AS of early April 2003, there was a marked absence of ameliorative governmental action to meet the crisis facing the rural-agricultural sector in Tamil Nadu in the context of the drought situation. For instance, there is hardly any sign of the much-touted Food-for-Work Programme, now renamed at the level of the Central government as the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana (SGRY).
In Kumbakonam town in Thanjavur district, a series of cartoon panels excoriate the Jayalalithaa government and mirror the mood of the farmers. One of them, titled the "Food for Work Scheme", shows an excavator desilting a pond while village residents look on, and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa declaring, "Farmers do not know how to do this work." Another one is in two sections. The first section, titled "Yesterday", shows a godown overflowing with bags of paddy and rats feasting on them. The second section, titled "Today", depicts starving and emaciated farmers and their family members biting into rats. Another cartoon, titled "Pouring Burning Oil on a Festering Wound", portrays Jayalalithaa claiming that "the Cauvery delta farmers are not eating rats because they are starving but because they love eating rats!''
As this correspondent travelled more than 1,000 km in Madurai, Virudhunagar, Dindigul, Theni, Tiruchi, Thanjavur and Nagapattinam districts from April 5 to 8, nowhere was there any sign of the SGRY in operation. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had stated on January 21, 2003: "I have ordered the implementation of the food-for-work programme intensively. Under this scheme, canals, wells, ponds and tanks are being desilted. I have instructed that these works should be executed with full vigour. Those who take part in this work will get rice or cash as wages... "
In August 2002, in Thanjavur and Tiruvarur districts, earthmovers were forming farm ponds or desilting tanks, lakes and canals. It was a machine-driven programme under way. At Varadarajapuram in Vedasandur taluk, Dindigul district, R. Kanagaraj was angry at the manner in which the works were handled earlier. "Where a hundred people could be employed, earthmovers were deployed and lake bunds were erected. When we asked questions, they said the work had to be finished in a day," he said.
At Ichikinathupatti, M. Rajalingam, another farmer, was angry that machines had been deployed. If this is done, "the Centre should not give funds... The funds only go into the hands of the wealthy", he said. He pointed to a road near his village, laid a few weeks earlier using machines, depriving men and women of work in a time of drought.
According to P. Baluchamy (52) of T. Mallayapuram, people were unhappy that they were given rice as compensation for the work they did. They wanted payment in cash, he said.
At Muvalur in Nagapattinam district, Yogarani Muthusamy alleged that there was no sign of the programme being implemented this time.
At Vallam, R. Santhanakrishnan, mirasdar of Pillayarpatti, said no scheme under the Food for Work Programme had been undertaken in his area.
When contacted, top district officials claimed that in the second phase of the programme, machines were not used extensively. This could be because of the reason that the use of earthmovers became unprofitable considering the cash-kind ratio involved. Those given work under the programme are paid Rs.14.45 and 7 kg of rice a day, and if machines are used the grain that is allocated cannot be offloaded.
Speaking on why the Food for Work Programme was not in evidence now compared to last August, a top district-level officer said that one reason could be that high-visibility works involving large numbers of people were not being taken up. But he admitted that implementation depended on "administrative and political will." In other words, it depended on the Collectors and Block Development Officers. Most of the blocks could have completed the schemes for financial year 2002-2003, he added.
IN September 2002 and January 2003, the Centre despatched teams to assess the severity and extent of the drought in Tamil Nadu. The State government then submitted a memorandum to the Centre stating that all but one of the districts were affected. The storage level in the reservoirs stood at 14.2 per cent of their capacity; and more than 90 per cent of the tanks and ponds had dried up, it said. The memorandum added that 9.19 lakh ha of the cultivated area had been affected and that the combined production loss in agriculture and horticulture was Rs.5,387.84 crores. The government sought Rs.2,027.53 crores from the National Calamity Contingency Fund (NCCF) besides nine lakh tonnes of foodgrains.
Union Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh said on March 23 that Tamil Nadu would get only Rs.258.44 crores. Jayalalithaa, who was "shocked at this extremely low allotment", on March 28 announced a Rs.380-crore package for farmers, one that included the payment of a cash compensation to those who had lost their crops. It would be Rs.2,500 a ha in irrigated areas if the loss during the kuruvai and samba seasons was 50 per cent or above. For dryland areas, it would be Rs.1,000. For coconut and mango crops, it would be Rs.4,000.
Arupathy P. Kalyanam, general secretary, Federation of Farmers' Associations, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts, termed the offer inadequate, for the per hectare cost of cultivation of paddy was Rs.25,000. The amount of compensation worked out to only a tenth of this, and even this payment would be made only for a part of the area of crop loss, he said.
FEELINGS are running high also over the decision to end the free supply of electricity to farmers.
Baluchamy dismissed as an eyewash the government's offer of cash payment to small and marginal farmers in lieu of free power supply. He said it is a life or death issue for the farmers. He added that although T. Mallayapuram came under the Chief Minister's Andipatti constituency, there was no drinking water supply or mini-bus services there. There was not even a lake (kanmai) where cattle could drink, he said.
Farmers said that the stoppage of free electricity supply to them had come at a time when they had spent Rs.40,000 to Rs.50,000 to deepen wells to a depth of up to 300 metres in some instances. "We cannot run our pump sets on expensive diesel. Our electricity bills will now go beyond Rs.2,000 a month," one of them said.
FARMERS in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Tiruchi districts meanwhile dread the prospect of Karnataka refusing to release Cauvery water from June 12. K.G.R. Balasundaram, who owns a rice mill at Vallam in Thanjavur district, said that the situation would improve if water is released from Mettur dam from June 12. Otherwise, the price of the Ponni variety of rice, which sells at Rs.16 a kg, would go up to Rs.25 a kg, he predicted.
Balasundaram explained how the drought has had a cascading effect, driving people out of work. Out of 300 paddy procurement centres in Thanjavur district, only 100 were operational. Each of them normally employed 15 to 20 persons. But the non-operation of 200 centres meant that about 4,000 families had lost their means of livelihood. Another 1,000 families had no income because the truck drivers and cleaners from the families had no work. There were 48 hulling mills in Thanjavur district. Each employed about 40 persons. Since these mills received very little paddy to hull now, another 2,000 families were starving. The mills faced financial ruin because they had to pay a minimum of Rs.6,000 a month towards electricity charges even when they did not work. "If this situation continues for another couple of years, the mills that depend on the government for hulling paddy will have to close," he said.
Balasundaram suggested that the State government get paddy instead of rice from the Centre. If the State were to get paddy, it would activate procurement centres, hulling mills, truck traffic and so on and about one lakh persons will get work, he said.