Alathur: Paddy farmers' plight, failed temple fireworks keep Ramya in race against Radhakrishnan

K Radhakrishnan, Ramya Haridas. Photo: Manorama

Alathur: Konnencherry, a small marketplace that cuts through Palakkad's Vadakkencheri and Kannambra grama panchayats, is all decked up with red buntings and flags.

Around 70 schoolchildren, women, and men wearing red paper visors with Minister K Radhakrishnan are waiting for him in front of CPM's small party office. A band of young boys are beating the drums for Radhakrishnan, and keeping the sleepy place noisy. A thoughtful party worker serves buttermilk to all to help beat the scorching sun.

"This time we will wrest Alathur back from the Congress. Last time, we paid the price for P K Biju's bad performance. He went out of hand," said Binu C V, who runs a cycle shop in Riyadh. "Radhakrishnan, there is not a black spot on him," said Anan Salim, who runs a soda bottling unit after returning from Dubai six months ago. Both are in their early 30s.

Radhakrishnan (60) is Kerala's minister for the welfare of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Backward Classes, temple affairs and also parliamentary affairs. The five-time MLA from Chelakkara, reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates, is the No. 2 in the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government. The CPM is betting on him to win back the Alathur Lok Sabha constituency from Congress' peppy, affable Ramya Haridas (38). This time, she is the only female candidate fielded by the Congress-led UDF in the 20-seat Kerala.

In 2019, she scored one of the biggest wins against the LDF by defeating two-time MP P K Biju by 1,58,968 votes. The defeat was a bigger blow for the CPM because the party considers Alathur as its bastion.

Ramya Haridas arriving at Thiruvilwamala panchayat, at the end of a 50km road show, late Tuesday night. Photo: Onmanorama

Alathur Lok Sabha constituency straddles two districts -- Tarur, Chittur, Nenmara and Alathur assembly segments in Palakkad; and Chelakkara, Kunnamkulam, and Wadakkanchery assembly segments in Thrissur district. All seven segments sent LDF candidates to the Kerala Legislative Assembly in 2021.

Radhakrishnan is seeking votes on the anti-BJP plank and the Congress' "lack of clarity" on issues that matter. "Today, all Indians are anxious about the existence of India," he said. He denied any anti-government sentiments in Alathur. "They tried to create it but failed miserably," he said.

Suresh K T, a minibus driver at Kannambra, said that like Biju, Ramya also wasted the opportunity given to her. "She disappeared after winning. Now, she is seeking our votes over the few LED lights (high-mast street lights) she installed," said the CPM worker.

But another taxi driver said CPM is getting hollowed out in Alathur. "The crowd of 100 or 200 at campaign points may look huge. But these same places used to see around 1,000 people 10 to 15 years ago. They used to come walking to listen to their leaders talk," he said.

Farmers' anger may drown Radhakrishnan
Of the seven assembly segments, the four in Palakkad -- Tarur, Nenmara, Alathur and Chittur -- are still agrarian economies. And farmers are mighty angry against the Union and the State governments.

At Chittur's Muthalamthode, far from the campaign bustle and 10 km from Tamil Nadu's border Meenakshipuram, lives 70-year-old paddy farmer Muthalamthode Mani. Around 5,500 kg of grains in 110 sacks have been lying in front of his house for the past month. The state government's Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation has not procured it yet.

Paddy procurement in Kerala is erratic and the prices paid are low. In Chittur, the average cost of producing 1kg of paddy is Rs 35 but the government procures it at Rs 28.20 per kg. In that, the Union government's share is Rs 23.83 and the state government's share is Rs 6.37. "The state government says it is not able to procure on time because the Centre is not releasing its share of money," said Mani.

Paddy farmer Muthalamthode Mani with his 5,500 kg of paddy harvested more than one month ago at Chittur. The state government has not procured it till now. Photo: Onmanorama

Last year when the Union government raised its share twice by Rs 1.43 each, the LDF government slashed Rs 2.86 from the state's share to ensure farmers do not benefit from the price increase, he said. Even that money is given to farmers by banks as loans through the paddy receipt scheme (PRS). "Banks are doing it because they lost trust in the state government," he said. In contrast, next-door Tamil Nadu pays the farmers promptly. Instead of making paddy cultivation viable in Kerala, the state government is pushing farmers into a debt trap, farmers said.

On the one hand, paddy farmers cannot exit farming because of laws such as the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008, and the Kerala Land Utilisation Order, 1967, and on the other hand, the government keeps the prices so low that farmers are often pushed to take the extreme step.

