Withering Tamil Nadu

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

In the wake of the failure of the monsoon for two successive years, almost the entire stretch of Tamil Nadu faces a summer of drought, distress and discontent.

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN in Thanjavur and Tiruchi

THE summer of 2003 is yet to peak, but the 15-month-old spell of drought across most parts of Tamil Nadu is already in full fury, comprehensive in its impact. There is a severe lack of water for drinking and allied domestic purposes, irrigation and industrial use. Crops are withering if not already destroyed. In January, the State government declared 28 of its 29 districts drought-hit: only the district of Chennai is out of the list. Yet another summer of distress and discontent looms ahead for this State.

Take the case of Kurichi, a village about 15 km from Tiruchi town. Hundreds of coconut trees in groves stand without their crowns. Banana trees have collapsed. Fields of paddy, which dried up three months ago, lie fallow. Flowering plants, raised as an alternative to other crops by desperate farmers, lie withered.

C. Chinnadurai, 50, a farmer of Kurichi, died of a heart attack after seeing his withered paddy crop. The Kattalai high-level channel from the Cauvery, which irrigates more than a thousand hectares of fertile land in seven villages, including Kurichi and Kavandanpatti, remains dry. The Uyyamkondan channel remains overwhelmed by sand.

Besides the paddy crop, crops of sugarcane, banana, pulses, betel vine and flowers are bearing the brunt of water scarcity. Along the road from Dindigul to Batlagundu, coconut groves stand withered at Sellampatti, Kozhivadipatti, Devadanampatti, Sempatti, Ayyampalayam and Usilampatti. Coconut trees as well as banana plantations have withered even in the fertile villages of Kavandampatti, Suriyanur, Kurichi, Melappatti, Neithalur Colony, Mudalaipatti and Koppu, which usually get water through the Kattalai high-level channel for 11 months in a year. The situation is particularly tragic at Kavandampatti.

Dams, rivers, streams, canals and channels are dry - be it the Mukkombu dam near Tiruchi, the Vaigai river in Madurai, the Cauvery in Tiruchi and Thanjavur, Kudaganaru near Dindigul, Vennaru near Sundathidal, Kudamurutiyaru at Papanasam, Veera Cholanaru at Aduthurai, or mountain streams at T. Mallaiyapuram in Theni district. Lakes, ponds and temple tanks are dry. A big lake near the Mariamman temple at Punnai Nallur on the outskirts of Thanjavur town has no water. An aged woman, Lakshmi, is trying to catch fish from a patch of water on the lake-bed. Domestic and irrigation wells have dried up.

R. Subramanian, deputy general secretary of the Tiruchi chapter of the Cauvery Delta Farmers' Welfare Association, spoke of the many dimensions of the tragedy. "People have pledged their jewellery to raise money to survive," he said.

Drinking water scarcity has cut a swath across the State. Residents of Dindigul town receive water supply once in eight days. At Ariyamangalam in Tiruchi, hundreds of plastic pots remain queued up on the roadside. Barricades have been erected with casuarina poles to regulate queues. Police personnel maintain order. Baby Ammal, who is washing vessels nearby, said residents received water once in three days at Ariyamangalam. However, since they never knew when they would receive water, they kept a 24-hour vigil.

J. Vijayalakshmi of Perur Agraharam, near Tiruchi, points to the dry well in her home. "Our village used to get flooded even with one spell of rain. But there is no drinking water now," she said. At Inchikinathupatti village in Guziliamparai block in Dindigul district, a domestic well that is 24 metres deep has dried up. M. Rajalingam, who owns 6 hectares there, asks: "Where will we go for drinking water?" He dug two irrigation wells, each up to a depth of about 122 m, and installed powerful motors. "I spent Rs.1 lakh on these wells. But they now have only two inches of water," Rajalingam said. His sugarcane crop has withered. Coconut trees in his grove are dead. According to his aged mother, it is quite unusual for coconut trees to dry up. A domestic well in the village centre at T. Mallaiyapuram has only rubbish at the bottom.

V. Ganapathy of Tiruchi estimated that a population of about two crores from Hogenekal, Dharmapuri, Mettur, Salem, Pallipalayam, Erode, Tiruchengode, Athur, Tiruchi, Pudukottai, Peramabalur, Ariyalaur, Jayamkondan, Andimadam, Thanjavur, Sirkazhi, Kumbakonam, Mayiladuthurai, Mannargudi and Nagapattinam depended on the Cauvery for drinking water. "None of the rivers have water. There is no groundwater recharging. The scarcity will become severe in the coming months," Ganapathy predicted. He pointed out that while the farmers in Tamil Nadu had lost three crops in a row, those in Karnataka had raised a kharif crop and the State had enough water stored in its reservoirs to enable them to raise a second crop.

