"I don't know Hindi and they cannot speak a word in Tamil. But, as I have no other option, I have started getting labourers from Bihar. They manage to understand what I say and are extremely honest . Now they have become part of my family," says Puliyur Nagarajan, State vice president of Bharat Krishak Samaj.

One man's meat may be another man's poison. This is the situation prevailing in the labour scenario of Tamil Nadu. Even as the labour shortage started crippling both agricultural and construction activities in the State with the advent of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), it has paved way for the influx of the labour from north, especially Bihar.

“I don't know Hindi and they cannot speak a word in Tamil. But, as I have no other option, I have started getting labourers from Bihar. They manage to understand what I say and are extremely honest . Now they have become part of my family,” says Puliyur Nagarajan, State vice president of Bharat Krishak Samaj. He employs about half a dozen Biharis in his banana fields and also rice hulling mill.

This reporter could see obvious shortage of labour - be it in the fields of paddy or sugarcane, banana or korai, betel vines or jasmine. Most of the owners have given their fields on lease to their erstwhile workers as carrying out farming on their own has ceased to be remunerative. “The strain and pain are more in involving ourselves directly,” they admit.

And MNREGA has created a silent revolution. With 100 days of employment and Rs.132 guaranteed a day, the bargaining power of labourers has shot up. Thus the daily wage for male workers has skyrocketed to Rs. 250 a day and for female workers Rs.150, virtually double that they have been getting in the early 2000.

Rajachidambaram, State deputy general secretary of Tamilaga Vivasayigal Sangham, laments that this programme has ruined agriculture by making the labour scarce.

He pleads for proper monitoring of its implementation alleging that hardly anything gets done. “It has achieved only the opposite. Even sincere workers have become lazy and are opting for far easier task of attending to the MNREGA works. Even districts like Ariyalur and Perambalur, known for their migratory labour force, are facing labour shortage. Though the workers are supposed to be paid only after measuring their works, it is rarely done,” he alleges.

Siva Suriyan, Tiruchi district secretary of Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangham, does not find fault with the MNREGA per se.

At the same time, he admits that its implementation leaves much to be desired. “Whoever registers with the panchayats should be allocated hands from those seeking work under the MNREGA. While 50 per cent of the wages could be borne by the small and marginal farmers, the rest could be borne by the government. Big farmers can be asked to foot the entire bill.”

He also points out that the shortage of labour is also because even those who have studied only up to standard VIII have moved to urban areas for jobs or are unwilling to take up agricultural works.

These leaders contend that the specific stipulation that the MNREGA works be taken up only after attending to farm operations had been ignored by the Collectors.

The MNREGA has created a transformation among the farm labour of Tamil Nadu what the Land Ceiling Act of 1961 has done to landlords.

A number of persons with considerable land holdings were forced to downsize their property in 1960s because the Act permitted only 15 standard acres.

Thus a number of people, even in the delta, who were originally either tillers or lessee, had become the owners of the lands.

It led to further fragmentation of the property as most of the landholdings in the country are small and marginal which has been the major impediment for mechanising agriculture.

Is farming becoming family-dependent, or a cottage industry? Or will this pave way for corporate farming as S.Ranganathan, general secretary of Cauvery Delta Farmers' Welfare Association, foresees. Corporate sectors would have the wherewithal to deploy modern machinery and also manage the labour force paying higher wages.