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Tragedy of agriculture

Print edition : Dec 30, 2005 T+T-

The fact that the rains have taken their toll on the beleaguered agricultural sector in Tamil Nadu highlights the urgent need to protect irrigation sources with a long-term perspective.

IN the monsoon rains and floods in Tamil Nadu, agriculture suffered the most. It was not only standing crops that were destroyed; agricultural land and well-structured irrigation systems were damaged extensively.

The State government is compiling a comprehensive report on the damage. According to tentative estimates, crops on about 3.29 lakh hectares out of the 19 lakh hectares of arable land have been affected. Five of the 22 districts affected by the floods account for 75 per cent of the damage. They are Nagapattinam, Tiruchi, Tiruvarur, Cuddalore and Sivaganga. The government has deployed about 1,000 officials from various departments to visit the affected areas and assess the damage.

The State government has prepared a special package for the affected agriculturists. In the case of rice, farmers are to receive Rs.8,000 an acre (Rs.20,000 a hectare) as compensation for "assured irrigated" land as against the usual payment of Rs.1,000, and Rs.4,000 for rain-fed areas as against Rs.400. Sugarcane farmers will receive Rs.10,000 an acre as against Rs.1,000 and banana farmers Rs.25,000 an acre as against Rs.10,000. Of the Rs.13,685 crores of Central assistance sought by the State government, agriculture alone accounts for Rs.643 crores.

The State government, apparently, has convinced the Centre about the need to reschedule the repayment of crop loans and to relax the norms for granting fresh crop loans to the affected farmers. The State government has also been pressing the Centre to change the criteria for providing relief from the Calamity Relief Fund. Under the present norms, only small and marginal farmers, who hold less than two hectares of land, are entitled to relief. The State government feels that all landholders, big or small, have suffered losses, although in varying proportions, and deserve compensation.

In Thanjavur and Tiruvarur districts, banks have stepped in to provide fresh loans to the farmers who raised the samba crop using canal water and suffered heavy losses owing to the floods. Fifty per cent of the samba and thaladi crops raised on 1.40 lakh ha in the two districts were submerged and about 60 per cent of the submerged crops have now been lost. Owing to the delay in the release of water from the Mettur dam, the short-duration crop of kuruvai was not raised in the two districts in the canal-irrigated areas. The farmers there depended on the samba crop, which is now lost. But the banks have decided to offer loans to those whose crops have been damaged totally. They have also offered to reschedule the repayment of medium-term loans, with an initial one-year holiday.

Many farmers, however, prefer a waiver of the loans to a rescheduling of the payment. They fear that they may be caught in a debt trap. "We hoped to reap at least one crop this year after three years of drought. But the floods have dashed our hopes," said a farmer. A silver lining is that 50 per cent of the crop in both districts is intact and farmers can hope for a good yield.

It is an irony that the farmers of the Cauvery delta region, who have been hoping for a good yield after three successive years of drought, had to suffer heavy losses, with a significant proportion of their prospective yield having been washed away by flood waters. Farmers in Thanjavur and Tiruvarur districts are worried that the irrigation systems in the region may have suffered irreparable damage. They have demanded modernisation of the irrigation system in the delta districts.

After a gap of 40 years, the Kollidam river, the major flood carrier, was in spate, that too twice. In October it carried water at the rate of 2.35 lakh cusecs and in November at the rate of 3.37 lakh cusecs. There were many breaches in the banks. As a result, Thokkur village near the Grand Anicut was marooned. Breaches occurred on the banks of almost all the rivers, the Cauvery, the Vennar, the Korayar, the Baminiyar, the Manniyar and the Vettar - and the Grand Anicut canal. Public Works Department officials said that there were as many as 848 breaches in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Pudukkottai districts alone. And this resulted in vast stretches of land with standing crops being submerged. Apart from paddy, banana, betel vine and groundnut crops have also been lost.

