It was the construction of Mullaperiyar dam in 1895 by British engineer John Pennycuick that transformed agriculture and consequently the socio-economic profile of Madurai and surrounding arid regions, which were relying on the small flow in the non-perennial Vaigai river.
Vast areas in Madurai, which were until then involved in rainfed and dryland farming, switched to irrigation assured farming.
However, failure of monsoon, uncertainty over availability of water in Periyar irrigation system, diversion of land to activities like quarrying, inadequate support infrastructure to promote agriculture-related industries and other macro-economic issues have resulted in the decline of farming over the past couple of decades.
A key issue in Madurai Lok Sabha constituency when it comes to farming is the neglect of Melur and nearby regions, which are the single-crop paddy areas. While these areas are supposed to receive water in the Periyar Main Canal for sambapaddy cultivation, they often end up receiving minimal or no water.
“This is mainly because of inefficient water management and lack of proper maintenance of the canal,” says N. Palanichamy, president, Tamil Nadu Sugarcane Farmers’ Association, who hails from Melur. “What has aggravated the problem now is the priority given to recently constructed canals in Theni district. The right enjoyed by Melur region for more than a century has been denied since the new canals are getting preference over us,” he says.
Elango Kallanai, a research consultant and farmer from Narasingampatti, stresses the need for recalibration of the demand of water from Periyar-Vaigai irrigation system. “Large areas of land in the double-crop regions located closer to Madurai have been diverted to real estate and other purposes. If we reassess the demand, more water can be diverted to deserving places like Melur,” he says, adding that the MP from Madurai must lobby for this demand.
Mr. Kallanai also highlights the need for policy changes to promote alternative crops instead of paddy. “For instance, lot of farmers in Melur region grow banana. But there are no industries that make value-added products from banana, which can assure regular demand for the farmers at a profitable price,” he says.
S. Rethinavelu, Chairman and Managing Director, Tamil Nadu Foodgrains Marketing Yard, highlights the need for encouraging farmers to be export-oriented. “We are doing it through our organisation Export Promotion Council, but it will be even better if the government starts focussing on it,” he says.
He adds that the government must also focus on bridging the gap between choice of crop by farmers and demand of the industry. He says that the concept of Farmers Producers Organisation (FPO), whereby farmers come together to form a company through which they can market their produce and value-added products, could be encouraged further in places like Madurai.
“Similarly, they should also be encouraged to do collective farming, mainly in places like Madurai where the landholdings of farmers are increasingly becoming smaller,” he says.
M. Tirupathi, a farmer from Kulamangalam, stresses the need for revamping Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme so that farmers do not face shortage of agricultural labour.