Several times a year, a huge genie called NREGA goes around the country, asking people to put it to work and change their lives.
In Kadiramangalam, in southeast Tamil Nadu’s Kaveri delta, the poor fellow has no job.
So farmers in the prosperous region have to find random chores to be done under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the world’s largest social security programme.
“They use up their budget getting the canals cleaned five times a year by casual labour or people who want to earn extra,” says 50-year-old farmer S. Rajendran.
In a country where uniform policies are made for all regions whether they need them or not, the self-sufficient Kaveri delta signifies southern India’s great disconnect with the north — of which the government in New Delhi often becomes the most powerful symbol.
Its residents do not need rural employment, which the central government wants to thrust upon it — only better understanding of local issues.
Like the Kaveri water dispute — a decades-old battle between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the sharing of the water from the river that runs through both states.
“The Kaveri Delta is its own economic region. The Centre has not resolved the long-pending water-sharing issue, the surest sign of its disinterest in our region,” says S. Rangathan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Kaveri Delta Farmers’ Association and the man who put the Kaveri on the political map in 1983 by raising the water issue.
Or the issue of paddy prices, crucial to the region’s economy.
Three months ago when five states went to the polls, the DMK government raised procurement rates for paddy to Rs 10 a kg — the national price is Rs 8.50 a kg.
The Tamil Nadu government had demanded a further hike in the price, to Rs 15 a kg — the open market rate is Rs 35. “But the Centre has not agreed to a price upgrade,” says Rangathan.
Nonetheless, Kadiramangalam carries on briskly, its storerooms full of gunnysacks of rice waiting to be dispatched to Kerala and other large markets. There’s also banana, sugarcane, pulses, soya, and some turmeric and groundnut cultivation.
The village has several flourishing communities — weavers, goldsmiths, sculptors — indicative of its strong, self-sustaining agrarian economy.
An MBBS doctor visits this self-confident dot on the Indian map every evening; there is a hospital two kilometres away.
There are six schools within a radius of three kilometres.
NREGA has virtually no takers here. “The eldest sons stay back on the farms, the others learn new skills and go to Dubai, Saudi and Singapore,” says S. Karthikeyan (36), a paddy farmer.
And some of the farmers are sharing know-how with experts around the world.
“You can see my research papers posted on Cornell University’s Web pages,” says farmer Gopal Sriram, a trim 43-year-old in a traditional veshti (dhoti) and a striped shirt.
This graduate in agricultural science zips around on a motorcycle, managing a joint-family farm holding of 250 acres scattered over three villages.
“The only ‘north’ here is the gradient of the Kaveri, which is north-flowing,” he says.