Agriculture remains his occupation even though he lives in an urban jungle, surrounded by real-estate development. Prince Frederick meets T.S. Govindaraj, who is holding his ground against the temptation of easy money

The sun has barely risen, but T. S. Govindaraj is already taking on the cows that browse on the grass near his paddy field. He will make frequent visits through the day to shoo them away. A needless effort, considering he has protected his seven-acre field with wire-mesh fencing, and hedged it further by sticking dried twigs of the thorny prosopis juliflora shrub into the fence.

After the 35-day old paddy saplings are removed from the seed bed and transplanted to the field, Govindaraj will stay longer at his post. During critical processes, he spends all day at the field, just ensuring food is delivered to him.

Nothing singular about Govindaraj’s experience. Farmers in rice-growing rural regions are similarly protective about their crops and subject themselves to torturous working hours. Except that Govindaraj, who is 57 years old, has a raft of reasons to walk away from this ordeal. He practises agriculture on a parcel of land in Thiruvenchery that is just around 2 km from Camp Road junction, a bustling commercial section on the arterial Velachery Tambaram Main Road.

Amid real estate boom

And his paddy field finds itself smack in the middle of a real estate boom. It is located bang on Agaram Main Road, which is being widened as part of the Eastern bypass road project undertaken by the State Highways Department. Opposite the field, on the other side of the road, a huge project by an established builder is under way. In fact, the field is surrounded on all sides by either newly-promoted layouts or buildings under construction.

Real estate growth is fuelled by connectivity and the presence of educational institutions in the vicinity, including Bharath University, Sri Lakshmi Ammal Engineering College and Bharath Polytechnic.

Govindaraj clearly has a lot of temptation to hold out against, especially because farmers around him have warmed up to the overtures from the construction industry. “There were around 15 others who were growing paddy around my field. They have either sold their land or given up agriculture and are waiting to sell their land in the future. A crop of farmers in Agaramthen and Paduvancheri have not given up agriculture. But in Thiruvenchery, everybody else has turned their back on farming – because real estate is more intense and more tempting here,” says Govindaraj.

Govindaraj himself has sold a portion of his land to a layout developer to honour family commitments, including the education of his two children. But he decided to continue farming in seven acres of the remaining land.

“I want to continue farming as long as I can. In his free time, my brother Venkatesan (46), who works with Metro Water, helps me. My son Arvind, who is employed as an engineer, loves farming but has little time on his hands,” says Govindaraj, who is obviously not into rice cultivation for the money.

He cites difficulty in sourcing labour, threat from cows and poor returns as reasons for flagging enthusiasm for farming. “Farm labourers have now moved to construction work. I rely on contract labourers from Cheyyur for most of the work to be done,” says Govindaraj.

Costs weigh heavily

Costs are a factor weighing heavily against farmers in the region. “Transplanting the young crops costs Rs. 3.500 per acre. Ploughing with the tractor costs Rs. 1,000 per acre; ploughing with a rotator comes at Rs. 1,200 per hour. Levelling the field costs Rs. 500 per acre. To meet costs, I take a loan of Rs. 15,000 per acre from a farmers’ cooperative society,” he explains.

His efforts yield around 40 bags of rice from each acre. “I sell them to merchants from Red Hills. During a regular year, each bag fetches from Rs. 800 to Rs. 900. In a year with high demand, which was the case last year, a bag fetches around Rs. 1,400. After factoring in all the cultivation costs, including fertilisers, a portion of that money will be your profit,” he says.

Govindaraj explains the money is not great, but that will not drive him away from rice cultivation. His idea of gains is different: he values the respect he has earned for his commitment to farming.

“A few erstwhile farmers of Thiruvenchery admire me for how I still continue as a farmer. When I go to the Agaram Main Road, I am greeted warmly, even by strangers, just because I am a farmer in these times and in these parts.”