Distress in the delta

Print edition : October 24, 2003

Six consecutive rice crops have failed in the Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu owing to a drought and Karnataka's failure to release water according to the Tribunal award. Now farmers are unsure whether they can cultivate the seventh.

THERE seems to be no end to the misery of Tamil Nadu's farmers. A drought is stalking the State for the third consecutive year. The farmers of the Cauvery delta have lost four paddy crops in a row since June 2002, including the short-term kuruvai crop (June to September), which should have been harvested by now. They have no hope that they can raise the main samba crop; the sowing operations for that should have been under way by now. This is the fifth crop in a row that has been written off.

Central Water Commission officials at the Mettur dam on August 14. On October 3 the reservoir had only 31 tmc ft of water, one-third of its capacity.-P.GOUTHAM

Things have come to such a pass because there is no water in the Mettur reservoir, which irrigates the Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu. The north-east monsoon, which should set in by October 15, is unpredictable. Against its full capacity of 93.4 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft) of water, there was only 31 tmc ft in the Mettur reservoir as on October 3. A minimum of 55 tmc ft is required to open the sluices of the dam for irrigating the farmlands. In a normal year, water is released from the Mettur dam from June 12 to enable farmers to raise kuruvai and samba crops, but this has not been the case since 2001. This year, the dam sluices were not opened even in the first week of October because of insufficient water storage. Consequently, 20 lakh landless peasants have been jobless in the Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Tiruchi since September 2001. The overall loss in terms of crop production is estimated at Rs.3,000 crores. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government has declared 28 districts other than Chennai drought-affected.

Farmers and political parties in Tamil Nadu blame the neighbouring State of Karnataka for this calamity. They organised a bandh on September 11 to pressure Karnataka to release the Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. Karnataka, the upper riparian State, has refused to share the Cauvery water with Tamil Nadu as per the interim order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal. The interim order stipulated that Karnataka should release 137 tmc ft from June to September at Mettur, but all that Mettur received was 24 tmc ft. Karnataka also has refused to accept a "comprehensive" distress-sharing formula worked out by the Cauvery Monitoring Committee (CMC) on September 1. (Distress occurs when the rainfall is deficient, and the formula apportions available water between the two States). This despite other riparian States - Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry - accepting the formula. Last year, Karnataka had rejected another formula worked out by the Central Water Commission. The CMC plans to place its formula before the Cauvery River Authority (CRA), the apex body dealing with the Cauvery issue. The CRA is chaired by the Prime Minister, and the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Pondicherry are its members. Karnataka's blunt refusal to accept the CMC's distress-sharing formula has further angered farmers and political parties in Tamil Nadu.

The Opposition parties in the State have requested Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to convene immediately a meeting of the CRA. At a meeting convened on September 24 by Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) founder Dr. S. Ramadoss, these parties urged Vajpayee to direct Karnataka to release water to Tamil Nadu so that the samba crop could be cultivated, and also to pressure Karnataka to accept the distress-sharing formula.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi who met Vajpayee on September 13 during the latter's visit to Chennai, said he discussed the Cauvery issue with Vajpayee. Karunanidhi said: "I told the Prime Minister about the painful plight of the farmers in the delta districts of Thanjavur and Tiruchi. I requested him to convene a meeting of the CRA immediately to protect the interests of the delta farmers. He said he would make efforts to convene the meeting after consulting the Chief Ministers concerned."

G. Veerayyan, president, Tamil Nadu unit of the All India Agricultural Workers' Union, said: "The Karnataka government, which should release the Cauvery water, refuses to do so. The Tamil Nadu government, which should demand the water, does not ask for it. The Union government, which should resolve this dispute between the two States, is ignoring the problem." He added that in this `tiruvilayadal' (game) played by the "mummurthis" (three gods), farmers and peasants had been badly affected.

IN the face of Opposition criticism about her "inaction", Chief Minister Jayalalithaa wrote a letter to Vajpayee, in which she said that the Mettur dam could not be thrown open for irrigation on the scheduled date of June 12 owing to poor storage and because the Karnataka government did not release water as per the Tribunal's interim order. The farmers whose lands were irrigated by the Cauvery water, had lost their kuruvai crop. They were living in fear of losing their samba crop also. The farmers and the landless agricultural labourers were undergoing untold misery, Jayalalithaa wrote.