The drinking water scarcity has hit the hill areas badly. Many villages at Periya Kalvarayanmalai, Chinna Kalvarayanmali, Javvad hills and Sirumalai are empty because there is no water for drinking or for cultivation. According to K. Balakrishnan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu unit of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), an entire belt in Dharmapuri district comprising Anchetti, Thalli, Hosur, Kelamangalam and Denkanikotta is without water.

Even the traditional watering holes in the forests of Dharmapuri district are parched. As a result, elephant herds searching for water often invade villages. Some village residents live in dread of them. Five female elephants, including two calves, presumably part of a herd in search of water, were mowed down by a locomotive when they were crossing the railway track at Periaullukurukki forest near Royakotta on the night of March 30.

The drought has led to large-scale migration of labour from Madurai, Dindigul, Virudhunagar, Theni and Ramanathapuram districts to Kerala, or to the industrial towns of Tirupur and Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. Scores of houses in T. Mallayapuram, T. Bomminaickenpatti, Subbulapuram or Rajagopalanpatti in Theni district thus remain locked up. There is an exodus of labour from Varadarajapuram, Karikali and Gujiliamparai in Dindigul district. R. Kanagaraj, 51, a farmer from Varadarajapuram, said that many people had left for Kerala to work in brick kilns. "The work is tough, but they get Rs.300 a day," he said. Many from Theni district were digging trenches in Kerala to lay telephone cables. According to A. Sellapandian, many people from T. Mallaiyapuram had found work in hosiery units in Tirupur. From Palavanatham, Vallikulam and other villages near Virudhunagar, people were migrating to towns and cities to work at construction sites.

In the absence of water bodies, even ducks are being moved from Perur Agraharam and Kuzhumani to Moonradaippu in Tirunelveli district and Eral in Thoothukudi district in the State, and to Kerala. S. Jaisankar of Perur Agraharam, who is an agent handling such deals, and others like him, have transported some 30,000 ducks in trucks to various areas.

Paradoxically, there is no migration of labour from the Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Tiruchi. People are staying put in their villages, without any work. At Sundathidal near Thanjavur, S. Panchamurthi, a peasant, and his wife Mahamayi, along with others, were winnowing pasi payiru, green gram, in the midday sun. Mahamayi, on the verge of tears, said: "There has been no rain at all. We have three acres of land, but we could plant nothing. The entire village could not cultivate." Kaliyamma, another woman facing a similar plight, said: "We are just physically alive. We are waiting for deliverance."

Farmers have resorted to distress sale of cattle for slaughter, for there is neither water nor fodder for them. Rajalingam sold four of his of six cows, each for Rs.3,000, although a cow and a calf would in normal times fetch Rs.12,000. At Palavanatham, Vallikulam and villages near Aruppukottai, meanwhile, goats in their hundreds have died of a mysterious disease.

The drought is the consequence of the failure of the North-East monsoon over Tamil Nadu both in 2001 and in 2002. Three calamities hit farmers in the State in 2002. In January, heavy unseasonal rain washed away harvested paddy on the threshing floor and ruined sugarcane crops also. This deprived people of rice and cattle of fodder. The situation worsened when Karnataka refused to release adequate quantities of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. Water released by Karnataka is stored in the Mettur dam in Tamil Nadu to undertake irrigation in the delta districts, but there is no water in the dam today. The dam, which in normal years is opened for the release of water for irrigation on June 12, was in 2002 opened only on September 6. This left the kuruvai paddy crop on an area between 1.2 lakh and 1.6 lakh ha deprived of water from June to September. From September to December, although no water was coming from Karnataka and the monsoon remained elusive, farmers started raising the samba crop on about 2.8 ha. This crop withered. For the farmers, this represented three catastrophes in a row.

They have lost their fourth crop too. A farmer at Perur Agraharam said: "By now we should have planted the summer kuruvai crop. It can be harvested in three months. But we have not raised the nurseries. The fields are lying empty."

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa lays the blame at the doors of Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna. She says the tragedy of Tamil Nadu is "an artificial one, forced upon them by the upper riparian neighbour which has been persistently denying them their rightful share of water."

Meanwhile, the State capital of Chennai is bracing for another round of water shortages. Dependent entirely on surface storage reservoirs that have the monsoon as their principal source, to meet its needs, the teeming city is in for trouble again this year. Water from the Krishna river in Andhra Pradesh is meant to reach the city under the Telugu Ganga project, but the systems are not yet in place - and there are inter-State political factors at play.

The situation is bound to worsen in overall terms in May and June when the summer peaks. Does the government have a strategy to tackle the looming catastrophe?

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