Cover Story

Withering lives

Print edition : February 03, 2017

K. Gandhi with his withered maize crop at Tirupattur in Tiruchi district. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

Farmers N. Ravichandran and G. Krishnamurthy in a paddy field overgrown with weeds at Kottur village in Tiruvarur district. The entire crop has withered. Photo: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

A woman showing blighted tomato plants at Keezhapatti village in Thuraiyur taluk of Tiruchi district. Photo: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

S. Chinnathambi, his brothers and their friend deepening a well at Keezhapatti village near Konappadhai in Thuraiyur taluk. Photo: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

Withered cotton crop at Tirupattur village in Tiruchi district. Photo: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

Tamil Nadu is in the grip of the worst drought in living memory after both the monsoons failed, and scores of farmers have killed themselves or died of shock on seeing their withering crops.

IT was after 8:30 p.m. that we reached the house of Aravindh in Kulimaathur village in Tiruvaiyaru taluk of Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. We knocked on the door; a young girl, obviously his sister, opened it. We enquired if it was Aravindh’s house when her father, S. Asaithambi, stepped onto the verandah. Asaithambi went inside the house and returned with a framed picture of his son with a legend that read: “K.S.A. Aravindh Mazhavarayar. Flowered: 23.09.1991. Fell off: 15.12. 2016.”

Aravindh, 25, was a diploma holder in information technology but was interested in farming, the family’s occupation. He could drive tractors, for which he had a licence. Breaking down as he narrated the events that led to his son’s death, Asaithambi said: “I told him not to dig the borewell but he went ahead. Rains had failed so the borewell had to be drilled deeper and deeper, up to 68 feet. We struck no water.” Aravindh then drilled another borewell, which too did not yield water. The work on the two borewells cost Rs.40,000. The family had been cultivating rice on 2.6 hectares of land taken on lease from a trust 25 years ago. It also owned five hectares. The north-east monsoon, between October and December, failed and there was no water in the Odai irrigation canal, which is fed by the Cauvery river. A nearby drainage canal called Konakarungal Aru, too, dried up.

“Except for a couple of light spells it did not rain at all,” said Asaithambi. This led to a total loss of the “samba” paddy crop, which should have been harvested in January 2017. “The samba had stunted growth” for want of water, he said.

Asaithambi added: “The kuruvai paddy crop too turned out to be a washout. For more than three years, we could not cultivate kuruvai at all. Last year, we cultivated some amount of samba. This year, we lost both kuruvai and samba paddy because the river and the canal had no water. We drilled borewells to save the paddy. But there was no water in the bore either.” He estimated that he lost Rs.3 lakh, which he spent on raising the samba on the 2.6 hectares of leased land.

Asaithambi said: “Aravindh kept telling his friends about the loss. On December 15, he came home around 9:30 p.m. and started vomiting. I asked him what happened. He said he had swallowed a weedicide/herbicide. We rushed him to the Thanjavur Medical College Hospital. But he died around midnight.”

It was more or less a similar situation that forced 48-year-old V. Murugaiyyan, a marginal farmer, to hang himself on December 14, in his tiny house at Pirinji Moolai village in Vedaranyam taluk of Nagapattinam district. Murugaiyyan sold his wife’s jewellery for Rs.80,000 and used the money to lease 1.2 hectares for paddy cultivation. As the rain failed, the paddy did not grow. Murugaiyyan’s wife, Rani, said: “My husband was heartbroken. We spent Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000 on each acre to plough it with a tractor, buy fertilizer and do direct sowing of paddy. He went to the fields twice on December 14. He saw that the crop had withered. He was depressed. He came home in the afternoon. I asked him to have lunch. But he said he wanted to chew betel leaves and areca nut. He sent me to buy them from a nearby petty shop. When I was gone, he hanged himself with a rope in this room. Our son was in the backyard.” The 10-year-old boy is hearing impaired and mentally unstable. Murugaiyyan is survived by his wife, a 17-year-old daughter who is a Plus Two student, his son, and father-in-law, K. Thangavel.

Although there should have been a nip in the air at this time of the year, on January 4, a blazing sun seared Keezhapatti village near Konappadhai (meaning road with several twists and turns) in Thuraiyur taluk of Tiruchi district. The Kolli hills and the Pachaimalai hills were at a distance.

