Ropar in Punjab or Ramnad in Tamil Nadu, it no longer makes a difference to Jaspal, Harpal, Gagandeep and Rajendra Singh. Wearing colourful turbans, long white shirts and pyjamas they are out in the fields doing what they love -- tilling the land.
“If you love nature and understand the interconnectedness of life, you can do farming anywhere,” says the youngest in the group, Jaspal, in chaste Punjabi.
The sun shines bright in Vallandhai village in Kamuthi taluk of Ramnad district. The farmers, with smiles on their sun-tanned faces, move around pulling out bunches of groundnuts. A lady in salwar-suit walks into the fields with a thermos of chilled lassi (butter milk) and the men take a break.
The group of Punjabis have beautifully blended into the sun-blistered landscape of one of the driest districts in south Tamil Nadu and shown the locals how a farmer’s faith and hard work can yield amazing results.
Till about a decade ago the land here was covered with thorny bushes (kaattu karuvelam) and abandoned by the locals. Today, a big iron gate welcomes you into the area now called the ‘Akal Farm’ that boasts of lush green orchards and sustainable green farms. It has not only become the talking point in the district but also a model example of cultivation showcased to tourists, agriculturists and visitors.
With apt knowledge, experience and some experimentation, about two-dozen farmers from Moga and Sangrur districts in Punjab are now successfully growing mangoes, water melons, papaya, guava, cucumber, pumpkin, amla, carrot, ladies finger, oranges, sapota and custard apple. “We are gradually acquiring more land and increasing our farm produce,” says the soft-spoken Darshan Singh, one of the two group leaders-cum-supervisor who can speak a smattering of Tamil and was invited by the District Collector last month to address local administration staff and farmers from the region.
“It was my first attempt at public speaking and I felt humbled,” says Darshan Singh, “to share tips because I know every farmer anywhere shares a special relationship with the real food.” “I managed to convey my points as I was asked to motivate the people who had rejected the same land for farming,” he adds.
“ Sab rab di meherbani hain (everything is God’s grace),” says Darshan Singh, who feels the yield is not yet as high as desired. But we all are happy to have turned the infertile and fallow lands into lush green orchards and fields, he adds.
It all began when Darshan Singh and his friend, Manmohan Singh, left behind their families and chose to travel more than 3,000 kms to this backward belt seven years ago. They followed the suggestion of a retired agriculture officer to explore cultivation in the arid lands of south Tamil Nadu.
“We migrated for farming beyond our home State lured by the cheap land that was in short supply back home,” says Sarabjeet Singh, another senior member in the group. “We were discouraged by the locals who were always grudging against the long dry spells. But we did not mind experimenting because the land was being sold at a throwaway price – Rs.10,000 per acre,” he adds.
The friends pooled in money and jointly bought 300 acres. They also took a house on rent in nearby Virudhunagar and travelled everyday to the hamlet. It took three years to clear the land, dig two dozen borewells, instal drip irrigation and make it ready for plantation.
“We toiled round-the-clock as cleaners, gardeners, farmers, night guards…initially the locals were hostile to us,” says Darshan Singh, “but everybody’s hard work and patience is bearing fruits now.”
“The results took time but we did not lose hope,” asserts Sarabjeet Singh.
Life has taken a new turn inside this mini-Punjab in Vallandhai. The Akal farm now encompasses 600 acres and also has a neatly fenced campus with small cottages, dormitory, a common kitchen, dining area and meditation room. “We no longer feel we live outside Punjab,” says Darshan Singh.
The farmers and their families celebrate Lohri, holi, baisakhi, rakhi, teej and diwali. The women cook the daily dal-chawal and roti-subzi together and even feed the visitors. They also join in pongal and Tamil new year celebrations with their local friends. “The villagers have become friendly now,” says Darshan Singh.
In fact with the Punjabi farmers setting a trend, some local farmers have joined them as workers in the Akal Farm. Some have even returned to them offering to buy the green fields at a higher rate.
A retired Village Administration Officer, Syed Segana, has been with them for the past six years helping in administrative work and translations. “I am trying to teach them Tamil,” he smiles, “but our friendship is beyond language, food and boundaries now.” “Nature and greenery binds us together and it does not matter where we belong to and where we stay and work,” he adds.
The Akal Farm yields
Amla and guava on 40 acres each, mixed dry fruits like cashew nuts and almonds on five acres, papaya on 10 acres. The farmers have planted 5,000 mango trees on 80 acres besides coconut and timber-value trees on 10 acres each and an assortment of other fruits and vegetables. They also cultivate inter-crop and this season harvested 15 tonnes of pumpkin, five tonnes of cucumber and 20 tonnes of water melon on a daily basis.