The farmers' plight

Print edition : August 26, 2005

The Orathupalayam dam across the Noyyal. - K. ANANTHAN

THE Orathupalayam dam on the Noyyal in Erode district was built in 1992. It has an ayacut of 500 acres. Further downstream is the Chinnamuthur barrage, where the channel carrying water from the Lower Bhavani Project (LBP) cuts across the Noyyal. The Chinnamuthur barrage has an ayacut of about 20,000 acres in Karur and Erode districts. About 50,000 acres is irrigated using energised pumps in the area around the dam and the barrage.

Water from the Orathupalayam dam, which is full, is being released from August 7. It is expected that the polluted water released from the dam will be flushed away by the fresh inflows in the Cauvery.

Earlier, farmers near the dam did not want the water to be released because they feared that the water, which had already affected the ground water quality and the yields, would cause further damage. Farmers further downstream want the water to be released because they think it will at least wash away the contaminated soil.

In Thengammankoil village near the dam, Semaliappa Gounder who owns 25 acres, told Frontline that land extending up to 3 km on both banks of the river is "completely unfit for cultivation". Although even earlier the river was not a great provider of water, at least farmers could grow tobacco and millets, he said. In Poolavalasu village near the Chinnamuthur barrage, Kuppuswamy, a young farmer, said that ten years ago his father used to grow sugarcane, gingelly, turmeric and groundnut. The relatively well assured supply of water in the LBP channel ensured that farmers here were better off when compared with those who depended on the Orathupalayam dam.

However, in the last decade things have gone bad. Even though water from the dam reaches the channel only for three to four months in a year, it was enough to contaminate the area. The water in the channel became bad. But worse still was the effect it had on the land in the area. He said: "We first noticed the problem in 1993. First the water started tasting bad. There was also bad odour. Later, it spoilt the irrigation bores and the wells." People have to walk at least 2 km to fetch water. Several people also complained of skin and pulmonary ailments. Kuppuswamy said that he tried to grow sugarcane this year, "just to try my luck one more time". The saplings just withered away, he said.

P.M. Govindasamy, president of the Noyyal River Ayacutdars Protection Association, has spearheaded the farmers' fight for justice against the dyeing units in the last decade. He told Frontline that the pollution has affected farmers in 250 hamlets in 68 revenue villages in six taluks in the area. Even if all the dyeing units in Tirupur ensure zero discharge of effluent in the Noyyal, he reckons that it will take at least ten years for the land to become normal for cultivation. The problem started spreading in 1994 when the gates of the Orathupalayam dam were opened. The problem escalated as the capacity of the dyeing units increased sharply over the years, as industry in Tirupur went through a boom.

In December 2004 the Loss of Ecology (Prevention and Payments of Compensation) Authority for Tamil Nadu ordered that the dyeing and bleaching units of Tirupur should pay Rs.24 crores as compensation to farmers for polluting the groundwater by discharging effluents. However, farmers claimed that they had not received anything. While the dyers filed a petition against the award of the Authority, the farmers also appealed against it, claiming it was too meagre. For instance, Govindasamy said that the Authority awarded a compensation of Rs.412.50 per ha to farmers in Chinnamuthur. He asks: "How can that suffice for farmers who have suffered silently for ten years and more?"

In 2004 a team of students from the Jaivabai Municipal Girls Higher Secondary School in Tirupur conducted a study of the area around the Orathupalayam dam. The team covered eight villages on a 100-km stretch along the Noyyal, collected water samples from 10 locations near the dam, tested them and got them counter-tested by a reputed engineering college in Coimbatore. It was found that the water was unfit for irrigation; in fact it was found unfit for use even in construction. The water was also found to have higher than permissible levels of lead and cadmium.

Farmers believe that the Orathupalayam dam has served the interests of the dyeing units rather than farmers. Govindasamy said that if the farmers had not filed the petition 10 years ago the damage would have been far greater. "It has taken so long to get justice. The farmers here have suffered. But at least they have prevented ecological damage in Karur and Namakkal, and all the way up to Nagapattinam and Thanjavur along the Cauvery."

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