A worsening drought

Published : Feb 28, 2003 00:00 IST

The drought assessment team from the Centre, at Pagalpatti in Salem. - P.GOUTHAMAN

The drought assessment team from the Centre, at Pagalpatti in Salem. - P.GOUTHAMAN

A Central team visits the drought-hit districts in Tamil Nadu even as farmers face the prospect of a fourth successive crop failure.

WITHERED paddy, blighted sugarcane, shrivelled palmyra trees, distraught women holding pots demanding drinking water and desperate men reduced to tears by the dry expanse that is their farmland. The four-member drought-assessment team from the Centre saw all this and more as it went round several districts in Tamil Nadu from January 29 to 31.

The drought, said to be the worst in 70 years, has already claimed the lives of 15 farmers. They committed suicide or died of shock or starvation. A memorandum presented to the team by R. Nallakannu, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), said: "Actually, the death toll is believed to be more than this firmly established number." It pointed out that farmers and agricultural labourers in Dharmapuri and other districts had migrated to neighbouring States, in search of jobs.

The Central team was led by Ashish Bahuguna, Joint Secretary, Union Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperation. Its members were Valsala G. Kutty, Director in the Department of Rural Development, R.K. Ojha, Director in the Department of Women and Child Development, and C. Sen, Technical Officer in the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying. They went round Dharmapuri, Salem, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts.

In Salem district, the team visited Pagalpatti panchayat to see the drought-hit paddy crop. At Karaiyavur, women told them that they had to trek 4 km to fetch water and this precluded the possibility of their going out to work. At Athikattanoor and Konagapadi, they witnessed the relief work to combat the drinking water scarcity. At Solavandiyanvalavu, employment generation activities were under way. In some of these places, women with empty pots besieged the team. At Muniyampatti, the team saw a grove of about 100 palmyra trees, all crownless owing to the lack of water.

Salem District Collector Dr. J. Radhakrishnan, in a power-point presentation to the team on the drinking water scarcity and the effect of drought on agriculture and livestock, said that there was depletion of ground water from 1999 because of the below-normal rainfall in the preceding three years. Of the 4,356 habitations in Salem district only 920 depended on the Cauvery for water. The remaining habitations felt an acute scarcity of water. Besides the installation of 1,126 hand pumps, 489 power pumps and 194 pumpsets, 104 flushing and deepening works had been completed in the last few months at a cost of Rs.8.6 crores to tackle the water scarcity in the rural areas. In agriculture, 98,079 hectares of sown area, out of 2.1 lakh hectares, had been affected by the drought while 80,700 hectares remained unsown. As many as 1.7 lakh small and marginal farmers were affected and the production loss was estimated at Rs.255.54 crores. In horticulture, 16,688 hectares could not be covered, while standing crop on 5,000 hectares was affected. The loss was estimated at around Rs.64.5 crores.

At Prataparamapuram in Nagapattinam district, distraught women fell at the feet of the team members, pleading for help. Wherever the team went, it saw withered paddy fields, be it at Mudikondoon, Vandampalayam, Olimathi, Needamangalam, Saliyamangalam, Ramanathapuram or Sakkaraisamam in Tiruvarur and Thanjavur districts.

Ashish Bahuguna told reporters that there was no doubt that Tamil Nadu was affected by drought and the severity of the situation could be seen from the extent of the crop damage and drinking water scarcity.

On February 6, the Supreme Court directed Karnataka to release 4,500 cusecs of water at Mettur dam every day until the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) meeting on February 10. This interim order was given by a three-judge Bench comprising Justice R.C. Lahoti, Justice Y.K. Sabharwal and Justice Arijit Pasayat even as the Karnataka Government said it could release only 1,200 cusecs daily. The judges also ruled that this would be subject to the final orders of the CRA. The decision of the Prime Minister, who heads the CRA, would be "final", having the sanctity of a court order, the judges said. (The CRA members include the Chief Ministers of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry).

Earlier, the Bench was apprised of the situation by Cauvery Monitoring Committee Chairman A.K. Goswami who is Secretary, Union Water Resources Department, and R.K. Sharma, member secretary of the committee.

