdeclare Tamil Nadu as a drought-hit state. Given that Tamil Nadu falls in the shadow of the Western Ghats, which prevents it from receiving any rains from the southwest monsoon, the failure of the northeast monsoon in the state hit it hard. The water from the Cauvery river and its breakaway tributaries such as the Kollidam were the only sources of water for large parts of Tamil Nadu. The delta region of the state—which includes the districts of Erode, Salem, Karur, Tiruchirapalli and Thanjavur—was the worst hit as it depended almost exclusively on the Cauvery, and Karnataka had refused to release the Cauvery water due to its own drought in the state. Several farmers from the Sangam told me that a majority of them hailed from the 14 districts comprising the region.

In December too, the members had protested by holding dead rats in their mouths, which Perumal from Sallapatti village told me signified that nothing grew in their fields except for rats and snakes. Similarly, the farmers told me that the skulls in their protests always spoke for the dead farmers, and the demonstrations in which they wore mere loincloths or no clothes at all represented the farmers being made to lose all their self-respect and pride. Perumal from Valasaramani explained to me why the farmers had left their protest in Tamil Nadu and come to protest in Delhi: “We have done everything to make them [the state government] listen.” He continued, “We have buried ourselves to the neck in sand in the dry bed of the Cauvery and we have shamed ourselves by standing chest deep in sewage, nothing makes them listen.”

On 14 March 2017, the Sangam, led by 72-year-old farmer Ayyakannu, arrived in Delhi with a list of demands for the central government: a drought-relief package of Rs 40,000 crore; the waiver of all debts from nationalised banks; the setting up of a Cauvery Water Management Board; and the inter-linking of rivers in the state. According to Senthil, the farmers were hoping that they would not go unheard in Delhi, the haloed national capital. That day, Senthil told me, the farmers’ collective marched to the prime minister’s residence at Lok Kalyan Marg. The security personnel, caught unaware, bundled the farmers into police vans, which dropped them on the street of Jantar Mantar.

What they saw at the protest site of the national capital, Perumal from Valasaramani told me at Jantar Mantar that day on 14 March, was a street with “tents full of helpless people living cheek by jowl.” He continued, “I had always wanted to see Delhi, now I just want to get back, this is a place for sad people.” Kaveri, a farmer from Krishnagiri district, said “Every group on this street is struggling and not one has been heard through all these years.” Several members of the group told me that they knew that at Jantar Mantar, among the ignored and in foreign territory, they had to pull out all the stops to be heard.

The group had previously visited the national capital four times to protest in the three years that preceded their visit in 2017, but had to return in less than a week each time because they had no place to stay and very little money for food. This time, Dhinesh told me, they were facing similar problems. They were unfamiliar with the food and unable to bear the heat and everyone did not have a place to sleep. Many were falling ill and admitted to nearby government hospitals. The lack of places to sleep and sanitation facilities also affected the number of women who joined the protest. Though the Sangam has an almost equal share of men and women in Tamil Nadu, this was not reflected in their Delhi protests. Only three among the group of 100 protesters in Jantar Mantar were women, and only one, Vengiamma from Thiruvannamalai, managed to stay the entire 41 days. (I made several attempts to speak to her over the phone but I was unable to reach her.) However, as sick farmers returned to Tamil Nadu,many farmers joined the group in Delhi to keep the numbers thick.

By the second day, the response that the Sangam received to its protests in Delhi was markedly different from both, the response it received in Tamil Nadu and the response that other groups protesting at Jantar Mantar received. The farmers also received a lot more financial and medical support than before, allowing them to protest for longer. Streams of Tamil students from colleges in Delhi started pouring in to support the protest, joined by other Tamil well-wishers, all of them energised by the rhetoric of the Jallikattu protests in January 2017 and mobilised by the WhatsApp groups it created. The students subsequently funded the food for the farmers, built a large tent for them to stay in and visited them on a daily basis to extend their support. The farmers received support from students in their home state as well, where students across Tamil Nadu attempted to organise protests in solidarity with the Sangam’s protest in Jantar Mantar.

