Editor's note: In 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak upended lives and livelihoods in myriad ways. The novel coronavirus threw up new and unprecedented challenges, especially for people from marginalised sections of society. In a multi-part series, Firstpost explores how individuals from different walks of life lived through the year of the pandemic. This is part one of the series.
When this reporter met Vijayakumari in May, she was in the middle of sowing a fresh batch of crops, which she hoped would help her family survive for the year to come. The previous lot didn't bring her even half the investment which went into it, thanks to COVID-19. For the months to come, she hoped for rain, she hoped for transportation to open up, so that the costs that were eating up into her already meagre income would reduce, she hoped for rates of her harvest to get better.
Six months down, it has only gotten worse.
Vijayakumari is a farmer from the hills of Kalvarayan in Tamil Nadu. She and her husband Sahadevan, her partner in farming, have been at it since they've been married. This year didn't mean anything different. For the couple, every year is a struggle to survive, but the challenges this year were of a new hue.
To begin with, the tapioca crop they had planted towards the end of 2019 didn't bring any returns because by the time they harvested it, COVID-19 had settled in. The new batch of tomatoes they had planted didn't bring them more than an abysmal Rs 10 a kg. This was well into April, when the price of tomatoes in towns and cities was upwards of Rs 100 a kg. Wholesalers made the most of the situation while farmers like Vijayakumari got a raw deal. Even taking the harvested crop to the Thalaivasal market (in Salem) meant putting in money for private transport, as public transport was off the roads. After a few rounds to the market, they figured it wasn't feasible. Finally, Vijayakumari threw away most of the crop (tomatoes) since there was no money in it. There was no other option left.
By June, Vijayakumari borrowed money and set to work on the next batch of crops, hoping that there would be enough rain in the months to come, as almost all farmers in Kalvarayan hills are dependent on rains for irrigation. But the rain they prayed for wreaked havoc instead. Five months of incessant rains and continuous cyclones destroyed most of their crop. Nobody from the administration has approached them yet to compensate them for crop damage due to the rain. In fact, this has never happened in all the years that Vijayakumari has been farming.
Kiran Guralla, the District Collector of Kallakuruchi said that he has received reports of crop loss from other taluks in the district but nothing yet from Kalvarayanmalai. He said that because the taluk is tribal-dominated, lands they are tilling might not all be patta land, as many might are still be in the process of applying for claims under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. "They need to show some documents to verify that they've been tilling the land they are working on," said Guralla, even as he acknowledged that the problems arising from this kind verification are national.
Fourteen years since FRA came into force, farmers from tribal populations across the country are yet to benefit from a majority of government schemes, such as damages for crop loss due to natural calamities. This is because many are still in the process of getting their land use claims under the FRA approved. Many of these claims are rejected for reasons like unavailability of proper records to prove that the land was in use by the claimant. Even reasons like misspelled names in revenue records are used to reject claims.
Many tribal rights groups have reiterated time and again that this process of 'verification' by local officials has actually turned out to be anti-tribal. In Tamil Nadu itself, the government is yet to settle claims by tribal applicants in a systematic fashion. While many claimants wait it out, encroachments and land grabbing on tribal lands by non-tribals has become commonplace. In the region of Kalvarayan Hills alone, close to 1,5000 acres have been bought by non-tribals till date, through various illicit means. The Tamil Nadu Scheduled Tribe (Malayali) Peravai, an association of Malayali tribes, complained about this issue to the Chairperson of the Parliament Standing Committee for SCs/STs in 2018. They sought a permanent solution to this issue and demanded that all such illegally transferred lands be transferred back to the community.
In Vijayakumari and Sahadevan's case though, these issues don't arise. Because they have their patta. Yet, they are new to the world of receiving damages for crop loss, a basic scheme which is available to farmers across Tamil Nadu.
The only constant source of income for Vijayakumari is the milk. It fetches her around Rs 100 to Rs 150 a day. Since they grow their own rice and vegetables, feeding themselves is the only aspect which they don't have to worry about. Every morsel of grain counts, she says, yelling at puppy, their dog, who ran over a pile of grains, scattering it in his wake.
An additional source of income which the tribes of Kalvarayan depend on is when they go out to work from January to March as migrant workers, in the pepper plantations of Karnataka and Kerala. In 2020, many of them had to put in their own money to make their way back to Kalvarayan when the pandemic broke out. Groups of workers this reporter had met at the Kalvarayan borders in May had paid upwards of Rs 5000 per person for transportation. Just getting back home had eaten into the income they had worked months for, thanks to the pandemic. Vijayakumari is unsure if they can go to do this work next month. "Some are saying we can, some are saying we can't because the pandemic is far from over, so we don't really know," she says.
At the moment, her major concern is to figure out some way to get money across to her son, Ajit Kumar, who is studying in Chennai. Hostels are shut and that means that he has no place to stay or an affordable canteen where he can eat. Vijayakumari has to figure out way to send some money to send to Ajit, so that he can pay rent.
Most families in Kalvarayan Hills are from the Malayali tribe. Many of these families send their children to study either to Salem or to other cities in Tamil Nadu. "Almost all the money we make from agriculture is for our children to study," says Vijayakumari. Vijaykumari's daughter is Diyana Aishwarya, who is now in Class 10. Her younger son Adithtan is in Class 11. Both study away from home, at Chinnasalem.
The way income has dropped is no joke, though it isn't particularly new. "When have we had a say in market prices?," asks Pottiamma, Vijaykumari's mother. An investment of Rs 50,000 per cycle doesn't bring even Rs 30,000. "I hope the protests in Delhi help us. Everything is so expensive but our crop isn't selling at a rate which gives us any returns. There is no minimum support price for our crops. The money that we need to sow our next batch is also higher. Debt is inevitable in the months to come", says Vijayakumari, bringing up expenses of her son again.
Why is there a fundamental disconnect between the farmer and the government?
Marginal farmers like Vijayakumari shouldn't still, after all these decades of 'Jai Jawan Jai Kisan', struggle to make ends meet. The margin of income that she needs to pay for her children's education, to run her home or to even plan for a future with some degree of comfort must be made possible. Otherwise, this cycle of penury, where just aiming for below the bare minimum income as the norm will continue. There is an urgent need to address this disconnect between tribal farmers like Vijayakumari and the government.