Tiruvarur (Tamil Nadu), Jan. 16: It was an auspicious day yesterday for Tamil Nadu to launch its “free meal scheme” for farmers who were suffering from “lack of Cauvery waters and lack of work”. But the beginning was far from good.
The scene on the arterial and district roads in the heart of the Cauvery delta on Pongal day was as unpromising as inside the meal centres.
Unlike previous Pongals, when these roads would turn free threshing floors for paddy, yesterday was just another colourless day, with muted rituals confined to houses. There was no harvest worth the name to celebrate.
At 12 noon on the day of the harvest festival at Palayakottai, a small village 50 km from here, noon meal centre organiser Bhanumathi waited for the landless small and marginal farmers to walk in for the 20 kg of cooked mixed-rice waiting for them.
They were going to get 50 gm of sweet pongal (rice) per head as a festival bonus. Till the closing time of 2 pm, however, not one farmer had stepped in for the food. The centre was kept open for much longer — without any results.
Shanmugam, a small farmer, recently killed himself in Palayakottai after his crop failed for two successive years.
As many as 662 members of Palayakottai panchayat had registered for the scheme but only 100 tokens were allotted to the meal centre there for the first two days.
Palayakottai was symbolic of the poor to moderate response Jayalalithaa’s ambitious “Free Meal Scheme” evoked in the Cauvery delta region.
“We do not want to demean ourselves by coming with a plate to the noon meal centre,” said young Asaithambi, a local farmer’s son who is undergoing training in electronics.
The ADMK regime has launched the scheme in all districts except Chennai to reassure the drought-hit small and landless farmers of the government’s awareness of their plight.
The trigger for Jayalalithaa, however, was said to be the utter distress in the farm belt of the Cauvery delta region since the water sharing standoff with Karnataka.
A quick tour of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts showed the same pattern of several farmers boycotting the free lunch on the first day. To a Palayakottai resident, the reason was apparent. Many farm workers have been jobless for months, he said, but the free meal is still “humiliating”.
The general refrain among the distressed farmers was clear: The government could provide them more rice for free or, better still, “allow us to draw more rice from the PDS (public distribution system) at a reduced price”.
Several landless agricultural labourers at Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam have registered at their panchayat or town panchayat offices for the free-meal coupons, one per head, which are valid for a week.
According to official figures, there are 50,345 beneficiaries in Tiruvarur, 75,249 in Nagapattinam -– that accounts for the bulk of landless agricultural labourers, largely Dalits, in the delta region -- and 67,500 in Thanjavur.
At the end of the first day, officials said 40 per cent of Tiruvarur’s registered beneficiaries “boycotted” the meal centres -- for a variety of reasons.
Nagapattinam, too, threw up a similar “boycott” percentage. The Left parties in this district had strongly protested against the scheme and demanded distribution of free rice instead.
Fewer farmers in Thanjavur, however, turned their backs on the scheme.
Yet many farmers had registered for the scheme, in the first place. According to S. Ranganathan, general-secretary, Tamil Nadu Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, Mannargudi, they rushed to register “as otherwise they fear(ed) that in future they might be struck off from the list of below-poverty line (BPL) families”.
Ranganathan believes the scheme can be effective only if it overcomes political hurdles. What these are he did not explain.
K. Skandhan, zonal commissioner for Tiruvarur, said the farmers skipped the meal for reasons beyond the district administration’s control. The government, he said, “does not demean anyone by offering free food”.
According to Skandhan, potential beneficiaries in several places had demanded meals for either the entire community or the entire village panchayat.
The scheme, however, is only a psychological booster to send the reassuring message to distressed farmers that the government would “take care of them” and none would be allowed to starve, he said. The scheme does not intend, Skandhan clarified, to feed everybody.
The Pongal day ritual of cooking at home, too, might have hurt the first day’s response to the free meal, he said.
Meanwhile, the farmers are caught between poverty and self-respect -– when they have to walk with their womenfolk, bowl in hand, to the nearest meal centre -– and are groping for a way out as the standing “samba” paddy needs nurturing till the third week of February.
For that, water would have to come from the Cauvery. Then, if the harvest materialises, “we may yet get some work to feed and clothe ourselves”, an elderly farmer said.