MEL: What have been the result of the past 20 years of policy reforms?
SM: There are 3 talukas in our district which are dry areas – Kovilpatii, Vilathikulam, Ottapidaram. In these areas there has been no economic progress in these 2 decades. Small and medium-scale farmers have not been able to access credit from cooperative banks or nationalized commercial banks. Dependent on rain, only 3-4 months of crop cultivation is possible. Majority of peasants have given up dry-land farming. Only those who have pump-sets are continuing, using family labour. Peasants in these regions have not received either loans or subsidies, or support of any kind. Emigration to work in other districts has grown. Even prosperous farmers have leased to tenants and have become rent collectors. Peasants have no security of even their food needs. Numbers of bullocks and cows have gone down. The price of cattle-feed has risen so high that it is not affordable to keep cattle. Peasants above 50 years of age are managing to survive largely through maintaining goats, which sell for a high price in the towns.
MEL: What have been the trends in land transactions in these areas?
SM: In the past, land transactions were only among the villagers. Now that land is being sought after by outside capitalist interests, price of land has shot up way beyond the means of any peasant who wants to increase his holding. Many peasants have lost land without even being aware of it, through fraudulent deals. Those with capital buy such land to park their wealth, to raise bank loans, or to convert into housing sites. Many peasants’ organizations, including ours, have presented our demand that agricultural land should not be converted to other use … but there has been no action on the part of the state government to impose any restrictions on such conversions.
MEL: Has there been any land acquisition for Special Economic Zones?
S: Yes, farm lands have been acquired for setting up SEZs. Jobs were promised to the sons of peasants. In reality, that did not take place. Peasants and their children are not being employed even for gardening or security guard posts. Local panchayat leaders and MLAs are “persuaded” to give permission for land acquisition. In the case of Elcot, an IT company which acquired land without the approval of the Panchayat Union, a letter of objection was sent to the District Collector. The one who objected was called to a dinner and poisoned to death.
MEL: What is the condition with electric power supply? Is it supplied free of charge?
SM: Power supply is supposed to be free and available for 12 hours daily. But in reality the supply is uncertain, for fewer hours, and with no prior knowledge. As a result, someone has to be on the farm day and night, so as to run the pump-set whenever the power comes. It comes only for 3 or 4 hours at a time. This is a major additional burden on those with pump-sets. In the past 10 years no new connection has been installed. This has compelled farmers to resort to diesel driven pump-sets, which means higher cost.
MEL: What about fertilizer supply?
SM: Earlier there was direct supply to peasants – but now every peasant is required to obtain a letter signed by the Assistant Director of Agriculture in the respective Development Block or Taluk. As a result, peasants are not getting supply at the time they need.
MEL: Is there government support price for what the peasants produce?
S: Government procurement is only for paddy – and only in irrigated areas. Only high quality paddy is procured. Peasants mostly sell at private markets without any state regulation. Private merchants pay cash immediately whereas peasants have to wait for 3 days to get paid by a government agency. For dry chillies and cotton, there are government regulated markets under the Department of Cooperatives. However, we don’t get cash payment. If I take 10 quintals, I will get paid only for 7 and asked to come back after 15 days for the remaining. Cotton has to be delivered, then a Quality Control Officer will come to assess and fix the price. Peasants have to wait indefinitely.
MEL: Has there been any improvement in the availability of water?
SM: Deep bore wells have been sunk by capitalist companies such as SPIC Fertiliser, Thermal power plant, Sterlite Industries, etc. Tankers of water are permitted to be supplied to these companies. As a result, the ground water level has gone down, making it even more inaccessible to the majority of tillers. It is a form of state-organised global warming. Water is not available even in the common village wells.
There is a so-called joint multi-village water supply scheme, but the state agency does not supply the quantity needed. One street will get water while another will not. Supply in a village comes only once in 10 days. People are compelled to dig bore wells at their own expense. The state government has handed over fallow land to Small industries Corporation (SIDCO), without consulting or even informing the peasant owners. Mass peasant struggles have managed to halt this for the time being.
MEL: What about education and rural health facilities?
SM: There has been no improvement in the quality of education in village schools. There is only one Primary Health Centre (PHC) for people of 10 villages. For most people the distance to the PHC is too long. So many children are born in a taxi or rickshaw, on their way to the PHC. For snake bites, there is no immediate treatment because of chronic shortage of medicines.
MEL: How will you summarise the overall conditions?
SM: Overall, peasants have lost their economic independence, their livelihood, their land, the collective life and culture of the village. Where one should migrate to has become the big question. Only elderly people are left behind in the villages.