Hot winds blew across the dreary landscape. In the middle of a field, close to the road, a man was seated in a chair in front of an ettram, a diesel-powered contraption with wheels and a lever. As he operated the lever, a long pole swung around. A bucket was attached to a stick tied to the pole. The bucket dipped into an 80-foot-deep rock-cut well. A labourer, standing at the bottom of the well, scooped out mud and stones, and poured them into the bucket, which was hoisted up. The mud was poured into a mound and the action was repeated. S. Chinnathambi, his brothers and their friend were working like navvies around the well.

A depressing sight prevailed around the well as the maize crop had failed. The sorghum looked shrivelled. On the adjacent plots, the paddy crop and chilli, tomato and lady’s finger plants had withered. “If we do not deepen the well, even the small quantity of water that is available now will not last,” said Chinnathambi. No water has flowed in the nearby Puliancholai river for the past four years. The farmer said: “There was no kodai [summer] rain. There was no mari [during the rainy season] rain. Only when it rains over the Kolli hills, water will flow into the Puliancholai and there will be prosperity.” He and his brothers cultivated paddy and sorghum every year. Depending on their requirements, they would grow tomato, chilli and lady’s finger. All this was until four or five years ago. As if he had read this reporter’s mind, he said: “We cannot use men to deepen this well because it is 80 feet deep.”

In nearby Marugur, shepherds R. Marimuthu and S. Periyasamy herded their goats into a field where the sorghum crop had failed and looked shrivelled. “In this area, farmers cultivate sorghum, cotton and chilli. They used to raise paddy but they stopped paddy cultivation as water is not available. Rains have failed for the past few years. This year, it did not rain enough even for the dhoti we wear to get wet. We are suffering because there is no water for our goats to drink,” Periyasamy said.

Unprecedented in severity

All the 32 districts of the State are in the grip of an unprecedentedly severe drought after both the south-west and north-east monsoons failed. While Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli districts receive rainfall from both the monsoons, much of the State receives rainfall only from the north-east monsoon.

Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam’s statement on January 3 gave an insight into the gravity of the situation. If the average rainfall that the State receives from the north-east monsoon from October to December is around 440 millimetres (44 centimetres), it received only 16.83 cm in 2016. “Of the 32 districts, 21 recorded 60 per cent deficient rainfall. That is, they received only 40 per cent of the rainfall from the north-east monsoon. In the remaining 11 districts, the rainfall deficiency was 35 to 59 per cent,”

In Tamil Nadu, in the three Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, and the Cauvery belt which includes Erode, Karur, Namakkal Pudukottai and Tiruchi districts, farmers cultivate the kuruvai paddy crop between June and September when Karnataka, the upper riparian State, starts releasing the Cauvery water, which flows into the Mettur dam in Salem district in Tamil Nadu. The Mettur dam is, therefore, the lifeline for the Cauvery belt farmers in Tamil Nadu. They raise another paddy crop called samba between September and January with the help of rains from the north-east monsoon which, if it does not play truant, will last from October to December. The Karnataka government should have made available to Tamil Nadu 192 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of Cauvery waters at the Biligundulu measuring station on the border between the two States as per the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal on February 5, 2007. Instead, Karnataka provided only 66.10 tmcft in 2016 . This included 31.10 tmcft after a series of Supreme Court rulings. Besides, the north-east monsoon over Tamil Nadu was a big failure. Hence acute distress set in all over the State. Karnataka should make available to Tamil Nadu 192 tmc ft of water in a water year from June 1 to May 31 as per the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal.

Series of measures

On January 10, Panneerselvam announced that all the 32 districts would be declared drought-affected because the entire State had received “extremely deficient rainfall” from the north-east monsoon. He announced a series of measures to combat the suffering of farmers: their land tax would be waived; their crop loans would be converted into medium-term loans; farmers who lost 33 per cent of their crops would receive compensation; working days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) would go up from 100 to150; families of 17 farmers who committed suicide in the past two months would receive Rs.3 lakh each, and so forth (see separate story).