Following this, Tamil politicians from nearly every faction of the state’s tangled political arena visited Jantar Mantar and extended their support, but they have done little apart from taking the discussion to the parliament.The central government washed its hands off any waiver of loans when Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, announced on 12 June that the central government would not provide assistance to state governments with loan waivers. Though the Madras High Court passed on order on 4 April directing the state government to waive off loans for all farmers from cooperative banks, the farmers are still seeking a waiver of loans from nationalised banks. In a statement to the media, Ayyakannu stated that the waiver from nationalised banks was necessary because farmers have a debt of around Rs 7,000 crore with these banks that they cannot afford to pay. Perumal from Valasaramani said “Nobody who has come till now has done anything but take photos with us, but we have to hope, what else do we have left to do?”

Union ministers have been dismissive of the farmers’ unrest. Nirmala Sitharaman, the minister of commerce who hails from Tamil Nadu, said “the dissatisfaction of farmers” was being “played up” by the opposition, and Venkaiah Naidu, the urban development minister, said that “loan waiver has become fashion now.” An editorial published in June in the Organiser, a weekly publication affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has reportedly taken a more vocal stance and stated that the present farmers’ unrest was fuelled by “anti-social elements” and that “the farmers’ agitation in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra reveals the worst side of politicking in the name of farmers.” While the Tamil Nadu government in its current climate of political uncertainty has not been as hostile, it has been evidently inept in addressing the demands of the Sangam.

“The same politicians who extend support to us here go back and order the police to arrest the youth supporting us in Tamil Nadu,” Senthil said. After the Sangam’s protest in December 2016, the state government declared Tamil Nadu to be a drought-hit state in January. Nearly three months after the announcement, the state government announced the release of Rs 2,247 crore for the drought reliefand the central government released Rs 1,700 croreto the Tamil Nadu government, both cumulatively being far less than the Rs 40,000 crore demanded by the Sangam.

The failure of the state and central governments to meet the Sangam’s demands did not deter the protests. Senthil told me that every morning at 5 am, the entire group sat in a circle to decide on the form of protest for that day. Outsiders are barred from these meetings. “The only lines are that it needs to be provocative and be a metaphor for the problem that farmers are struggling with,” Senthil said. Dhinesh added, “Do you think any of these cameras or politicians would have even heard of us if we didn’t lose all our modesty?” On 18 April, the thirty-sixth day of the protest, one of the farmers wore a mask that resembled Prime Minister Narendra Modi and dressed up in a jacket and kurta, flogging other farmers as they came to him with their pleas. When I asked Perumal of Valasaramani how they came up with the ideas for this protest, he laughed and told me, “They all come from here when we can’t do anything else,” tapping his knuckles on his bald head, showing his callused hands. He continued, “We can continue thinking of ideas every day even if they force us to stay here for a hundred days.”

On 23 April, the forty-first day of the protest, Edapaddi Palanisamy, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, met with the protesting farmers at Jantar Mantar. Palinasamy met with the farmers on the sideline of a NITI Aayog meeting and gave his assurance that their demands would be met within a month. On the basis of this assurance, Ayyakannu told the mediathat the Sangam was calling off the protest while adding that it would resume the protest on 25 May if their demands were not met. As the deadline passed by without the demands being met, the group resumed their protest in the national capital on 9 June. The next day, the group called off the protest after Palanisamy once again gave an assurance about meeting the demands.

“We changed our mind about immediately taking to protest again at Jantar Mantar when we met the representatives of several other farmers’ groups in Delhi,” Dhinesh told me on 10 June. He said the group decided to meet the farmers’ unions of the country before resuming their protest at Jantar Mantar. On 12 June, several agriculturalists’ unions from 23 different states met in Delhi to discuss the rising farmer agitations across the country. Dhinesh said the meeting “recognised many common concerns that are faced by farmers across state borders and called all farmers’ unions to meet on the 15 June in Delhi [which was later postponed to 16 June] and decide on a course of action.” He added, evidently proud, “Farmers who spoke in languages we didn’t even understand, congratulated us for bringing people’s attention to the problems of farmers.” He continued, “This time we will stay in Delhi until they meet every one of our demands, how long do they think they can step on farmers?”

