Tamil Nadu reels under a third successive year of drought, and the rural economy is fast drying up as a sixth straight crop failure stares farmers in the face.
T.S. SUBRAMANIAN in Cauvery delta Photographs: R.M. Rajarathinam
R. Maniam, who owns 3.5 acres (1.4 hectares) of land, is virtually in tears as he crushes a fistful of paddy from his field at Vanchiyur village in Tiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu. "This is nothing but chaff. If you feed this into the machine, you will get only husk and no grain," he says. The paddy did not get the last two wettings of ten days each for want of water. Farm labourers, who gather around Maniam, are tense and desperate. One of them, A. Veerayyan, said: "We lost the kuruvai crop last year. The samba crop is also gone now. We are facing a drought for the third successive year."
At Kottaimedu in Karur district, women are winnowing paddy near a hulling mill. One of them, Rasiammal, scoops out a handful of paddy from the cemented floor and says, "There is nothing inside this paddy. We cannot even get broken rice to make gruel."
On February 22, the Central inter-ministerial team deputed to assess the drought in Tamil Nadu faced women carrying empty pots at several places in Namakkal district. "Give us at least one pot of water a day," the women told the team. In Pudukottai district, the team is shown a huge tank at Eganivayal village. It is bone dry. So is the irrigation tank at Ammanur near Arakkonam in Tiruvallur district, the "doublelake" at Ladapuram, the Kanavaai tank and the Kurumbalur lake, all in Perambalur district. In Dharmapuri district, trees, be they arecanut, coconut or mango, are drooped as if in death and the sand in the tributaries of the Cauvery, such as the Vennar, the Vettar, the Koraiyar, the Koozhaiyar and the Baminiar, and the south bank canal burns in the mid-day heat.
In the State capital Chennai, water is scarce. Residents in many areas keep vigil through the night, waiting for the water tanker to arrive. When it does, quarrels break out to fill up the limited number of pots that each family can take. The sprawling Red Hills lake, the Sholavaram lake and the Poondi reservoir, which feed the city, look like ponds now.
FOR the third year in a row, drought has cut a swath of misery across Tamil Nadu. Its intensity perhaps is best illustrated by the barren vastness in the heartland of the Cauvery delta region in the Vadapathimangalam division of Tiruvarur district and in thousands of acres of fertile land that are lying unused. Irrigation canals such as the Punavasal canal in Vadapathimangalam are thick with weeds. Farmers have lost five paddy crops in a row since 2002 and do not see the prospect of harvesting the sixth, kuruvai (the June-September crop), this year. Even cash crops such as sugarcane, banana, betel vine, gingili, onion, cotton, black gram, tomatoes and chillies, which they raised on patches of land by using the limited amount of water available, have blighted. Onion and tomato crops that beat the odds finally fell to the mist, which normally disappears by January 15 but hung on until the first week of March this time. At Nagalapuram, near Thuraiyur, Tiruchi district, 19-year-old Raja pointed to dried up patches of tomato and onion crops. "They dried up because they could not withstand the mist," he said.
The rural economy too is shrinking fast. Debts of small and marginal farmers are mounting, unable as they are to repay the money borrowed over the past three years in the hope of raising at least one crop successfully. The agricultural cooperative banks do not seem to care; they keep up the pressure on the farmers to repay the loans. Said Srimathy at Vanchiyur in Tiruvarur district: "The bank officials came home yesterday and took my signature under a statement that I will repay the money."
Farm labourers from Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam - the core Cauvery delta districts - have begun migrating to the hosiery town of Tirupur in Tamil Nadu and to Kerala in search of work. Unlike their counterparts in Madurai, Theni, Salem and Ramanathapuram, this is something they did not have to do during earlier droughts. But for the past two years circumstances have forced them to go out.
M. Seran, president, Federation of Farmers' Associations, Thanjavur, Nagapattinam and Tiruvarur districts, said men and women had migrated to Tirupur from Kadambangudi, Marudur, Anaikudi, south Paniyur, Vazhaikkarai and Keerangudi. "Somebody, like an agent, comes and takes them with him," he said.
According to S.T. Kannan, deputy secretary of the Keevalur Panchayat Union, parents, who would not send their daughters unescorted even to the next village, are now sending them to distant towns for jobs.
With the farm workers gone, village tea stalls, which they helped sustain, are closing down. "We have no money to drink tea," said Aravazhi, a young man at Kottaimedu. With no one sipping tea, there is no need for milk and milkmen. The cows and buffaloes are being sold for a song, with the distressed milkmen unable to afford fodder and water. Their women are pledging even stainless steel vessels thanks to the `benevolence' of the moneylender who usually does not give loans against them.
Construction activity has come to a stop and there is no maintenance work such as desilting of canals and erection of fences on offer for the men. The hulling mills have fallen silent with no paddy to de-husk, throwing many truck drivers and loaders out of work.
The farmers by and large make only two demands - that the State government restore the distribution of 30 kg of free rice a month for each family and the payment of a compensation of Rs.750 a month.
The government, however, has no money in the State Calamity Relief Fund. On January 12, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa sent a memorandum to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani requesting Rs.1,584 crores from the National Calamity Contingency Fund and 10.8 lakh tonnes of rice.
According to Jayalalithaa, the State was facing drought of a severity unheard of in its history. She told the Legislative Assembly on February 10 that the State received deficient rainfall in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003. It received 745.7 mm of rain in 2002 (from the northeast monsoon), which was 24 per cent less than normal. This was the lowest in the past 30 years, she said. In 2003, 11 districts, including Chennai, received deficient rainfall from the northeast monsoon, the deficiency ranging from 20 per cent to 54 per cent.