The impact of the drought is nowhere as dramatic and tragic as in the Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, and Tiruchi district, which form the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. The impact is equally acute in Ariyalur, Karur, Erode, Namakkal and Pudukottai districts. Not only have the kuruvai and samba paddy crop become a “washout”, but the yield of other crops such as black gram, red gram, sorghum, maize, onion, tomato, citrus fruit (lemon), lady’s finger, chilli, cotton, turmeric and grapes has been very poor. The refrain is the same everywhere: “Every year since 2011 we have been losing the kuruvai crop, this year we lost both kuruvai and samba.”

Snake gourd, bottle gourd, ash gourd and pumpkin creepers have wilted. Medicinal plants grown in Vedaranyam taluk in Nagapattinam district have withered. Jasmine and marigold have failed to bloom. All these districts are in the grip of a drinking water famine. There is scarcity of fodder for the cattle. The air is thick with despair.

The severe all-round distress resulted in 102 farmers committing suicide or dying of heart attack between November 4, 2016 and January 8, 2017. Those who took their lives did so by hanging themselves or by consuming a pesticide/ weedicide/herbicide. Some of them collapsed and died in their fields on seeing the wilted crops. Thirty-five farmers have died in Nagapattinam district, which forms the tail-end of the Cauvery basin; 18 died in Tiruvarur district; and 16 in Thanjavur district. Farmers have taken their own lives in Ariyalur, Cuddalore, Dharmapuri, Kancheepuram, Erode, Pudukottai, Ramanathapuram, Tiruchi, Tirunelveli, Tiruvalluvar, Tuticorin and Villupuram districts. They includes a few women.

Bone dry

Rivers, irrigation canals, channels, lakes, ponds and tanks all over the State are bone dry. There is no water in the Cauvery, the Coleroon and the Cauvery’s tributaries such as the Vennaru, the Vettaru, the Koozhaiyaru, the Koraiyaru, and the Mulliyaru. Irrigation canals such as the Periya Vaikkal, the Kalyani canal, the Kannanur canal, the Kallanai canal, and the Adappar drainage canal are running dry. The Kalyani canal, near Soorakkottai in Thanjavur district, which is usually brimming with water during the Pongal season (middle of January) and becomes a picnic spot, is totally dry. Every dam and reservoir, including the Mettur dam, the Vaigai dam in Madurai district, the Manimuthar, Papanasam and other dams in Tirunelveli district, the Pechiparai and Perunchani dams in Kanyakumari district and the Tirumurthi dam in Coimbatore district, has reached dead storage level. Engineers of the Public Works Department (PWD) are scraping the bottom of these dams/reservoirs to supply drinking water to the nearby areas.

The Water Resources Department of the PWD has not bothered to desilt or de-weed the rivers, irrigation canals and channels, lakes and ponds in the State for the past many years. It is a terrible sight to see the Periya Vaikkal (canal) choking with nut grass at Vallur in Tiruvarur district, the Kallanai canal in Thanjavur district overgrown with grass and bushes, the Kannanur canal taken over by vegetation, the Adappar drainage canal swarming with grass, and the Koozhaiyaru in Tiruchi district filled with weeds and vegetation.

What has devastated the farmers who tried to cultivate the samba crop on patches of fields where groundwater was available is that borewells, too, have let them down. They are either drying up or they have to be drilled to a depth of a few hundred feet.

All crops have failed

S. Ranganathan, secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, said: “Two monsoons have failed. There is no Cauvery water. There is no groundwater. This is a classic case where all crops have failed. Considering the entire gamut of problems [including the impact of demonetisation on agriculture] we are facing in the Cauvery delta region, 2016-17 appears to be the worst season in the past 65 years.”

P.R. Pandian, president of the Mannargudi branch of the Tamil Nadu All Farmers’ Associations’ Committee, called it the “worst-ever drought in Tamil Nadu”. He attributed the condition to “a three-pronged assault”: deficient rain from the south-west monsoon, failure of the north-east monsoon; and the Karnataka government’s refusal to release 192 tmcft of water that Tamil Nadu was entitled to.

