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Time for new crop policy in delta

By V. Jayanth

THANJAVUR Dec. 31. From a stage when they raised three crops a year, delta farmers have been reduced to saving one crop a year now. Three successive drought years have shattered the rural economy in most parts of the erstwhile, composite Thanjavur district. And, with the Government likely to use the last drop of water now in the Mettur dam to save the standing samba crop, the farmers are unlikely to even think of kuruvai in the coming June.

Under these circumstances, farmers and officers involved in agriculture extension work have called for a new crop policy that will take into account the reduced water availability. There is complete agreement that paddy cannot be raised on 12 lakh hectares with limited storage, but the question is: How can the Government prevent farmers raising paddy, either through direct sowing or transplantation? Even this year, the authorities wanted a much more restricted crop, raised only by direct sowing. But many farmers went ahead on their own and are now blaming the Government for not releasing enough water to meet irrigation needs.

Over the past three irrigation years there has been an acute shortage of water, thanks to monsoon failure and Karnataka's refusal to release Tamil Nadu's legitimate share of Cauvery water. As a result, paddy, which was once a commercial crop of this region, has become a secondary crop. From a rice "exporting" State, Tamil Nadu has once again become heavily dependent on the Central pool for the Public Distribution System and to the neighbouring States for supply to the open market. The kuruvai crop here was mostly for sale to Kerala, while samba had a niche market in other States too. Today, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and even Orissa supply rice to the State.

Neither officials nor farmers here want to go on record on this issue. But they regret that a stage has come when one district in the State does not want to share water with the neighbouring district.

How can one State share its precious resource with another, if this mentality is allowed to grow?

To deal with this situation, they suggest that the Government formulate a new policy that will set out what crops can be grown in each region. "There is no point in all districts, from Salem and Erode to Madurai and Thanjavur, raising paddy everywhere. The Government can identify the tracts where paddy will be the main crop, depending on water storage and how much can be released per crop. We have to think in terms of cash crops and dry crops, which are suitable to each area and adopt a comprehensive policy that can help both the farmers and the State," says a senior irrigation official.

Apart from the expertise available with the Government, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation and leading agricultural scientist, Dr. Swaminathan, who is also the Vice-Chairman of the State Planning Commission, could come up with a concrete crop plan, regionwise and seasonwise. "If they start working on it now, perhaps, we will be able to put the plan into action from the next irrigation year, " points out the irrigation official.

It may still not be possible to ensure compliance by all farmers. But, when there is a policy, extension support and an irrigation system tuned to that plan, the farmers may have no alternative to falling in line.

For instance, if tail-end areas cannot get enough water for a paddy crop, they will have to be assisted with expertise and material to raise an alternative crop that is economically viable.

The farmers themselves admit that they cannot afford disaster for another season. They need to be sensitised, advised and persuaded to try other crops instead of sticking to paddy the only crop that most of them have grown over generations.

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