Jayalalithaa accused the Karnataka government of "not releasing water in the Cauvery river this year also, which has greatly affected agriculture in the delta districts". She told the Assembly that under the interim order of the Cauvery Waters Dispute Tribunal, Karnataka ought to have provided Tamil Nadu 196.10 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft) of water from June 2003 to January 2004. Or, under the Cauvery Monitoring Committee's distress-sharing formula, Tamil Nadu ought to have got 90 tmc ft. All that Tamil Nadu received was 60.45 tmc ft at the Mettur dam, she said.
Jayalalithaa told the Central team headed by Dinesh Rai, Managing Director, National Cooperative Development Corporation, which was in the State on February 20, that "the anticipated production loss in both agriculture and horticulture is about Rs.3,795.25 crores". She also said that storage in 13 of the 16 major irrigation reservoirs in the State was lower than that of last year. "More than 90 per cent of the lakes and ponds have dried up," she informed the team. The farmers could not raise kuruvai in 2003. The subsequent samba crop could be raised only on 9.51 lakh hectares against the normal area of 14 lakh ha. About 14 lakh coconut trees had died, she said.
Increasingly, farmers are realising that they can no longer depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Said A.V. Gopaladesikan of Kulithalai in Karur district: "We have lost the inclination to do agriculture because we are not sure of getting back the money that we invest in it. Instead of spending money and losing the crop, it is better to keep the land uncultivated." Farmers in Karur district may lose the paddy they have cultivated on 39,000 acres (15,600 ha) because the prospects of the crop getting a wetting for 10 continuous days are remote. The panicles are partially ripe now. Will they survive? The farmers are not hopeful. The fact that there are not many borewells in Karur district, unlike in the composite Thanjavur district, has aggravated the situation.
Said Gopaladesikan: "We are not able to raise or save any cash crop because there is no assurance of a continued supply of water." Sugarcane was cultivated on 550 acres in Karur district instead of the normal 6,000 acres. "This is the best season for planting different varieties of banana such as `neipoovan', `karpooravalli' and `nenthiram'. But banana planting could not be done at all," he said. Farmers are destroying betel vine, a two-year crop that has dried up in its first year itself.
The drilling of borewells only led farmers to the depths of despair as they did not get electricity connections. They installed diesel-powered "oil engines" to pump out water, but the proposition was unprofitable. Where water was available, farmers did not have money to raise crops. In many places, the wells did not yield water at all.
Said A.P. Kalyanam, general secretary, Federation of Farmers Associations: "In the Cauvery delta, water should flow down the river and its tributaries for seven months in a year from June. Since no water has flowed in the Cauvery for the past three years, even deep wells have dried up." As no groundwater was available, farmers went in for submersible pumps up to a depth of 800 feet (240 metres) as in the Jeeya Canal area. "Karnataka says we have groundwater," said Kalyanam, "but groundwater has dried up and we have only sea water intrusion." This has happened in many places in the coastal Nagapattinam district.
WHEN the southwest monsoon is normal over the catchment area of the Cauvery and Karnataka releases water the sluices of the Mettur dam are opened on June 12 to allow flow of water for irrigation. This enables farmers in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam, Tiruchi, Karur, Perambalur, Pudukottai and parts of Villupuram and Cuddalore districts to raise kuruvai. But with the monsoon deficient over Karnataka and no water flowing down the Cauvery to Mettur, kuruvai on four lakh acres, in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts alone, was lost. On about 80,000 acres farmers cultivated the crop using water from borewells.
The Mettur dam was opened on October 7, 2003, after a delay of nearly four months. Farmers took up the cultivation of samba despite the delay, but very little water flowed down the Cauvery. The crop could be raised only on eight lakh acres as against the normal area of 12 lakh acres in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts. The crop failed in the entire Tiruthuraipoondi taluk, a major portion of Kottur, Pattukottai, Peravurani, Orathanadu and Boothalur divisions, partially in Tiruvarur taluk, and in Nagapattinam district.
The Federation of Farmers Associations said in its memorandum to the Centre's drought assessment team: "Belated sowing and transplanting in October and November, insufficient supply in the river systems, and erratic northeast monsoon shattered the prospect of the samba crop." The crop withered in 70 per cent of the cultivated area. "In the remaining 30 per cent of the area, the yield is very poor, between 10 and 30 per cent of the normal yield," the memorandum said. In Seran's farm, for instance, the yield was only 15 bags (each of 60 kg) of paddy instead of the normal 30 bags. He had to leave a major portion of his land uncultivated for want of water.
Said S. Ranganathan, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Cauvery Delta Farmers' Welfare Association: "The samba crop failed in a major way in the delta districts for three specific reasons: Karnataka's refusal to release water; absence of groundwater and the excessive drawal of groundwater resulting in the incursion of sea water in the coastal areas; and the poor precipitation during the northeast monsoon and the persistence of cold weather beyond January 15."
Although there was not enough water in the Cauvery for both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, "Karnataka managed to have its entire basin covered with a single crop of paddy as was evident during the visit of the `Cauvery family' [an inter-State organisation of farmers] to the Cauvery basin in the Mandya, Mercara, Harangi and Hemavathi belt on December 5, 6 and 7, 2003," Ranganathan alleged. "The most unfortunate aspect is," he said, "Karnataka's flat refusal to provide the final wetting of seven to eight tmc ft by the end of December" to save the samba crop even after the crop in Karnataka was harvested. The extended period of mist dealt the final blow.
Hard times lie ahead, during the next three to four months of summer, when the water scarcity will be at its worst.