As one drives around Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Tiruchi districts, it is the same unrelieved pictures of dry rivers, canals, lakes and ponds, and wilted paddy everywhere, interspersed with patches of samba cultivated with groundwater. Crop after crop has turned brown. Ponnammal, an elderly woman, who was leading three goats tied to a leash at Varavukkottai village on the Thanjavur-Mannargudi road, said: “The situation is so bad that farmers are allowing cattle to graze in the paddy field.”

P.M. Murugaiyyan, 61, a retired assistant agriculture officer (AAO) of the State Agriculture Department, was seated in a tea stall at Vallur village, near the culvert of Periya Vaikkal watered by the sprawling Tirumeni lake in Tiruvarur district, when this correspondent met him. “I have never seen a drought like this in the past 30 years... . Those who have borewells have cultivated samba in patches. But the water level is going down fast,” he said. R. Dayalan, his friend and a farmer, chipped in: “In our village, Maharajapuram, out of 300 farmers, 10 to 12 have bore sets. Only they have cultivated paddy.”

Murugaiyyan said the abundant growth of nut grass ( koraippullu in Tamil) and kattu amanakku ( Jatropa gossipifolia), had choked the Periya Vaikkal and large-scale encroachments had reduced the area of the Tirumeni lake, which had a water spread of about 250 hectares. He had worked in nine nearby panchayat blocks, each having an ayacut of about 200 to 300 hectares. As AAO, he taught farmers how to use insecticides and pesticides, what fertilizer to use, what crops to cultivate, and so on. “Fifty hectares of the lake have already been turned into farmland and residential houses. The area at the edge of the lake has been converted into patta land. So the water level in the surrounding areas has gone down,” he said. Borewells are also drying up.


Farmers across the delta districts and Tiruchi describe the crop situation as a “washout”. They are all traumatised by the complete failure of the kuruvai and samba crops. Be it G. Krishnamurthy and N. Ravichandran, friends and farmers from Kottur in Tiruvarur district; V. Ramu from Painganadu village, a police officer seated in an outpost near the bone-dry Kannanur canal, which marks the beginning of the Tiruvarur district’s territory; N. Damodaran, a farmer from Vidangalur in Nagapattinam district; or G. Ramalingam, a retired deputy Inspector of Surveys at Sattiyangudi, also in Nagapattinam district, say they lost kuruvai for the past five years and that both samba and kuruvai were a washout in 2016.

Krishnamurthy and Ravichandran led us to Kottur, from Adhichapuram in Tiruvarur district, where there were huge swathes of paddy fields. They quickly got off their motorbikes and pulled out a clump of grass that had completely overtaken the wilted paddy stalks. Krishnamurthy said: “Instead of paddy, there is grass. This grass has grown despite the use of a herbicide. So we cannot even harvest one padi [a measure in Tamil] of paddy. The truth is that we cannot even harvest one pidi [a fistful] of paddy.” Ravichandran, the younger of the two, said every farmer in Kottur lost Rs.40,000 an acre. A normal yield would have fetched about 40 bags of paddy an acre.

Krishnamurthy said: “No kuruvai cultivation has been taken up for the past five years. There has been only one crop of samba a year for the past 10 years. This year, we lost even the samba crop. We are not able to sow black gram or red gram either. It is a total loss.”

What is even more alarming is the future of farm labourers; Kottur has so many of them. “Some of them are eating rats. But for the 20 kilograms of free rice supplied by the government through ration shops, we would be starving,” said Krishnamurthy. “We have no money to drink tea,” Ravichandran said.

Withering kuruvai and samba crops on vast areas greet us at Thatchanam, Alathampadi, Manali, Vikkirapandiam, Tiruthuraipoondi, Tirunelvelikaval, Tirukollikadu and other villages.

Depleting water table

At Painganadu, 80-year-old V. Ramu was broadcasting groundnuts in his freshly upturned field when this writer stepped into his field wearing footwear. “Don’t step into the field with chappals on your feet,” he said admonishingly and asked: “What do you want?” He, however, calmed down quickly, and explained how the water table in the borewell had gone down. “It is depleting and so the motor is unable to pump water,” Ramu said. He was worried that if the borewells went dry he would be unable to water the groundnut crop. “Samba has been a washout,” he said. He got a yield of two bags instead of the normal 30 bags of paddy from one acre.