If the loss could be contained, it was because of the time-tested irrigation system in the region. The irrigation system in the Cauvery delta has been the oldest and the biggest in Asia. The Grand Anicut saw hectic activity on November 25 when 3.37 lakh cusecs of water had to be diverted into the Kollidam from it, one of the oldest dams in Asia, built by a Chola ruler several centuries ago. Rivers, canals and storm water drains run to a length of 34,864 km. Across these have been built anicuts, regulators and bridges. The latest floods highlighted the need to modernise the system.

The prolonged dispute between Tamil Nadu and neighbouring Karnataka over the sharing of the waters of the Cauvery river has hampered the efforts to modernise the delta irrigation system. Experts, however, feel that the present situation has thrown up an opportunity to take up the modernisation programme with renewed vigour. Most of the regulators are more than 100 years old and are in need of repair. Regulators across the Vennar and the Cauvery were renovated this year with funds provided by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD).

"The entire system should be modernised. The banks of the Kollidam should be strengthened," say experts. They suggest that a substantial part of the allocation of the State government and assistance from the Centre for flood relief and rehabilitation operations be spent on this modernisation exercise. The PWD has now presented a Rs.100-crore proposal to NABARD to modernise the system.

WITH a 57.5 km-long coastline, Cuddalore district serves as the natural confluence for seven major rivers - the Kollidam, the Vadavar, the Vellar, the Manimuktha, the Gedilam, the Penniayar and the Paravanar. Any unusual flow or even a slight deviation in the course of these rivers can have a telling impact on the demographic and economical status of the district, whose population has a mix of farming and fishing communities, the former being the predominant one. Moreover, the prospects of crops in Chidambaram and Kattumannarkoil taluks, which form the tail end of the Cauvery delta, are delicately linked to the storage in or discharge from the Mettur dam. Any dislocation in the release of water or the discharge of surpluses affects these prospects. This is exactly what happened in the 30 days since the release of the excess storage from the Mettur dam in the last week of October. The enormity of the losses can be gauged from the preliminary estimates, which indicate that standing crops on 75,000 ha of land, including 45,000 ha (or 1.12 lakh acres) of paddy, were destroyed.

Cuddalore district has a network of rivers, reservoirs, tanks and irrigation channels, which prove to be a boon in normal times but a bane during the monsoon. Every river system feeds a number of irrigation tanks, ranging from 10 to 30, including the Veeranam tank, and at certain points there is a crisscrossing of the channels. Apparently, not enough attention has been paid to the condition of the irrigation sources, how strong or weak they are structurally, or whether they can withstand floods of this magnitude. This calls for a re-look at the water management practices and aspects of maintenance of irrigation sources with a long-term perspective. The irrigation channels have become chocked owing to unauthorised cultivation and encroachments. As an exception, the Veeranam tank has remained intact and this was possible because of the foresight of the officials, who ensured that the storage was about three feet below the maximum level, to accommodate any excess inflow. This not only safeguarded the tank but also lessened the possibility of flood havoc downstream. This method deserves to be emulated in other areas as well, say experts. They also suggest the revival of kudimaramathu, the system under which the local community is involved in the maintenance of water sources.

In Tiruchi district, farmers' associations have estimated tentatively that paddy crops on about 80,000 ha have been submerged in flood waters. A major portion of the submerged crops have apparently been damaged completely. A detailed assessment is yet to come at the time of writing. "We have lost the samba crop this year too," the president of the District Cauvery Delta Farmers Welfare Association, G. Kanagasabai, said. District Collector K. Nanda Kishore said that the district administration planned to submit a fresh proposal to the government for strengthening the banks of the Cauvery and the Kollidam and for diverting the Korayar, the Ariyar and the Aiyyar at an estimated cost of Rs.279 crores, with a view to providing a permanent protection from floods.

In the adjacent PudukKottai district, 2,000 tanks breached and flood waters entered agricultural lands and villages. Prominent among these was the Vallanadu tank, the second biggest in the district (the first being the Kavinadu tank), which breached in two places damaging paddy crops in several villages. Paddy grown on about 25,000 ha has been lost in the floods.

In Perambalur district, standing crops on 18,600 ha are estimated to have been lost. Many tanks developed breaches, inundating paddy and sugarcane fields. Several tanks breached or had their bunds weakened owing to the floods.

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