Although the Supreme Court's directive signals a victory for Tamil Nadu, its farmers are far from enthused. For, 80 per cent of the standing samba crop has started withering because of Karnataka's refusal to release water to Tamil Nadu.

S. Ranganathan, secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers' Welfare Association, said the court's directive "is only of academic interest". If Karnataka had given this 4,500 cusecs in addition to what it released from January 16 after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and her Karnataka counterpart S.M. Krishna met the Prime Minister separately, it would have saved some of the crop, he said. (By January 16, 60 per cent of the samba crop raised on about seven lakh acres had withered. Samba is normally cultivated on 11 lakh acres in the Cauvery delta districts of Tiruchi, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam). He added, "The earlier release from January 16 has not helped. The latest order of the Supreme Court will not in any way help (the standing crop)."

THE situation is set to worsen in the coming months. Farmers have no hope of cultivating the kuruvai paddy crop because there is virtually no water in the Mettur dam. In the event, it would be the fourth successive crop failure, after the samba, kuruvai and samba losses last year, for the financially crippled farmers (Frontline, February 14).

Of the Mettur dam's total capacity of 92 tmc ft, the storage as on January 4 was between 5 and 6 tmc ft, which is the dead storage level. Kuruvai cultivation in the Cauvery delta districts begins from June, depending on the onset of the southwest monsoon over Karnataka and the water released by Karnataka in the Cauvery river reaching Mettur. Water stored in the dam is used to raise not only kuruvai but also the samba crop from September to December. Samba also benefits from the northeast monsoon, which brings rain over Tamil Nadu from the middle of October.

Ranganathan in his memorandum to the Central team, underscored the point that there was "absolutely no possibility of kuruvai planting" from June 3. As a result, lakhs of landless labourers in the Cauvery belt would be rendered jobless until the next samba season. "The government has to evolve a planned strategy to provide the labourers with productive employment until then," Ranganathan said. In his assessment, "human failure" was as much responsible for the drought as the failure of the two monsoons. Timely action by the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments, sympathy and the political will to share the available Cauvery water would have averted this calamity, he said.

When members of the drought assessment team met Jayalalithaa in Chennai on January 31, she handed over to them a detailed `Memorandum on Drought - 2003'. She said a minimum assistance of Rs.2,027 crores was needed, besides the allotment of nine lakh tonnes of rice. She clarified that these requirements of cash and rice were over and above the Rs.1,434 crores assistance and 7.5 lakh tonnes of rice that had been indicated in earlier memoranda. Jayalalithaa told the team that rainfall over Tamil Nadu in 2002 was the lowest in 30 years. The kuruvai and samba crops had been affected badly by the truant monsoon and Karnataka's refusal to release Tamil Nadu's legitimate share of the Cauvery water. The kuruvai crop was totally lost. About 11 lakh coconut trees had wilted and another 28 lakh trees had been affected. The production loss of crops was Rs.5,388 crores. The generation of hydel power had come down by more than half, resulting in a loss of Rs.690 crores to the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board.

Earlier, she announced in the Assembly that the government would provide 30 kg of free rice a month to landless peasants and small and marginal farmers instead of the free noon meal provided to them from January 15. The announcement marked a victory for the CPI, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which had demanded such a change.

But the Chief Minister's announcement that only those who received the noon meal would be eligible to get rice, has led to discontent among the farmers. According to K. Balakrishnan, general secretary, Tamil Nadu unit of the All India Kisan Sabha, there were about 1,000 peasants at Mullipallam near Sholavandan in Madurai district. But only 50 of them had received tokens for free rice. This led to people blocking roads. Balakrishnan accused the Jayalalithaa government of not exerting pressure on the Centre to get enough financial assistance and rice. While there were 5.75 crore tonnes of rice in the Central pool and Rs.13,000 crores in the National Calamity Fund, the Centre had given only Rs.228 crores to Tamil Nadu. It had not given even 1 kg of rice to Tamil Nadu. While the AIADMK government "does not have the guts" to pressure the Centre to give more money and rice, 10 Union Ministers belonging to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the PMK and the Bharatiya Janata Party "are not bothered about the people's plight", Balakrishnan alleged.

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