The money crunch was evident in the adjoining field where 55-year-old R. Mohan, a graduate, was sowing groundnut mixed with an insecticide, as C. Baskar was ploughing his field with a pair of bullocks. Mohan decided to sow groundnut after it rained on December 28. “I am broadcasting the groundnuts myself because I want to save on Rs.200 that I would otherwise pay for a farm worker. I have not seen the new Rs.2,000 note. There has been no cultivation of kuruvai after Jayalalithaa [the late Chief Minister] came to power [five years ago]. We got some samba last year.”

Like Ramu, Mohan is also worried about the water table going down. His borewell was 200 ft deep and pumped hot water, which could not be used for irrigation.

Nagapattinam district is the worst affected in terms of not only the magnitude of crop loss but the number of farmers who took their own lives or died of shock on seeing their wilted crops. Thirty-five persons, including three women, lost their lives. In Keezh Velur panchayat union, 11 collapsed and died in their fields on seeing the condition of their crops.

It is not surprising that Nagapattinam is the worst affected district because it is situated at the tail-end of the Cauvery basin, on the coast. So it is difficult, even in a normal season of rainfall, for Cauvery water to flow into its tributary, the Vennaru, in the district. Cauvery V. Dhanabalan, general secretary of the Cauvery Farmers’ Protection Sangam of Nagapattinam, said that for 11 years in a row from 2001 to 2016, the district was ranked as the worst affected by a series of natural calamities. They included the tsunami in 2004, cyclones, floods in 2015, droughts, and so on. He said the non-availability of Cauvery waters from Karnataka and the failure of the north-east monsoon had rendered 1.36 lakh hectares of cultivable land, irrigated by the Vennaru, fallow. “We lost kuruvai in the past five years. We thought we could at least cultivate samba this year, but there was no water in the district to irrigate the fields,” Dhanabalan said. It was a struggle for one lakh small and marginal farmers and six lakh agricultural labourers in the district to earn their livelihood, he said.

Statistics provided by O.S. Maniam, State Minister for Handlooms, when he visited the Nagapattinam district on January 6, reveal how grim the situation is. The district normally receives 111.782 cm of rainfall from the north-east monsoon; in 2015 it received a rainfall of 135.672 cm. In 2016, the district received only 26.24 cm from the north-east monsoon, a shortfall of 76 per cent. More than that, the entire ayacut irrigated by Cauvery waters, was affected because the sluices of the Mettur dam, which were opened on September 20, were closed even before the water from the dam reached Nagapattinam district.

It is, therefore, a terrible situation that obtains in village after village in the district, whether it is Esanur, Vazhakkarai, Tirukkuvalai, Vidangalur, Sattiyankudi, Thevur, or Keezh Velur.

It is cracked fields and withered paddy crops that greeted us at Esanur. Selvamary, her mother-in-law M. Mary, and friend Arokiya Mary said they could not cultivate kuruvai or harvest samba. At Vazhakkarai, a young farmer, S. Nagendran, using a portable diesel-powered motor, was struggling to pump water from pools of rainwater that had stagnated in a narrow irrigation channel into his field where the samba crop had some life. “It rained hard overnight some days ago. The crop can be salvaged if the paddy is about to be harvested. If it is a sapling or is in the panicle stage, it cannot be saved,” he said. All round the plot where he was trying to save his crop were stretches of fields overgrown with grass.

Seventy-year-old G. Ramadoss Naidu is a farmer at Vidangalur. “I have not seen a brutal drought like this in all my life,” he said. In his estimate, every aspect of agriculture in the district has been ruined. Even 30 per cent of the normal water did not flow in the Vennaru. Ramadoss Naidu said: “For the past 10 years, we could not cultivate kuruvai. We used to cultivate some samba when it rained and there was water in the river. We could not even raise samba this year. In sum, we could not harvest a single ear of paddy. The entire district has been devastated.” He took us to his field and plucked thick strands of grass, which had commingled with paddy. And he commanded us to look at the fields across the road. Arugampul (Bermuda grass) had colonised vast stretches of paddy field there.

Less than a kilometre away, on the border between Vidangalur and Sattiyankudi villages, goats were grazing in the withered fields.

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