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Delta farmers in distress

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

Farmers suffer heavy losses owing to a delay in the procurement of the crop and unseasonal rain.

THE month of Thai in the Tamil calendar, corresponding to the period of mid-January to mid-February, traditionally spells hope and cheer in Tamil Nadu. The first day of the month marks the beginning of the harvest festival of Pongal.

For the over 40 lakh people of the Cauvery delta, considered the rice granary of the State, however, Thai brought no cheer this year. Thousands of peasant families have been left in distress. Four days of unseasonal rain (January 31 to February 3) played havoc with the crops. "Samba" crops on between 3 lakh hectares and 4.5 lakh ha in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagappattinam districts and parts of Cuddalore, Tiruchi and Pudukkottai districts (besides the Karaikal region of the Union Territory of Pondicherry at the tail end of the delta) were totally damaged. Many of the crops were under four to five feet of water for nearly a week. Initial estimates put the production loss in respect of paddy alone at between seven lakh and 10.5 lakh tonnes, worth Rs.400-600 crores. Paddy crops ("Thaladi" or "late Samba") on thousands of hectares of land more suffered damage of varying degrees. Pulses and grams grown on over 1.5 lakh ha were hit, resulting in a loss of over Rs.10 crores.

The harvest on about 50,000 ha had been completed before the rain. Last year's Samba output from the sown area of 5.4 lakh ha in the delta districts was 27 lakh tonnes, which formed roughly one-third of the State's total Samba output of 85 lakh tonnes.

Paddy in the rest of the land could not be harvested for want of storage facility. The farmers, mostly small and marginal ones, who generally raise crops with money borrowed at high rates of interest, have necessarily to depend on the Direct Purchase Centres (DPCs) not only for a fair price for their produce but also for storage space. They used to take the harvested paddy direct to the DPCs from the fields. The State government delayed its procurement policy and the DPCs were opened in the first phase by January 1, two weeks later than normal. This caused an inordinate delay in small and marginal farmers launching harvesting operations. Lakhs of agricultural workers, including a large number of those from the neighbouring districts, were rendered jobless.

Chief Minister O. Paneerselvam announced on February 4 that a high-level team of officials would visit the affected areas and assess the damage caused by the rain and on the basis of their report the government would come out with a relief package. He said the State would seek assistance from the Union government's National Calamities Fund. He also ordered payment of solatium to the families of 11 persons who were killed in the rain.

Over 1,000 farmers belonging to the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, a mass organisation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), courted arrest on February 9 at seven centres in the delta demanding immediate payment of compensation to the affected people and other relief measures. Sangam secretary K. Balakrishnan told Frontline that it was the government's bungling on the procurement front that exposed the ripe crops on lakhs of acres to the fury of the rain and caused unprecedented loss and hardship to the farmers and farm workers. It was, therefore, incumbent on the government to compensate the farmers fully for the loss they had suffered.

Balakrishnan said that from the very beginning the State government had been reluctant to open procurement centres. It was only in keeping with the Centre's policy of discouraging governmental price support to the farmers, which, in turn, was in compliance with World Trade Organisation norms, he said. Even the few DPCs opened by the government were either non-operational for want of infrastructure and manpower, or were keen on turning back supplies from the farmers for one reason or other, in terms of quality, moisture content, colour and so on.

About 50,000 farmers had participated in demonstrations organised jointly by farmers' and farm workers' organisations of different political parties, including the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, at a number of places across the delta on January 22 demanding speedy procurement operations. Over 10,000 demonstrators were taken into custody. At Paappanadu village in Thanjavur the police resorted to a lathi-charge in which hundreds of men and women were injured. Balakrishnan also led a road roko agitation at Chidambaram pressing the same demand and in the talks that followed the Civil Supplies authorities agreed to step up procurement operations.

By the time the government conceded the demand and increased the moisture content allowed from 18 per cent to 22 per cent, the rain intervened to destroy the crops in a substantial measure.

"WITH harvest yet to be done and no money to spend, Pongal this year was one of the worst for thousands of families in this region," said S. Ranganathan, Secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers Welfare Association. "The subsequent rain wiped out the entire crop they had raised with money borrowed at abnormal rates of interest," he added.

Ranganathan and Balakrishnan, as also G. Krishnamurti, vice-president, Thanjavur District Farmers Association (Tiruvarur and Nagappattinam), asserted that if the government had stuck to the usual procurement schedule (of commencing the operations by December 15) and had been more realistic with regard to the quality, colour and moisture content, the entire procurement operation could have been completed by mid-January and the crop loss owing to the rain could have been reduced to the minimum.

Leaders of farmers' organisations allege that the crisis in procurement has been engineered by the trader-bureaucrat-politician nexus. They allege that this has been done to favour private trade, forcing distressed farmers to sell their produce to traders rather than the government.

Ranganathan said a timely alert by the Meteorological Department could have saved at least the harvested paddy spread in the open air for drying at many places. He said that the silent sufferers of the disaster were the cattle, whose staple food, straw, had been totally lost.