Farmers are opting for the real estate option due to poor agricultural conditions

Pushed by unsettling agricultural conditions and pulled by lucrative real estate deals, farmers across the famed and fertile Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu are selling their lands to real estate developers. In Amma Chatram, Marudhanallur, Tirunageswarm, Mathur, and in a host of other villages in Thanjavur and adjacent districts, farmlands are being converted to residential plots at a galloping rate.

The agricultural uncertainties have multiplied this year due to poor supply of water and the power situation, and real estate appears to be the exit option for farmers. Though worried about the situation, farmers are not complaining, and the reasons are not hard to find.

“Do not the let the green colour deceive you. The fields have crops but they are wilting. There is not enough water now to see the crops through,” S. Thangappan, a farmer in Maruthhuvakudi near Aduthurai, cautioned. “Three crops a year is a thing of the past. If we are lucky, we can have one good crop. An acre of agricultural land can normally yield about 30 to 35 bags of rice and our average profit would be Rs. 6,000 to Rs. 7, 000 per acre. Mind you, this income comes after we harvest the crop and not every month. This year has been the worst and we would not be able to recover whatever we have spent,” he explained.

Thangappan would survive and may even continue with agriculture. He is a retired truck driver and gets a monthly pension. No such options exist for the 55-year-old Rajakannuof Manalmedu near Pasupathi Koil. He owns less than an acre of land close to the Kudamuruti river. He cannot spend money on drilling a bore to tide over the water crisis, nor does he have income from other sources. “Agriculture is no more economically sustainable,” he complained.

The story of Radhakrishnan, a farmer in Musakulam, a village tucked away from the main road and located about 5 km from Tiruvarur, is equally distressing. Though he owns two acres, Radhakrishnan lives a difficult life. Without water, the crops are wilting and his family of four lives off the free rice the State government gives through its ration shops.

“Had my field been near the main road, it would have been worth many lakhs of rupees. Real estate people would have lined up to buy it to convert it into housing plots. What to do we are stuck in this small village,” Radhakrishnan said.

He has reasons to lament so. At Semmozhi Nagar, a housing colony on the main road to Tiruvarur and 2 km away form Radhakrishnan’s farm, the developers have sold all the plots. Those who own are reselling them at a price of about Rs. 350 sq.ft. This makes the area, which was once a farmland, worth about Rs. 1.5 crore an acre. The land prices escalate further as one approaches the town. In contrast, Radhakrishnan’s two-acre farm is worth only about Rs. 2 lakh.

Even projects in small villages such as Amma Chatram, far away from Kumbakonam, the price of residential plots are as high as Rs. 575 sq.ft. as against Rs. 25 per sq.ft. for a farmland located a little further away. Such conversions have resulted not because of the organic growth of the place, but driven more by speculative investment. This is evidenced by the fact that only a few houses are built in the many colonies and vacant plots are regularly resold.

Mannachanallur, a village closer to the Kollidam river near Tiruchi, is an illustrative example to understand the consequence of farmland conversion. This place was once a well-known rice-bowl and the local variety was very popular. Over the years, farmlands have turned into housing plots and agricultural production has significantly dropped. Prabha Raman, a wholesale rice dealer in Tiruchi, points out that “it is difficult to find the local rice in the market.” He explained that “more than 70 per cent of what is sold here and in other places in Tamil Nadu is from Karantaka. They are cheap and preferred.”

In 2011, the government amended the regulations to make conversion of wetlands difficult. Any one wishing to change the land use had to get the permission of the district collector. The State government claimed that this would deter indiscriminate conversion, but, like other building rules, this too is followed in the breach.

A revenue official in Kumbokanam told that people hardly sought approval. Unauthorised conversions are rampant and a major source of local corruption. A seller near Kumbakonam was ingenious. He applied for approval to convert 9.5 cares of farmland to 140 residential plots. After receiving the approval, he quietly annexed the adjacent land and divided it to another 100 plots.

Between 1971 and 2006, land under paddy cultivation has reduced by 6 lakh hectares. The much awaited results of the 2011 agricultural census are expected to show further decline.

It may be unfair to stop the farmers while allowing urban dwellers to benefit from the land value appreciation, particularly when agriculture is becoming difficult to pursue. At the same time, as the State agricultural plan drafted by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in 2009 projects an additional 7 lakh hectares has to be brought under cultivation by 2020 to meet the demand for rice. Addressing both the issues is going to be a tough challenge.