Become trend-setters as locals embrace papaya farming

No rain. No water. No electricity. No money. And the list of woes goes on. Big, small or marginal farmer in any district is no exception to the situation.

Yet, there is always hope amidst loss. The ryots may be grudging the long dry spell, but here is a small group of people in remote Subbulapuram of Peraiyur taluk, near Usilampatti, that has taken the farmers by surprise with their yield in the dry season.

They are Punjabi migrants who for the past few years have been successfully cultivating papaya, ladies finger, tissue culture banana, cucumber and more. They have converted the sun-blistered land into green tracts. The area almost resembles a mini Punjab lush with its green fields on the outskirts of Madurai.

Young Sikh boys sport jeans, T-shirts and turbans and drive around in their farm tractors inside a neatly fenced campus spread over seven acres.

Lives and livelihood have taken on a new meaning here. Despite teething troubles, they are growing crops through drip irrigation system under the National Horticulture Mission (NHM). The Tamil Nadu Horticulture Department is providing financial and technical aid.

Manmohan Singh has to be coaxed into speaking. And when he does, he surprises all with his chaste Tamil and explains the various stages involved in raising the papaya fruit. “The three feet tall plants have to be watered more frequently as the temperature is rising,” he says.

With him are Jitender Singh and Dharshan Singh, along with a few more co-workers who toil round-the-clock. From farmers, gardeners and cleaners during the day they turn into watchmen during the night for the farm. “We don’t waste time. We only break for “naashta” and eat very little. We cook our own dal-chawal or roti-subzi,” says Jitender.

Local man Ramalingam is their permanent companion. At 50, he has picked up a few words of Hindi from his Punjabi friends and in return taught them Tamil to keep the communication going.

“When the Punjabis came here, the land prices were abysmally low. Now, after seeing the greenery, many people visit us and evince interest in growing papaya,” he says.

The Assistant Director (Horticulture), T. Padmini, says under the NHM, Rs. 31,202 is offered as subsidy for every hectare of land. There are 25 government approved drip irrigation farms.

The beneficiaries are also given a short-term training course on use and benefits of drip irrigation, judicious water management, latest technology and use of machines. The in-house training is given at the Agricultural College and Research Institute by trained faculty members. Field visits are also part of the programme, she adds.

The Assistant Agriculture Officer, V. Pandian, says the seeds of “Red Lady” variety of papaya were procured from Bangalore and supplied by the Department. The fruit has 10 to12 days of shelf life from the day it is plucked. Till a year ago, buyers came even from Dubai and Singapore. Most of the produce is sold locally in T. Kallupatti. Many wholesale merchants from Virudhunagar also purchase from the Punjabis.

Hearing about the papaya’s success story, Alagarsami from T. Kunnathur, a small-scale farmer, came calling. A drive into the interior of Perayur-Subbulapuram-Kunnathur-T. Kallupatti reveal the growing presence of papaya raised through precision farming.

The Horticulture department officials in Madurai district disbursed Rs 94.86 lakh as subsidy and other sops to beneficiaries during the year, says Deputy Director S.V.K. Rajendran. The district has 18,000 acres under mango cultivation, 5,000 acres of plantains, 1,500 acres of guava, 1,600 acres of sapota and around 100 acres of papaya.

With the National Horticulture Mission giving more sops to farmers’ for taking up papaya cultivation after the Peraiyur success, the field staff have identified barren lands in Usilampatti, Sedapatti, Chellampatti and in parts of Alanganallur for expansion.

However, the farmers in Peraiyur claim that a disease known as “mealy bug” is causing concern. But Horticultural officials say the Department of Entomology in Agricultural College and Research Institute have solved the problem.

On the other hand, real estate agents in the bone dry Usilampatti belt are trying to capitalise on the non-availability of water and the poor prospects for carrying out farm operations. As a result, many barren lands are turning into housing plots. What was available for Rs. 1 lakh per acre five years back is now priced at over Rs. 3 lakh.

“The government should discourage such rampant plot promotion,” plead the farmers. “We should be encouraged to try innovative methods to keep the land cultivable,” they say.

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