5500kg of paddy stacked up at Muthalamthode Mani's house in Chittur. Photo: Onmanorama

Another grave issue for farmers is the lack of water to irrigate farms. In February, farmer Dileep Kumar set his 4.5 acres of paddy farm on fire protesting against the lack of water in his fields. "Rice is Mahalaxmi to us but I did it with tears in my eyes 25 days before harvest," he said.

Around 45,000 acres of farmland in Chittur is irrigated by the Parambikulam Aliyar Project, an interstate agreement between the Tamil Nadu and Kerala governments. The agreement is that the Tamil Nadu government should release 7.25 tmc (thousand million cubic feet) of water every year. "But it releases only around 4tmc leaving the fag end of the canals dry," said Dileep Kumar. The LDF or the UDF would not take up the matter with the Tamil Nadu government because they are electorally dependent on DMK, he said.

Dileep Kumar said he was offered a job in the Food Corporation of India (FCI) on compassionate grounds after his father died in service. "I did not take it up because I wanted to be a farmer. My wife Sunitha has a master's degree and BEd, too. She too got a teacher's job. But she also wanted to be a farmer. And look at our plight now," he said.

Many are outraged at Chittur MLA and Power Minister K Krishnankutty for denying the existence of unirrigated farmlands in his constituency. "At least Narendra Modi gives Rs 6,000 to farmers," he said.

Mani said the Union government also made its anti-farmer stance clear by bringing in the three farm laws and going back on the promises given to farmers. "Around 740 farmers died in the protest. This time, the farmers' votes will be a protest against the two governments," said Mani.

CPM candidate K Radhakrishnan posing with children at Naduvathuppara in Palakkad's Tarur on Tuesday. Photo: Special Arrangement

Failed fireworks at temple add to minister's woes
Congress supporters said there is anger against Radhakrishnan for the failed fireworks at the revered Anthimahakalan Kavu Temple in Chelakkara last March. "The fireworks here are bigger than Thrissur Pooram. People come from neighbouring districts and states to watch the fireworks. But last year we were denied permission. We waited till late at night expecting the minister to do something. We kept calling Radhakrishnan. After some time, he turned off his phone," said Anoop Punnapuzha, a Youth Congress leader. "Go to any tea shop, and you will hear disappointed talk of the temple festival. This is a big issue for us. The temple sits in his neighbourhood in Chelakkara," he said.

Sunil Killimangalam, another youngster at Thiruvilwamala panchayat, said that the perception of Radhakrishnan being clean is not all true. "When the Karuvannur Bank scam happened, Radhakrishnan was the CPM's Thrissur district secretary. He did not do anything about it," he said. "Why do you think Congress grew in Alathur?"

But Congress workers agree that Haridas was not visible in the constituency as expected. "I would blame the local Congress leaders for not making use of her. They should have charted programmes for her," said Adhiradhan S, leader of a farmers' organisation affiliated to the Congress. "But she has done much better than Biju," he said.

It is farcical that Left supporters pin high expectations on an MP and have no expectation from the local minister, said Sunil Killimangalam.

LDF supporters waiting for K Radhakrishnan at Konnencherry in Vadakkencheri panchayat in Tarur. They said Ramya Haridas was missing from the constituency and is now seeking votes in the name of street lights. Photo: Onmanorama

Ramya Haridas' last plea
After a 50-km road show that started from Kunnamkulam at 3 pm, Congress candidate Ramya Haridas entered Thiruvilwamala around 9 pm on Tuesday. There were not more than 150 people waiting for her.

But that did not dampen her spirits. She gave a fiery speech pitching herself as Rahul Gandhi's candidate, and mocking CPM for depending on the Congress and DMK outside Kerala. "Why did the DMK take back from the CPM the seat bordering our constituency (Coimbatore) and give it two sure seats (Madurai and Dindigul)? That was because DMK did not trust CPM to retain that seat." BJP's Tamil Nadu president K Annamalai was the rival there.

In Alathur, NDA fielded T N Sarasu (64), former principal of the Government Victoria College at Palakkad as its candidate. In March 2016, when she retired from service, CPM's students' wing SFI made a symbolic grave in her name on the campus on her last day. As BJP's nominee, she raised the issue of Karuvannur Bank scam in her telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Modi.

"We need a strong leader like Narendra Modi to root out corruption in politics. In Indira Gandhi's days too, the government was giving money to the poor. But now, it is reaching the poor," said L Rajendran (65), who runs a readymade textile store at Thiruvilwamala. His wife and sister-in-law said they will vote for BJP. "But I will vote for the Congress because K Karunakaran helped my family set up this store. My store has been the Congress meeting point for generations. But my heart is with BJP today," he said. "There should be a change."

In 2019, Thushar Vellappally's Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) contested in Alathur for the BJP-led NDA. Its vote share slipped 1.65 percentage points to 8.82%. "This BJP is expected to hold on to its vote," said Rajendran.

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