POLITICS

This Pongal, Drought-Hit Farmers Are In Distress, But The Chorus For Jallikattu Is Drowning Their Voices

It is the classic Marie Antoinette 'let them eat cake' moment in Tamil Nadu.

13/01/2017 5:01 PM IST | Updated 13/01/2017 5:21 PM IST
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A Hindu devotee cooks a traditional sweet dish during the Pongal festival in Mumbai on January 14, 2013. Pongal is a thanksgiving or harvest festival celebrated by people hailing from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

It is the classic Marie Antoinette 'let them eat cake' moment in Tamil Nadu. Over 100 farmers have died since October 2016 reportedly due to drought conditions in Tamil Nadu. The government has admitted only to 17 deaths but that has not stopped the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) from issuing notice to the Tamil Nadu government over the deaths. This even as the government declared a drought just days ahead of the harvest festival of Pongal.

But Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam and his leader, AIADMK chief VK Sasikala, have said "let them play Jallikattu''. Their Marie Antoinettesque priority to make people in districts of southern Tamil Nadu play the bull taming sport at a time when their own brethren are dying, will count as the Amma of all ironies.

The acute distress situation is because the northeast monsoon which largely wets Tamil Nadu was the worst ever in the last 140 years, according to Indian Meteorological Department records. Add to that Karnataka's reluctance to release Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu and you find all 32 districts in Tamil Nadu going bone dry. Not a single water reservoir has storage more than 20 per cent of its capacity at this point in time, said to be the worst ever.

Their Marie Antoinettesque priority to make people in districts of southern Tamil Nadu play the bull taming sport at a time when their own brethren are dying, will count as the Amma of all ironies.

In fact, right through the distress period, the Tamil Nadu government has been found wanting. Lack of political leadership meant it could not effectively mount pressure on Karnataka to release Cauvery water in significant measure right from September. With Jayalalithaa hospitalised, the government was functioning on autopilot. Post 5 December, when she passed away, the focus was entirely on individual political interests rather than those of the farmers.

The traditional Pongal greeting 'Pongal O Pongal' will mean little cheer to most of rural Tamil Nadu on Saturday. Instead of the pot of rice and jaggery brimming over, their cup of woes have been overflowing this Pongal.

The belated announcement of drought will bring limited relief to the extent of loan recoveries getting postponed. At a time when the harvest traditionally begins, the yield this Pongal is going to be the worst Tamil Nadu has seen in a long time.

The biggest failure of the government has been its inability or perhaps apathy in engaging with the farm community in distress, leading to many of them committing suicide.

If the political leadership of Tamil Nadu is indeed keen on ensuring the farmers are not at the mercy of the vagaries of the weather, it needs to invest in an effective drought management system. This would entail tapping the know-how of different departments so that farmers are handheld to ensure the scarce resources are used in a conservative manner during drought. The biggest failure of the government has been its inability or perhaps apathy in engaging with the farm community in distress, leading to many of them committing suicide.

Cattle and livestock are usually the first to suffer during a drought as there is no fodder to feed them. That has to be Tamil Nadu's priority at this moment instead of engaging in pitched battles to ensure the bulls used specifically for Jallikattu are thrown at the mercy of aggressive youths.

Obviously the decibel levels of those clamouring for Jallikattu is louder than those who are pleading for relief to the aggrieved farmers. The reason is because the shrill demand for Jallikattu helps the politicians paper over their inability to do what is more necessary for the farming community. Cover the failure with the wrapper of Tamil pride and culture and the politician ends up controlling the narrative. The media that obviously finds the Supreme court vs the Others a more juicy story to pursue, ends up making it seem as if all of Tamil Nadu is only obsessed with Jallikattu.

Obviously the decibel levels of those clamouring for Jallikattu is louder than those who are pleading for relief to the aggrieved farmers.

It is a travesty that Tamil film actors — from Kamal Haasan to Vishal to Simbu — have jumped in to express support for Jallikattu, while not shedding a tear for the over 100 lives lost. Musician and actor GV Prakash will release a song titled 'Kombu Vacha Singamda' (A Lion with Horns) on Pongal, dedicating it to Jallikattu. The sport has now acquired pop overtones with support being showcased over social media. Forgotten in the din is the farmer.

The reason for batting for Jallikattu also is political. Parties believe that Tamil Nadu post-Jayalalithaa is up for grabs. Which is why the AIADMK and the DMK have been engaged in a blamegame over who was responsible for the ban on Jallikattu and the present government's inability to ensure it is held.

There is also pressure on the Narendra Modi government at the Centre to bring in an Ordinance to facilitate Jallikattu despite the Supreme Court ban. While the state BJP feels the party should use Jallikattu to earn goodwill and make inroads into southern Tamil Nadu, the two Dravidian parties want to ensure that a failure to enable the conduct of the sport discredits the BJP.

It is also erroneous to make Pongal festivities only about Jallikattu. Thanks to the loud discourse, that is how it is perceived outside of Tamil Nadu. Pongal is primarily an agrarian festival and the farmer has to be at the centre of it all. This Pongal, the farmer is in distress and the over the top chorus for Jallikattu notwithstanding, he needs help. And urgently. Panneerselvam may perhaps want to consider spending the Pongal weekend with farmers, consoling them.

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