At a meeting of Opposition parties on the Cauvery issue in Chennai on September 24.-N. SRIDHARAN

She pointed out that when the CMC met on September 1, all the riparian States except Karnataka had agreed to the distress-sharing formula. The CMC Chairman, she said, finally decided that he would recommend the formula to the CRA for consideration and adoption. While the Tribunal had prescribed 107.64 tmc ft of water (from June) until August 31, the Mettur reservoir had received only "a meagre quantity of 17.33 tmc ft., thus leaving a huge deficit of 90.31 tmc ft", the Chief Minister said. She, therefore, told the Prime Minister that there was an "emergent need" to convene a CRA meeting to decide the release of water to Tamil Nadu as per the Tribunal's interim order and the distress-sharing formula.

Highly placed Tamil Nadu officials said the distress-sharing formula of September 1 worked out a ratio between the stipulated inflows at Mettur as per the interim order and the average of the recorded inflows for 29 years at Mettur. This ratio is then adopted to the actual recorded flows to the current year. For instance, if 10 tmc ft of water should be received at Mettur as per the interim order, and the 29 years' average inflow is 30 tmc ft, the ratio is 1:3. This ratio is taken into account for June in a year of deficit rainfall. So if Karnataka had 10 tmc ft, it should give three tmc ft to Tamil Nadu. "Karnataka did not accept this formula although the other States accepted it. Karnataka does not want to give even this amount of water. It wants to keep all the water for itself. So the formula will be put up before the CRA for a decision," they said.

In the assessment of these officials, the situation in the Cauvery basin in Karnataka "is not bad". Canals had been opened for irrigation and farmers were cultivating crops.

The situation in Tamil Nadu is "grim", said S. Ranganathan, secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers' Association. In 2001-2002, the farmers lost the samba crop. In 2002-2003, they lost both kuruvai and samba as Karnataka refused to release water as per the interim order. Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna even refused to abide by a Supreme Court directive to release water to Tamil Nadu, and the confrontation between the two States reached a flash point (Frontline, November 8, 2002; February 14, February 28, and May 23, 2003).

In a normal year when the Mettur dam is opened on June 12, kuruvai is cultivated on about three to four lakh acres (1.2 lakh to 1.6 lakh hectares) in the four Cauvery delta districts. This year farmers cultivated kuruvai only where groundwater was available. This covered just about 50,000 acres (20,000 ha) in the villages around Tiruvaiyaru, Mayiladuthurai, Kumbakonam, Sirkazhi, Mannargudi, Needamangalam and Ammapettai. Samba is normally cultivated on about 16 lakh acres (6.4 lakh ha) in the delta districts. But now it is possible to raise it only on about 60,000 acres (24,000 ha) - that too through the direct broadcasting method. (No water is available to sow the seeds, raise nurseries and transplant the saplings). Ranganathan said, "All the remaining land is lying fallow. Besides, conventional cultivation of samba is ruled out." Even out of these 60,000 acres, a sudden spell of rain in August/September had spoilt 20,000 acres. So the situation "is not at all encouraging", he said.

Ranganathan criticised the Karnataka government for refusing to accept the distress-sharing formula. "We are fighting for a principle that distress should be shared on a pro rata basis. If this concept is not accepted (by Karnataka), there is no meaning in having the concept of an inter-State river. We want the Prime Minister to realise his responsibility," he said. He pointed out that the Supreme Court had ruled on February 6 that the decision of the Prime Minister on the dispute would be final, and will have the sanctity of a court order. Ranganathan added: "The Supreme Court has given him powers to decide on the issue. We expect the Prime Minister to uphold the Constitution and behave like a Supreme Court judge, and not like a political leader."

Farmers in Tamil Nadu feel that the Agriculture Department will now ask them to go for alternative crops that consume less water, such as pulses, vegetables, cotton and oilseeds. According to them, this can be done in all areas above the Cauvery delta, where water drains off easily. In the old delta area - especially in the taluks of the coastal district of Nagapattinam and Tiruvarur, areas near the Coleroon mouth and the Cuddalore district where water-logging occurred because of cyclones - paddy can be cultivated where there was clayey soil. "The government should issue orders to implement this strategy," farmers said. They pointed out that those who went in for alternative crops such as pulses, gingelly and cotton in Pattukottai and Perambalur had made good profits. Where groundwater was available and pumpsets had been erected farmers cultivated paddy, they said.

Against the annual target of 20 lakh ha for the entire State up to September 29, paddy could be cultivated only on 2.7 lakh ha (that is, 13 per cent). During the corresponding period in 2002, it was 2.5 lakh ha (11.6 per cent) out of a target of 22 lakh ha.

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