Articles- THE HINDU —


Ullavur: The bounty runs dry

Ullavur of the eighteenth century produced its bounty of grain, partly because it was assured of an abundance of waters, which were carefully shepherded into the various erys, created around the basin of Palar. The cultivated lands of Ullavur have doubled since the 1770’s. Yet the village does not seem to have any new sources of irrigation. As of old, Ullavur, even today is supposed to get most of its irrigation waters from Tenneri, about 7 kilometers away in the north. Tenneri is one of the largest erys of Chengalpattu district, with a command area spread over the lands of as many as 24 villages, of which Ullavur is the farthest. Of the 4 sluices of Tenneri, 2 are however reserved for Ullavur. A big maduvu, covering about 10 hectares of the village lands, brings surplus waters from Tenneri to the village. Another maduvu to the east of the village brings waters from Sivaram ery. Apart from these there are 2 small erys within Ullavur.

All these sources in the 1770’s provided irrigation for about 225 hectares of nunja lands. Today according to the revenue records 355 hectares of the 422 hectares of cultivated lands in the village are supposed to be irrigated from the same sources. This increase in the irrigated areas is probably achieved by merely redefining the ayacuts of the erys. The lands thus brought under the ayacuts, though nominally irrigated, are unlikely to receive waters in the ordinary years. Availability of water from Tenneri and Sivaram erys is in fact likely to be much poorer than what it was in the 1770’s, given the general state of neglect of the erys. During our visit we heard the villagers complaining that they had received no waters from Tenneri for the last 5 years.

Our estimate that Ullavur may today be producing the equivalent of 1,250 tonnes of paddy that it used to in the 1770’s is therefore probably rather optimistic. However, even if this estimate is near the reality of today, it implies a much lower level of prosperity for the inhabitants. The cultivators of Ullavur, a majority of whom happen to be the Vanniars, as in Pappankuzhi, have managed to bring the total production of the village abreast with its produce 2 centuries ago, through bringing larger amounts of land under cultivation and using modern input intensive technologies. This has implied much higher level of costs, not only in terms of labour, but also in terms of urban industrial inputs, which have to be paid for from the resources of the village, thus reducing the net value of the produce. Villagers themselves think that for them 4 tonnes of produce through the use of modern technologies turns out to be of the same net value as 2 tonnes produced through traditional methods.

The cultivators are probably over-emphasising the costs. But modern inputs are known to be rather expensive, and there is no doubt that these constitute a considerable drain on the produce of the village. On the other hand a village like Ullavur may also be obtaining some additional non-agricultural resources from those of its inhabitants who find employment in the neighbouring urban areas. However, the inflow of resources from this source in an average village is hardly ever very considerable, and is unlikely to balance the outflow on account of agricultural inputs and other necessities as well as occasional luxuries obtained from the city. The net annual resources available to the residents of Ullavur are thus likely to be somewhat less than the value equivalent of 1,250 tonnes of paddy.

The number of households in Ullavur, however, had gone up to 272, according to the 1981 census. The villagers’ estimate of the number of households today is around 400. This 5 fold increase since the 1770’s implies, that even in a village like Ullavur, where the cultivators have somehow managed to maintain overall production at the eighteenth century levels, the resource base of an average household has actually shrunk to almost one fifth. And this shrinkage does not include the loss of various cultural, educational and economic services, which were so abundantly provided for in the Chengalpattu villages of the eighteenth century. This also does not take into account the value of the animal wealth that Ullavur of the 1770’s had in such abundance. According to the records every householder in Ullavur had at least one cow in addition to the 3 bullocks we have mentioned earlier. Today, with double the cultivation, and five times the population, there are only 40 pairs of bullocks in the village, and in addition there are perhaps 400 goats and sheep.

Average annual income of a household in Ullavur these days is thus around 2.5 tonnes of paddy, which in money terms amounts to around 5,000 rupees. This level of income puts them in the category of an average agricultural household in the country. The bounty of Palar, and the hard work of the cultivators of Ullavur, who have managed to double the area under cultivation in the village, has only assured that their incomes have not fallen below the average agricultural incomes of the country. That itself is perhaps a great achievement. After all the cultivators of Ullavur are still producing the equivalent of more than 2 tonnes of grains per household. Average availability of foodgrains in the country is nearer 3/4 of a ton, and a large number of Indians in the agricultural sector are unable to produce enough to ensure even this amount of grain for their families. Ullavur still produces some surplus for the market.


Life in Ullavur today does not have the easy affluence of the eighteenth century. This lack of affluence is clearly reflected in the composition of the population of Ullavur. Most of the resourceful people, and also those who were skilled in non-agricultural professions, seem to have deserted the village. Only the households who have no option but to continue with cultivation, and those who have no resources to make a living elsewhere, are probably left in the village.

Of the Vellalas, who held the kaniatchi rights in the village, and formed 20 percent of the households of Ullavur in the 1770’s, almost all have left. Today there are only 5 Vellala households amongst the total of 400. Of the kammawars, some of whom also held kaniatchi rights, not one is left in the village. All the Brahmans have also deserted. Of the tookery and kaval households, who constituted more than 7 percent of the population in the 1770’s, only a solitary naidu household is left.

There were 9 Vanniar household amongst the total of 83 in the Ullavur of 1770’s. Today, of the 400 households 200 are those of the Vanniar. Proportion of Harijan households in the village has however not increased that dramatically. In the 1770’s they formed 25 percent of the population. Today there are about 150 Harijan households, constituting about 40 percent of the population. The Harijan and the Vanniar thus form the dominant component of the village population. Besides them there are also a few Idaiyar and Kusavar cultivators.

Of the non-cultivating households, both the Pandarams, 1 Valluvan, 1 Navitan, 1 Vannan, 1 Carpenter and 1 Blacksmith are still left in the village. These people perhaps had nowhere to go. The goldsmith has however left. One of the 2 Kanakkupillais, and a few of the Chettys are still there.

In recent times the village seems to have acquired a new population, of people who have been settled on the shrub lands, on the west of the village, on the path to the ruins of the Theepanchal temple. Many of these completely resourceless people living in makeshift huts made of flimsy waste materials are probably Villis.

But much of the village seems now to be living a resourceless makeshift type of life. This is perhaps most obviously visible in the deterioration of the physical living space. There are none of the kulams, kuttais, toppus and temples of the eighteenth century, which made Ullavur such an attractive place to live in. Only the Easwaran and the Amman temple seem to have survived the ravages of time to some extent. People do remember the position of most of the landmarks mentioned in the records, and many of the toppus, kulams and temples still find mention in the Kanakkupillai’s registers. But the tamarind toppu of more than 2 acres is now reduced to a solitary tree or two, the kulams and kuttais are just depressions in land, often without water, and temples are represented by flat stones lying on small platforms, without a roof or a wall around them, but still worshipped for their sanctity and grandeur of the past.

Nevertheless, Ullavur seems to have fared much better than many of her neighbours, through the ravages of the last 2 hundred years. Even though the Palar no more brings its bounty to Ullavur, the fertility of its lands still assures that most of the inhabitants here, get enough to eat, and that at least some of the fields here in a good year again acquire the garden like looks of fields, characteristic of the carefully planned and laid out fields in the command area of a functioning ery. This is more than what many villages in the neighbourhood can ever manage.

J. K. Bajaj and T. M. Mukundan
Centre for Policy Studies
March 25, 1991