Turban tide: Sikhs farm script success stories in Tamil Nadu
His white flowing beard reveals his advanced age but hides a sober and shrewd face. Sardar Manmohan Singh, 65, looks completely at home in Tamil Nadu's Vallandai village as the towering Chandigarh native interviews a 35-year-old with a doctoral degree for a consultant's job.india Updated: Sep 18, 2015 14:24 IST
His white flowing beard reveals his advanced age but hides a sober and shrewd face. Sardar Manmohan Singh, 65, looks completely at home in Tamil Nadu's Vallandai village as the towering Chandigarh native interviews a 35-year-old with a doctoral degree for a consultant's job.
Sitting at one end of a plastic dining table amid acres of greenery on his Akal Farms, Singh shoots pointed questions towards Alaghu Kannan on the far side about the nature of the local soil, weather conditions, farming techniques and horticulture.
The younger man is composed and precise with his answers and finally manages to convince Singh to hire him.
"Spending money for specific scientific knowledge is a wise investment," says Singh after signing up Kannan, who will visit once a fortnight and offer advice on the expansion of the farms owned by more than a dozen Sikh cultivators who wish to harvest fruits and vegetables on 400 acres in two years' time from the 115 acres now.
Manmohan Singh and 46-year-old Darshan Singh arrived in Tamil Nadu's Ramanathapuram district in 2007 on the advice of their guru, a retired horticulture professor in Himachal Pradesh.
The key reason was that land was very cheap in the backwoods here, with prices as low as Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000 an acre.
Friends and relatives in Punjab formed a small group, pooled resources, and began purchasing land here, Darshan Singh said. "We bought 300 acres initially and started developing the land. I sold one acre in Punjab and bought 20 acres here."
An acre of agricultural land in Punjab, fetches anywhere between Rs 50 lakh and Rs 1 crore depending on its location.
"What this has given us is the advantage of economies of scale," says Manmohan Singh, who never went to college but is an intelligent farmer. "If we farm bigger holdings, economics work out. Today we own 900 acres and now we are in an expansion mode. We want to develop 100 acres every year and reach 400 acres in two years."
As one drives through three kilometres of gravel road from Abiramam town to the village, on either side lay abandoned wastelands filled with hedges and vines. However, on reaching Vallandai village and Akal Farms, an iron gate opens into acres of green orchards, coconut plantations and vegetable nurseries.
"This is easily the most scientific farm in this part of the world. It is amazing to see this in drought-prone Ramanathapuram," Kannan tells HT.
But things weren't always this breezy.
"Locals thought we were crazy to purchase barren plots with wild growth of thorny bushes," said Darshan Singh.
The area was completely abandoned and residents had given up farming in the arid zone heavily dependent on rains for irrigation.
"At first we took up a house for rent in nearby Abiramam and worked from dawn to dusk to clear the land of bushes. We used earthmovers to flatten the ground and develop it in six months and then began farming," says Sarabhjeet Singh, another owner among the group of 17.
Manmohan Singh approached horticulture professor Dr T Armugam from Madurai Agricultural College for advice once they developed the fields.
"They came to me in 2009 or 2010. I visited the grounds and recommended what crops to sow, how they were to be planted and irrigated," Armugam said.
"The farmers followed our advice scrupulously. When it came to science, they had a blind faith in us. We suggested high-value cash crops instead of routine crops in the region- crops that used less water. High-density plantation was another suggestion that they followed strictly apart from erecting a drip irrigation system."
The wait has been fruitful and the hard work has been rewarded, says Manmohan Singh, describing the attention, admiration and even envy the success has brought.
The success story has had resonance in his home state with many more farmers arriving here to try their luck.
"In two years, you will see a much bigger Punjab in Ramanathapuram," said an elated Manmohan Singh.