With crops withering, whither delta farmer?

The delta region, considered the granary of the state, is facing great distress, thanks to monsoon failure and a combination of other factors, such as demonetisation, that have accentuated the situation. Farmers’ organisations accuse the State of not treating the issue with sufficient seriousness, even as they struggle to live each day under the overwhelming burden of a debt which they can never hope to repay...

Updated - January 29, 2017 08:20 am IST

Published - January 29, 2017 01:01 am IST

For farmers of the delta region of Tamil Nadu, the biggest festival of the year is naturally the harvest festival — Pongal. For each farmer, it is like a wedding in the family — the preparations are joyous and go on for three days.

Not this year, though. This year, Pongal was a dull, lacklustre affair in the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. With the failure of both monsoons, which wet the lands and enable the water-intensive paddy planting process, coupled with the lack of Cauvery water, farmers have been traumatised. First, their short-term crop kuruvai failed, and then, so too did the long-duration paddy crop of samba, just as the farmers feared. Faced with mounting debts, the inability to pay them back and literally zero yield in some cases, farmers have been pushed to the brink. Pongal was no occasion to celebrate, at a time when the State is arguably witnessing its worst drought in recent times.

Rani could not sleep for days after her husband, V. Murugaiyyan (48), committed suicide in November. The samba crop that he had planted on a three-acre piece of land he had leased out in Pirinjamoolai in Nagapattinam district had withered.

“I am an illiterate and have no land. We have nowhere else to go and all of a sudden, feel orphaned after my husband took his life, unable to bear the burden of debt any longer,” rues Rani. She has a 11-year-old child with mental illness and a daughter studying Plus-Two to take care of.

There are other such “Ranis” in the State, the government concedes to a far lesser number than farmers’ organisations and the opposition parties.

While desperation drove many farmers to end their lives, the stress put such pressure on many others that dozens died of cardiac arrest following the failure of crops in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts and in other parts of the State.

“We faced an unprecedented situation this year with the failure of both the South West and the North East monsoons. Water from the Mettur dam was inadequate and the groundwater table in the delta has gone down badly,” observes Mannargudi S. Ranganathan, general secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers Welfare Association.


Just chaff, no grain

The Cauvery delta region mostly comprises the Grand Anicut, perhaps the biggest and most important in the southern peninsula. From Grand Anicut, the Cauvery irrigates 4.64 lakh acres, the Vennar 6.69 lakh acres and the Grand Anicut Canal 2.56 lakh acres. Tiruchi, Ariyalur, Thanjavur, Pudukkottai, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and parts of Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu and Karaikal region of the Puducherry Union Territory form the core delta region irrigated by the rivers.

Today, one can see vast stretches of seemingly barren land or those that are left fallow, especially in Nagapattinam district, and also in the tail-end areas of Tiruvarur and Thanjavur districts. Incidentally, they are neither barren nor left fallow as the directly-sown paddy crop could not grow to maturity in time due to water scarcity and the failure of the North East monsoon. Worse still, those who had raised paddy and saw the crops wither for want of water, let their cattle graze on them with a heavy heart.

Despondency was apparent during Pongal, the harvest festival across the region this year. “There was no Pongal for us this year,” rues S.Natarajan (62) of Kuzhumani in Tiruchi, pointing to the banana trees that have suffered a stunted growth.

It has been 45 days since his banana crop got a wetting from the Uyyakondan canal. “We desperately pleaded with the authorities to release some water for an urgent wetting. The trees have not flowered now,” he said. Last year, he had tried to sink bore wells twice, but failed.

There are several others like him in the region between the Mettur dam and Upper Anicut in Tiruchi, whose fields in Namakkal, Erode, Karur and Tiruchi districts are served by 17 irrigation channels branching off from the Cauvery on either side of the banks. They could not irrigate their crops as the inflow into the Mettur dam could not meet the demands of even the priority core delta area farmers.

Nothing left save thali

In the wake of delays in primary agricultural cooperative societies advancing them credit, many farmers had taken loans from private money lenders at high interest rates to sustain their crop and now they are not in a position to repay them on time. “I am left with just this thali after having pledged all my jewels with private pawn brokers, trying to save my paddy crop,” admits Ilanjiam, a marginal farmer of S. Kannanur on the northwestern borders of Tiruchi district. “Now that the crop has withered, I don’t know when I will recover from this blow,” she says.


