When Congress president Rahul Gandhi reaches the district headquarters of Wayanad, about 2,460 km away from Delhi, to file nominations, he would land directly into the ground zero of the rural agrarian crisis.
Last Thursday, small-scale farmer Krishna Kumar, a resident of Thirunelli village, committed suicide over the failure to repay a farm loan of Rs 7 lakh. His was the sixth suicide in the district after last year’s flood.
“The agriculture sector in the district is in severe crisis. Around 9,000 farmers are facing revenue recovery proceedings after they defaulted on repayment of loan. Most farmers do not have any income from cultivation. They are now surviving by rearing milch animals,’’ said A C Thomas, district president of Farmers’ Relief Forum, a farmers’ outfit.
Once the largest pepper growing district in the country, Wayanad is now a shadow of that past. Severe drought and fall in prices have led to a total collapse of pepper cultivation in the district. Also, the import policy of successive Union governments has hurt the farmers.
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“If one debates the real reasons for the farm sector crisis, the Congress cannot skip responsibility. Due to import, the price of pepper has come down to Rs 350 from Rs 1,200 per kg two years ago. But, who is bothered about such issues?’’ said Thomas.
As farm and forest areas overlap in many parts of the constituency spread over the districts of Wayanad, Malappuram and Kozhikode, human-animal conflict has emerged as a major issue. Scores of farmers have stopped farming due to frequent entry of animals into farmlands.
Two weeks ago, a dairy farmer was killed by a wild elephant at Panamaram when he was on his way to sell milk. Since 2008, the Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency has seen 67 deaths due to attacks by animals. Also, 158 farmers and tribals have been seriously injured in animal attacks during the same period.
“The forest department is least bothered about ensuring protection to our crops from animals. What will happen even if Rahul Gandhi contests from here, though he will win with a good majority as the constituency has a strong base of pro-UDF votes,’’ said K Dasan, a small-scale farmer at Kabanigiri village.
“There is a strong sentiment against the government over failure to give protection to people and their crops. There is not a day in the district when wild animals don’t raid farmlands. Most people living in villages near forests have stopped cultivation,’’ said P Thankappan, another farmer from Padichira village.
Wayanad district does not have a super-speciality hospital. The nearest speciality healthcare facility is 72 km away from the district headquarters Kalpetta. From other parts of the district, the distance to the speciality healthcare centre is around 100 km. Patients and accident victims often die while being rushed to the neighbouring Kozhikode district.
The previous UDF government had sanctioned a government medical college for Wayanad and preliminary work had begun. But the project was stalled on the ground that area earmarked for the medical college was an ecologically fragile zone where major construction could not be sanctioned.
Wayanad district has the largest tribal population in state and has witnessed agitations by landless tribals.
At Erulam, A C Rajan from Paniya tribe lives in a small hut on forest land. “We have been staying here for six years. We have been pleading the governments to give at least five cents to construct a house,’’ he said.
Rajan is among hundreds of such tribal families. “I have a 20-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son. We are staying in a single-room hut on forest land. We don’t have even drinking water supply or a toilet. Before the 2014 elections, political parties promised to give us land to construct homes. I am a Congress sympathiser. Though the Congress won from Wayanad in the last two elections, we did not get land or house,’’ he said.
Congress leader T Siddique, who was earlier tipped to be the party’s candidate from Wayanad and had started campaigning before it was announced that Rahul will contest from the seat, said, “The main issue in Wayanad in this election is the rural crisis.’’
LDF candidate P P Suneer agreed. “The Congress won from the constituency in 2009 and 2014. But, what have they done for development of the constituency? The Congress took people of the district for granted,’’ he said.
In Wayanad revenue district, which forms a major chunk of the constituency, only 3.86 per cent of the population lives in urban areas, as per the Census report.
Although the seat is traditionally a UDF bastion, four out of the seven Assembly segments are now held by the CPM and a party-backed Independent. Of the remaining seats, two are held by the Congress and one by its UDF ally Indian Union Muslim League.
Muslims and Christians account for 45 per cent and 18 per cent of the population in the constituency.
The Wayanad constituency was formed in 2009 after delimitation. In the 2009 election, Congress candidate M I Shanavas defeated the CPI’s M Rahmathulla by a huge margin of 1.5 lakh votes. In the 2014 elections, Shanavas retained the seat by a margin of 20,000 votes. The seat fell vacant following Shanavas’s death in November 2018.