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Drought and despair

Drought is wreaking havoc in the Thanjavur belt of Tamil Nadu. MYTHILY SIVARAMAN investigates reports of distress deaths in the region.

AROGYA MARY of Kazhumangalam, Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu, said: "When the rains failed, we became desperate. Around 10 p.m. one day, my husband, Joseph, came home looking bewildered and shouting `the land is parched and cracked. What will I do? How will I repay the loan? What will happen to us?' We had a loan of Rs.20,000. Then I saw him fall down. In no time, he was dead. Elizabeth, my eldest daughter, a spinster, had always said she would take care of both of us in our old age. Now she looks dazed and numb. `How will I repay the loan', she keeps moaning."

Shanmugam, a small farmer in Palayakkottai in Thiruvarur district, lost all hopes of repaying his debt when he could not manage to irrigate his one acre of land for two weeks running; he wrote a letter to the Chief Minister and the District Collector pleading to save his family from debts and hanged himself from a tree in his house on January 7 this year. His widow, Thavamani, whose son was being harassed by lenders, bitterly alleged that her panchayat president gave false reasons for her husband's death on TV and that the tahsildar conducted a superficial enquiry and came up with a cooked up story for his death, rubbing salt into her wound.

These were among the depositions of the tragedies faced by families of marginal, small and tenant farmers of Thanjavur — the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu — at the meet on "Livelihood Rights — Food, Water, Work" organised jointly by the All India Democratic Women's Association, TN; FEDCOT, Law Trust and SNEHA on May 10, 2003 at Thanjavur. The participants were mostly from the adjacent districts fed by the Cauvery.

Chinna Ponnu, wife of Veeraiyan from Saliamangalam narrated her story. "We took land on lease. About two acres. With no water, the going was very difficult. We took a loan of Rs. 20,000. The crop withered and we tried pulses. No luck there either. On December 31, 2002, my husband, giving up hope of ever getting water, let the cattle graze the land. He then came home, went to the backyard and drank pesticide. I have no sons. Only four daughters. We could educate only the youngest up to the 12th standard. She was later driven to suicide by her drunkard husband. Her children are with us now as also another widowed daughter and her children. I had to pull out a grand daughter from school and send her to the city as domestic labour."

Chandrasekaran, an agricultural labourer with no land, living in Aathichapuram in Thiruvarur, said: "This is the second year when we have had no water and no work. My last year's savings are exhausted. I had no one from whom I could borrow money any more. My son, Prakash, fainted on his way to school. Terribly emaciated, he still had to make it to school, as the free mid-day meal was his only hope for survival. I took him to the hospital in Mannargudi town with the money that the women of the Self-Help Group in our neighbourhood had collected. At the Government hospital my son got little attention as I had very little money left. He died there. The administration said it was not a starvation death and gave us 25 kilos of rice."

Heart rending is the story of Padmavathy, whose death the AIDWA team investigated in January. Unable to bear the shock of her paddy crop wilting away, she even tried to take water to it in pots and pans from the irrigation channel along with her three children. The day before the celebrated harvest festival, Pongal, she sat in the field and lamented: "Last year too I lost the crop due to heavy rains at harvest time. Now the fields are cracked and dry. How will I pay back two loans with interest?" She became hysterical, fainted and died within a few minutes. The official verdict was that it was a heart attack; the villagers and the panchayat president insist it was starvation death.

The initial response of the TN Government to incidents like these was to deny that such distress was becoming commonplace and to extend the free noon-meal scheme for schools to farmers and labourers in need. Veeraiyan's widow had pleaded that she did not want to go in person — a widow's decorum demanded that she not be seen in public places — and requested that her grand children be allowed to bring home her food. This was rejected. Other women felt that to queue up with plates at 2 p.m. reminded them of prisoners and they felt ashamed. Their suggestion that they be given grain instead, so they can share a frugal meal at home in privacy and dignity, was ultimately conceded to under pressure, but only to a small part of the affected families.

Apart from drought affecting their livelihood, women also spoke of farmers trying to sell their land as building sites and food crops getting replaced by prawn cultivation and fancy exports like gherkins posing serious threats to food grain availability and price rise in future. Flower cultivation was also resorted to, where child labour is used, starting at four in the morning.

The very mention of non-availability of water as a discussion agenda got the women all worked up. Ponnamma, her face wrinkled less by age than by the constant struggles of every day living, narrated the instance of a burial that had to be delayed for hours for want of water to wash the corpse. Women who earned Rs.20 per day had to shell out five and four rupees for potable and non-potable water respectively. There was an overwhelming demand that water should not be sold out to the MNCs as was happening in some districts.

A local MP with whom an NGO had raised the issue of starvation and malnourishment, had burst out: "What do you mean India is becoming like Somalia? People here look quite healthy to me. Only you people talk of starvation deaths." Such callousness pervades the entire administrative structure, with only patchy implementation of the food-for-work programme; let alone the demand of AIDWA that 30 per cent of such employment should go to women.

All this, despite the very specific order of the Supreme Court on May 2 that the state governments should double their coverage under the SGRY scheme for the months of May, June and July as temporary relief.

The Court was caustic in its comments while upholding the right of every citizen under Article 21 of the Constitution to live with human dignity: "In case of famine, there may be shortage of food, but here the situation is that amongst plenty there is scarcity. Plenty of food is available, but distribution ... is scarce and non-existing leading to mal-nutrition, starvation".

The Thanjavur meet concluded by adopting a resolution, which said that if such hunger and poverty continued, democracy would lose credibility and violence would become a part of life. That could become the price we pay for tolerating a kind of governance that displays little sensibility to human suffering.

The writer is a well known activist and Working President of the All India Democratic Women's Association, Tamil Nadu.

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