Hard-working farmers from Punjab have turned a ‘deserted or abandoned’ arid farm land into an oasis of lush green orchards in drought-prone Ramanathapuram in southern Tamil Nadu
A small band of happy, hard-working Sikh farmers are growing a little Punjab deep inside southern Tamil Nadu’s backward and drought-prone Ramanathapuram. Rustic rural Punjab comes alive in a stretch of 100 acres of Akal Farms where aroma of genuine sarson ka saag, dal tadka, aaloo gobi ki sabji and lassi fills up the air and charpais thrown in here and there complete the Punjabi village setting at this arid village, some 100 km from the temple town of Madurai.
Yes, Singh is king not just in Punjab, but in this tiny village of Vallandai, where farmers from Sangrur, Moga and Ludhiana have grown an orchard in the deserted and abandoned lands of the parched district. Seeds of ‘green revolution’ of this band of Sardars have today grown into an orchard, akin to an oasis in the desert, and its demonstration effect is immense. Officials of the agriculture and horticulture department troop to this village and showcase it to the others as an example of fruits of hard work.
Farmers of the village and surrounding areas too visit the Akal Farms for inspiration, and guidance from the Sardars, who swear by science and technology. Yes, the Sardars have employed a doctorate in Agricultural Sciences as their full-time advisor. The Sardars of this ‘Akal Farms’ are today a source of both “inspiration and jealousy”. Many villagers who sold off their lands dirt cheap to these Sardars today rue that moment.
Sardar Manmohan Singh, nearing 70, is one of the pioneers of the Akal Farms, set up in 2007. Unmindful of the sentiments they are generating, the Singh farmers, as they are called here, carry on with their good work in the manner they best know — to expand and conquer newer lands. Their target is to replicate their success of turning 170 acres of ‘wasteland’ into lush green fruit orchards into 200 acres.
Yes, Covid came as a rude shock, as we have had a labour shortage, one of the founder owners of the Akal Farms, Mahmohan Singh said over phone. But now, things are beginning to limp back to normalcy, he said, and the targets now seem achievable. “We will have 200 acres under cultivation by October-September,” he said, adding: “We are getting help from the local agriculture and horticulture departments as well, for the first time.” The government is giving seedlings for our 20 acres of cashew plantation, he said.
The success of these people has had a resonance in Punjab as well, as there is a steady stream of farmers visiting the farms to check in on them. Even as Manmohan Singh was speaking over the phone, two busloads of visitors (farmers) from neighbouring villages had descended on the farms for a tour of the area and for learning from the Sardars.
“The horticulture department officials brought these visitors to our farm today, and it is a regular occurrence,” said Manmohan Singh. “Yes, we do get enquiries from far and wide.”
The contrast cannot be more striking as one approaches the Akal Farms. For a few kilometres as one approaches the Vallandai village, on either side of the broken metal road, lie acres and acres of barren, dry parched lands that sport wild growth of bushy, thorny plants and trees.
Suddenly, as the signboard of Akal Farms springs up, the fields dress in dark and light green, in mango groves and coconut plantations that are akin to an oasis in a desert.
Darshan Singh, also among the founders of the Akal Farm, said today there were some 20 Sardar families living on the farm and another equal number of labourers from Punjab and Uttar Pradesh are also camping.
Of the 20 families that stay on the farm, all partners, every member contributes to the farming operations. The women folk are engaged in cooking and looking after the menfolk, who toil through the day in the fields.
Yes, from 170 acres of farming now, Sardar Manmohan Singh has fixed a goal of 200 acres within the next few months. Actually, the target was more ambitious, but the two years of Covid disrupted all the plans, he said. The fruit orchards have an inter-cropping of vegetables that supplement the farm income. At present, Akal Farms has crops of amla and add papaya and mangos, which are the mainstay. “Now we are about to experiment with cashew as well,” Manmohan Singh said.
The 20 members of the Akal Farms owe allegiance to Baba Sant Guru Iqbal Singh, who is said to have influenced their decision to travel to Tamil Nadu, buy lands cheap, and turn them into cultivable lands. Sant Baba is said to have visited Ramanathapuram in 2006 and then advised his followers to begin operations there as land was very cheap.
“We began purchasing lands here in 2007 and spent the first three years till 2009 to develop the land,” said Darshan Singh, the nuts-and-bolts man who elaborated on how they did what they did.
“At first, they must have thought we were committing a mistake by taking up land there. But today, the locals are astonished and some surely regret having sold off their lands,” Darshan Singh said. “One positive result of the farming success is that land prices in this village and surrounding villages have shot up by ten times,” he added.
“We spent six months, flattening the surface, removing shrubs and trees and waste from the jungle-like area, using earthmovers,” Darshan Singh said, recalling the early days. “They said there was no water, but we found water and used drip irrigation for our farming,” he said.
Ever ready to take scientific help, adding to their own native Punjabi agricultural practices, and taking the help of local experts in soil, nature, weather and the kind of fruits and plants they can raise, the Singh farmers zeroed in on cash crops — fruits and vegetables (for steady income till the fruit crop begin to give yield in three- or four-years time).
Right now, Akal Farms have fruit plantations of mango, guava, amla, sapota and papaya. And for inter-crop, vegetables being planted are cucumber, watermelon, pumpkin, and muskmelon.
Moneywise, the vegetables give the farm an income that is used for daily expenses. For example, every day 200 kg of cucumbers are sold. The mango plantations too have begun to yield revenues. “Covid has hit us very badly for the last two years, and it will take us a while to recover,” Manmohan Singh said but added, “We are confident, things will become normal very soon.”
An agriculture department official said that “Akal Farms is most easily the most scientific farm in this part of the world. It is amazing to see this kind of a farm in a drought-prone Ramanathapuram area.” In fact, the Sardars are also smartly availing of all the government schemes in operation.
All work and no play? What do the boys do for entertainment?
“We have to thank Kapil Sharma for bringing Panjab ki mitti ki khushboo through his comedy programme and lots of laughter and entertainment,” Sardar Manmohan Singh said in fulsome praise for the stand-up comedian.
“We even watch all the repeat programmes,” Darshan Singh added.
The writer is a political analyst based in Chennai. Views expressed are personal.