Pappammal’s voice is loud and clear like the peal of a temple bell. When I first hear her strong voice, it is difficult to believe that I am talking to a centenarian. At 105, R. Pappammal, aka Rangammal, a pioneering Coimbatore-based organic farmer, the oldest farmer in the country, is the recipient of the Padma Shri (2021), the fourth highest civilian award in the country.
“Where are you from?” she opens the conversation.
When I reply, she responds with sparkling warmth and affection, “The next time you visit Coimbatore, you must stay with us for at least a day.”
This is old-world, no-frills, no-fuss Bharatiya hospitality that like many other things in Bharat that once was Bharat, is fast vanishing.
Since January 26, 2021, when the Padma wards were announced, all roads in the country lead to the idyllic pastoral Thekkampatty village, 10 km from Mettupalayam town in Coimbatore district. At six feet tall, dressed in hand woven cotton sari in earthy colours, with a hoe carelessly flung on her shoulder, Pappammal stares unselfconsciously at the camera. The wrinkles and creases that line her eyes and face, like the annular rings around an ancient tree, impart character and dignity to the centenarian. Her cascade of white hair rests casually in a knot at the nape of her neck.
Pappammal, who has found he calling as an organic farmer, has over the years, defied every gender stereotype, broken impermeable glass ceilings and by doing so, repositioned and reinvented the role and contributions of women in the agricultural sector where they often remain unheard voices in the periphery.
Born in 1914 in family of farmers in Devalapuram village in Coimbatore district, Pappammal’s parents Velammal and Maruthachala Mudaliar died early. Hence Pappammal and her two sisters were raised by their paternal grandmother in Thekkampatty village.
Unlike most children today, Pappaammal never attended a formal school. However, the young girl acquired numerical literacy through traditional games such as Pallanguzhi. The centenarian who has lived through the Spanish flu epidemic ( that she describes as a great fever which killed many people), other epidemics such as cholera, plague, and the World Wars, recalls about her growing up years.
“It was all work and no play. Even as a child, I would get up at 5:00 am, clean my teeth with neem twigs, drink a glass of millets (such as ragi, thinai and samai) mixed with curd or buttermilk, crunch small onions and green chillies and go to work in the field. I was always interested in farming. Tilling, sowing, irrigating, harvesting and post harvesting activities such as chaffing and milking—every aspect of farming held my attention and interest.”
A natural leader, Pappammal took charge of her siblings a after her grandmother’s death. Simultaneously, she inherited her grandmother’s small provision store. Her business savviness and entrepreneurial instincts and drive enabled her to slowly but steadily expand the business from a small provision store to a flourishing shop and eatery. Meanwhile, with the profits she bought 10 acres of land in which she cultivated traditional rain-fed North East Monsoon dependant traditional crops such as millets.
Marriage, she says, added to her responsibility and double burden of balancing the needs of her family with her passion for farming. Over the years, Pappammal gifted most of the lands to her family (her immediate family consists of her sister’s children, grand children and great grandchildren) and has retained 2 acres in which she continues to cultivate millets and micro drip irrigated bananas.
Gradually, Pappammal’s ambit began to fan outwards from the maroon soil of her fertile fields with rows of neatly planted banana crops, scalloped by the ranges of the Western Ghats in the distance, etched across a turquoise blue sky. In 1959, Pappammal was elected as a councillor and ward member, Thekkampatty Panchayat, when the Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act was introduced in 1958.
Meanwhile in 1983, Pappammal became involved with the activities of the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) in Coimbatore district, in association with Avinashalingam Institute of Home Science in the city. She also began to participate in learning spaces for farmers organised by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU).
The several lab to farm techniques that were being discussed, and the training and practical tips that were being offered and the various locality-specific techniques and crop patterns intrigued Pappammal. Together with her heritage of organic farming, Pappammal was poised to be an inspiration.
“I had my own fear and dislike for chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides. When chemical inputs were introduced in the country, I continued to follow the natural way that I’d learnt in my father’s farm,” said Pappammal, about her involvement in organic farming. “I did not follow any particular school of organic farming or was not trained by any expert.”
Her natural leadership qualities and people-orientation led her to organise collectives of women farmers in various districts in Coimbatore, establish a model farm comprising of women members of Self Help groups (SHG) and later, a village granary scheme.
“In any given area there should be one or more farmer collectives, which gives benefit of scale and bargain for the produce,” said Pappammal. “Otherwise, it is difficult for organic farming to succeed as individual farmers will find it difficult to command a good price.”
Until the second wave of pandemic erupted, the centenarian was busy participating in a slew of functions to felicitate her for the Padma Shri award. “Women should take part in decisions at the farm, household and in the social institutions. Only then the whole community will benefit,” she tells in all the meetings.
What is the secret of her longevity? “Hard work, disciplined life style and healthy eating habits,” she says. Her grandson R. Balakrishnan, also a farmer, recalls accompanying his grandmother to the fields. According to him, his grandmother was “demanding” and set high standards for them to follow. It was easy to be inspired by her because she walked the talk and her knowledge of farming is encyclopaedic.
Pappammal insists on eating on a banana leaf and is particularly fond of freshly cooked hot food, fresh vegetables, millets and greens. However, mutton biryani is her “favourite” and she avoids tea and coffee; preferring instead the traditional hand pounded dry ginger and coriander seeds mixed in hot water and strained as a substitute beverage for the caffeinated variety. Not surprisingly, her blood pressure and sugar levels are “normal”!
Pappammal’s contributions are significant against the backdrop of the pervasive genderisation in modern agriculture. According to an OXFAM Report (2013), 80 percent of farm work is done by women and yet they own less than 13 percent of land. In addition, 60 to 80 percent of food is produced by rural women who have no access to land titles, are denied access to institutional supports such as bank loans, insurance schemes, government schemes and cooperatives.
This feisty centenarian who has literally been living life from sunrise to sunset, has shown that despite the odds, it is possible to make a difference of one follows one’s svadharma or doing what one has the capability; which then becomes a sacred calling.
“My great grandmother is independent, friendly and a woman who lives life on her own terms. Her hard work is my inspiration,” says Akshita, Pappammal’s 15 year-old great granddaughter who exemplifies the inherent potential of family values being handed down intergenerationally.
Meanwhile Pappammal takes leave of me politely on the phone as she says she needs to go back to the farm. She also reminds me of my promise to visit and stay with her. Although I still haven’t met her, her powerful presence has already impacted me. Truly, age does not wither her nor life stale her infinite variety.
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