What farmers' leaders say

Falling water table and a dry river

Print edition : February 03, 2017

The dry Kalyani irrigation canal near Soorakottai in Thanjavur district. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

The dry bed of the Cauvery in Tiruchi district. Photo: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

S. Ranganathan, general secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association. Photo: G. GNANAVELMURUGAN

P.R. Pandian, president of the Mannargudi branch of the Tamil Nadu All Farmers' Associations' Committee. Photo: V. Ganesan

P. Shanmugam, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam.

V. Dhanbalan, general secretary of the Cauvery Farmers' Protection Sangam, Nagapattinam. Photo: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

The Cauvery is dry and the groundwater table is fast receding in the delta districts. Farmers’ leaders call for long-term measures to restore the groundwater table across the State.

WHETHER it is 82-year-old S. Ranganathan, secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, 80-year-old farmer V. Ramu from Painganadu in Tiruvarur district, 70-year-old farmer G. Ramadoss Naidu from Vidangalur in Nagapattinam district or 48-year-old activist P.R. Pandian, the assessment is the same: that they have not seen a drought in Tamil Nadu as devastating as this one in their lifetime.

Pandian, who is president of the Mannargudi branch of the Tamil Nadu All Farmers’ Associations’ Committee, said the drought conditions were a result of “a three-pronged assault”: deficient rainfall from the south-west monsoon, failure of the north-east monsoon, and the Karnataka government’s refusal to comply with the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal of February 2007 (the award entailed that the upper riparian State should provide Tamil Nadu 192 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of water in a water year from June 1 to May 31.) As a result, paddy, maize, sorghum, cotton, turmeric, citrus fruit, onion, tomato, lady’s finger and several crops have withered across the State.

Pandian said that although the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) government in Karnataka headed by Jagdish Shettar had agreed to the setting up of the Cauvery management board to ensure the implementation of the final award, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre was averse to setting up the board. He said: “As a result, the entire issue got diverted and the final award could not be implemented. The Cauvery delta farmers were eager that the Centre should set up the board.” Pandian blamed the Centre for the loss of lives of farmers in Tamil Nadu.

The Narendra Modi government took a bizarre stand in the Supreme Court in October 2016, that the apex court had no power to review the final award of the tribunal. The Centre argued that the tribunal’s award was final and opposed the hearing of appeals filed by Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It maintained that Article 262 (2) of the Constitution and provisions of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956, barred the Supreme Court from entertaining appeals against the tribunal’s final award. On December 9, 2016, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justices Dipak Misra, Amitava Roy and A.M. Khanvilkar, brushed aside the Centre’s stand and upheld the court’s constitutional power to hear the appeals filed by Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu against the final award.

Pandian said: “Had the Cauvery management board been set up, it would have ensured the implementation of the final award and the farmer deaths would not have occurred. No farmer can truly recover from the shock of seeing his crop wither.”

The samba crop, usually cultivated on 13.5 lakh acres (one acre = 0.4 hectare) in the core Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, was a “total washout this season”, he said. He suggested that the State government prepare far-sighted, long-term plans to restore the groundwater table in Tamil Nadu.

With the groundwater table receding fast in the three delta districts, Ranganathan wonders what will happen to the samba crop sown directly in areas where groundwater was available.

“We do not know how much of the samba will survive. We have reached the lowest ebb as far as the availability of groundwater is concerned. Many farmers are buying water in tankers because they somehow want to save the standing crop,” Ranganathan said. The upshot was that the 5-horsepower motor, used to pump out water from borewells, was unable to do so because the water table had gone to a depth of more than 400 ft. “If farmers use more powerful motors, transformers would get damaged as they would not be able to take the overload. So it has become a big struggle to keep the crops alive,” he said.

Ranganathan said: “I have never seen more hardship faced by the people than now. Both kuruvai and samba crops could not be raised because the south-west monsoon and the north-east monsoon failed. The Cauvery is dry. Groundwater is not available either. All factors have combined to hit the crops and the farmers hard. This is one of the worst seasons experienced by Cauvery delta farmers.”

P. Shanmugam, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), complained that the high-level teams deputed by Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam to various districts were tasked to assess only the extent of loss of various crops. (On January 3, the Chief Minister announced that high-level teams comprising Ministers and senior IAS officers (Collectors and officials from the Agriculture Department and the Revenue Department) would visit 31 districts other than Chennai district to assess the status of the crops and the drought situation and submit reports to the government.)

Shanmugam said: “The teams, therefore, did not make an all-round, comprehensive assessment of the impact of the drought on various fronts. They had no instructions to assess the impact of the drought on agricultural workers. A District Collector said that Collectors had not been told to make inquiries about farmers who committed suicide. Migration of farm labour is taking place. But the teams did not study this phenomenon. Cattle do not have fodder to eat or water to drink. The price of fodder has shot up 100 per cent. All this is related to drought. Irrigation canals, lakes and ponds have not been de-silted for years. It is not as if drought means only failure of crops.

“The teams did not evaluate the brutal impact of the drought on numerous fronts. They took a totally wrong approach when they studied only the crop loss in the districts.”

Cauvery V. Dhanabalan, general secretary of the Cauvery Farmers’ Protection Sangam, Nagapattinam, blamed the Karnataka government for the drought in Tamil Nadu. Karnataka said it would release only the surplus water from its reservoirs to Tamil Nadu. Its strategy was to keep using the Cauvery water from its dams/reservoirs and ensure that the dams never had surplus water, he said. “Worse still, Karnataka farmers use the Cauvery waters round the year to cultivate sugarcane,” he alleged. In Tamil Nadu, too, farmers cultivated sugarcane, but they used groundwater, Dhanabalan alleged. He wanted the Tamil Nadu government to demand a compensation of Rs.6,000 crore from the Karnataka government for the loss of kuruvai and samba crops. Tamil Nadu should insist that the Centre set up the Cauvery management board to ensure the implementation of the final award. Rivers, irrigation canals, channels, ponds and kanmais should be de-silted and cleared of all vegetation that had grown on their beds.

A series of check dams should be built on the Cauvery basin between Tiruchi and Mettur to conserve water. Shutters and regulators in dams should be maintained properly.

Perambur and Kalla Perambur lakes, both situated in Thanjavur district, should be de-silted and deepened, Dhanabalan said.

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