I attempted to contact the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, but his office redirected me to the agricultural director’s office for any comments relating to farmers. On 19 June, I spoke to Thiru George Mamman, the additional director of the state’s agricultural department. Mamman told me, “The state government has announced a scheme where they will be distributing seeds and subsidised fertilizers and pesticides for the kuruvai season.” June marks the kuruvai—a short-term cropping season in Tamil Nadu, in which the sowing of crops takes place in June and July—and this year, Ayyakannu and Dhinesh told me, there has been nearly no sowing of rice in the six districts that depend on the Cauvery. This is a major red flag for the country’s food security, a fact that appears to be acknowledged by the state government. On 12 June, it announced an incentive package of Rs 56 crore for farmers in the state to take up kuruvai plantation of paddy and pulses.

When I told Mamman that the representatives of the Sangam had told me that they had not received any subsidies yet, he said, “Since the scheme was announced only a week ago, the department will need two more weeks to release the funds.” He told me that he was handling only the kuravai package and refused to speak to me about any other aspect of their demands. Despite the package, however, it increasingly looks like there will be no crop output during this period. Dhinesh told me that by the time the package was released, it would be too late for sowing of the kuravai crops, and that the government’s scheme was only for a reduced area, mostly for pulses and not for paddy, which is traditionally sown at this time. When I asked Ayyakannu about the package, he responded, “What is the use of concessions for the season without any water? 98 percent of the wells in Tamil Nadu are dry. Instead of giving us seeds that we can’t plant, they should deepen wells and expand bore-wells.”

On 16 June, Ayyakannu told me, around 400 farmers from all 29 states came to Delhi for the meeting. He said the farmers agreed on four demands. First, “We demand profitable prices for crops in line with the MS Swaminathan report, which states that agricultural prices should be cost plus 50 percent.” The Swaminathan report was published in October 2006 and addressed the causes of farmer distress and suicides and made recommendations for a national policy for farmers. The report had recommended that the minimum support price, which is the cost at which the government would buy crops from farmers, should be at least 50 percent more than the cost of production.

Ayyakannu continued, “Prime Minister Modi, during his [2014 general] elections, promised a doubling of agricultural prices. No action has been taken in this regard. Until this is done, all nationalised banks must waive their loans for farmers.” When I told him that Arun Jaitley had put the onus of waiving agricultural loans on the state governments, he said that this was complete misdirection by the centre. “State governments can only waive the loans of co-operative banks. Nationalised banks fall fully under the shadow of the central government. The centre wants to cheat the farmers.”

He argued that the prices for crops had not proportionately increased over the past few decades. “In 1970, paddy was priced at Rs 600, same as the salary of a bank manager. Now, paddy costs Rs 800 and the bank manager’s salary is Rs 80,000. An MLA’s [member of legislative assembly] salary was then worth six bags of paddy. Now, it is worth hundreds. This country has forgotten us.”

The second demand of the farmers was the interlinking of rivers which has been a longstanding demand of Tamil farmers. The interlinking of rivers would entail the linking of canal systems between all major rivers in the subcontinent such that water from the perennial riverscould flow into the seasonal rivers during periods of droughts. Ayyakannu added that even farmers from northern states understood their grievance despite having access to perennial rivers: “Even farmers from states with perennial rivers recogonised the direness of the situation and agreed with us about this.”

Their third demand was for individual insurance to farmers. Ayyakannu told me, “Every other occupation has insurance, but we have had no fair insurance.”He continued, “Earlier, if a farmer had a bad crop, he hung himself and his field dried up. Back then, insurance was given in groups. Now, entire villages are drying up and still we get no benefits from insurance. We want individual insurance from now on for farmers.” Their final demand was for a monthly pension for farmers akin to the one given to government employees.

Dhinesh was eager about the prospect of the farmers putting up a united stand. “We all face the same problems: bank loans, mounting costs and police violence. Even if they speak in different languages, they will stand alongside us.” But his voice had a touch of bitterness as he continued. “All the other state governments have begun to hear farmers, the Maharashtra government has helped, the Madhya Pradesh government is talking to farmers.” “But for us who started this,” he chuckled and pointed towards the tents at Jantar Mantar.