Many farmers in rain-fed regions of the State launched agricultural operations after an initial burst of rainfall but were deceived as there was no more rain till the monsoon withdrew.

The crisis is not restricted to the Central region of the State. Murugesan, a marginal farmer in Sambakulam in Mudukulathur taluk of Ramanathapuram district, had borrowed ₹20,000 for paddy cultivation and another ₹30,000 for chilli cultivation but lost both the crops. “Every day, when I get up in the morning, I swear in the name of God I feel like ending my life,” he says, looking up at the skies. After losing the crops, he became a daily wage worker and is struggling to make ends meet, he says.

Droughts are not uncommon to the farmers of this arid district but this year, many of them burnt their fingers after borrowing money from private money lenders in the ‘absence’ of credit facilities in the Primary Agriculture Cooperative Credit Societies after the demonetisation drive.

Water, cash crunch

“Karnataka brazenly braved all Supreme Court directives to discharge water in the Cauvery to save the standing crops in Tamil Nadu. The Central government turned a blind eye to it too. Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonetised high-value currencies and restricted withdrawal limits, compounding the crisis for the farmers who were in dire need of funds for farm operations and most importantly disbursal of wages for labourers,'' observes Mr. Ranganathan.

The denial of cash-giving kuruvai and the failure of the samba put paid to the hopes of the delta farmers. The short- term paddy crop used to give them the necessary wherewithal to help them raise the long-duration samba paddy crop in most of the delta region or in areas where bore wells could be used to irrigate the fields.

There is a misconception that the delta reaps three crops in a year and farmers are asking for more. That is definitely not the case. The predominantly clayey nature of the delta soil allows raising of only paddy during any time of the year. If assured water for irrigation is available, farmers raise kuruvai and thalady paddy crops with the help of sub surface water in restricted areas, while in most of the regions in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts, only samba paddy crop is being cultivated using water flowing down through Cauvery and its branches, besides help from the heavens. Kuruvai as a seasonal paddy crop has remained a mirage since the seventies.

Despite the State government announcing kuruvai and samba special packages carrying cash incentives, the farmers continue to suffer. “I need to buy water for irrigating my withering samba paddy crop. Those who have bore wells charge ₹100 to ₹150 per hour and one acre piece of land requires 10 hours of pumping to fully irrigate the area. For such four wettings, my entire return is taken away, observes S. Durairaj of Erukkattur village in Tiruvarur district.

A Central team fanned out to various parts of the State to assess the drought impact. Ironically, parts of the delta region received moderate rain ahead of the Central team’s visit, leaving farmers ruing their fate. The unseasonable rain over the past few days in Nagapattinam and Tiruvarur districts has raised apprehensions among farmers, who had raised paddy with the help of pump sets in some parts of the delta. The ryots fear that continued rains at this stage might flatten the fully matured paddy crop.

The farmers are also upset with the mode of crop insurance scheme. “Crop insurance in the present style is not indemnifying me against any crop loss as such. The mode of crop loss and damage assessment, compensation arrived at and also the time taken for disbursal of the compensation are awful and are in fact unfathomable to farmers. Even if we don't get to fix the price of our produce, we must at least know the damage-compensation mechanism, which must be transparent and farmer-friendly,” says farmer T. Mathialagan of Paappanadu village in Thanjavur district.

As agriculture took a beating this year, the situation of the landless farm workers seems far more complicated. “At least, farmers have some lands to rely upon after overcoming the crises in the future. We don't have a today and we won’t have a tomorrow,” points out V. Jeevakumar, Thanjavur district vice-president of the Tamil Nadu Vivasaya Thozhilalar Sangam.

The failure of the paddy crop is set to trigger a massive fodder crisis as well. In areas where sub surface water is being used for irrigating thalady paddy crop, production is expected to plummet sharply again, resulting in a huge loss for farmers despite their hard work. Excess dependence on sub surface water and overexploitation have resulted in depleting water table levels. Already a drinking water crisis looms large over the state. Unless the State government steps in with farm loan waivers and better crop insurance policies, the future seems bleak, say farmers. They pray for a reasonable monsoon the next year, and the strength to last until then.

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