Tamil Nadu

Along Cauvery, burned down by drought and debt

Emptying the rice bowl:  Agricultural labourers in many areas in Tiruchi district are now working in brick kilns after the failure of their crop; below, the Cauvery in spate after a heavy monsoon in 2006 and the dry riverbed in May this year.

Emptying the rice bowl: Agricultural labourers in many areas in Tiruchi district are now working in brick kilns after the failure of their crop; below, the Cauvery in spate after a heavy monsoon in 2006 and the dry riverbed in May this year.

On June 12, the customary date on which the Mettur dam in Salem district is opened to provide water to the lower reaches of the Cauvery, the riverbed stretched as far as the eyes can see, barren as a desert. P. Ayyakannu, the farmer-leader who recently led a series of protests against the Centre and the State demanding drought relief, said, “It has been six years since the dam’s gates were opened on time, and you can see the state of the river for yourself…and pro-Kannada organisations are calling for a bandh demanding two more dams in their State to tap the river’s water. Where are we to go then?”

The Cauvery irrigates eight districts in the main in Tamil Nadu — Erode, Karur, Ariyalur, Perambalur, Tiruchi, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam — and it journeys eastward towards Nagapattinam district, where it finally drains into the Bay of Bengal. Following two consecutive years of failed Northeast monsoon, Tamil Nadu suffered its worst drought in 140 years in 2016-17. The entire State was declared drought-hit in January this year.

Six months on, little appears to have been done by the State to remedy the situation. In six badly-affected districts, The Hindu found that farmers were beginning to grow tired of the ‘blame Karnataka’ strategy adopted by the government every time there is a water crisis. Farming operations have come to a virtual standstill, and only those with deep borewell irrigation or those cultivating on the riverbed could be seen carrying on with regular cultivation. While Karnataka has already built adequate dams on the Cauvery to tap its water upstream, farmers in Tamil Nadu are angry that the State has done little in terms of implementing similar measures.

Inadequate rainfall during the Southwest monsoon in 2016 affected the upper riparian state of Karnataka as well, resulting in its inability to allocate to Tamil Nadu the 2,000 cusecs of Cauvery water per day as mandated by the Supreme Court’s order of 2016. As on June 21, the inflow to the Krishna Raja Sagar dam in Mandya, Karnataka, was only 1,275 cusecs (as per government figures), most of which goes towards meeting the drinking water requirements of major cities in Karnataka.

“If you look at the total amount of water allocated for Tamil Nadu by the Cauvery Water Tribunal, Karnataka is only to provide 192 tmcft [thousand million cubic feet]. The remaining 227 tmcft is to be gained from Tamil Nadu. So the State too needs to do its bit to tap into the Cauvery’s potential for irrigation,” said P.K. Deivasigamani, who heads the Tamil Nadu Joint Farmer’s Association, based in Erode. “In 2014, ₹400 crore was allocated for building a check dam across the Kollidam River on the Nagapattinam-Cuddalore border, which could help meet the drinking water and irrigation requirements of the region, but the State government has not taken any action till date,” he said.

S. Janakarajan from the Madras Institute of Development Studies told The Hindu that across several districts in the State the problem of mining water was beginning to surface. Mining water refers to the stage when withdrawal of groundwater reaches a point where it is beyond replenishment. This was especially the case with the non-Cauvery delta irrigated zones such as Madurai, Theni, and Ramanathapuram. In coastal areas, sea water intrusion has resulted in the water turning saline. “Half of Tiruvarur district now has saline water,” he said.

Even in the Cauvery delta regions, the groundwater table has fallen sharply, and the area under crops has come down drastically. “In Thanjavur, kuruvai cultivation is only 1 lakh acres as against 4.5 lakh acres in a usual year,” Prof. Janakarajan said, adding: “Even samba cultivation is very uncertain due to low water levels in Mettur reservoir.”

Sand mining rampant

Sand mining is rampant in the Cauvery and its distributary, Kollidam, affecting its water retention capacity and quality of groundwater in nearby areas. While driving down the Karur bypass road from Tiruchi, we came across a 5 km-long queue of over 300 trucks on the side of the road waiting to extract sand from the Cauvery near Lalapet.

A casual enquiry with one of the drivers revealed that trucks had lined up for 2-3 days outside the mine, near Pettavaithalai, and the quarry had dug deep into the riverbed such that a man could be buried in it standing upright. The same could be witnessed at Thiruvasi on the Tiruchirapalli-Namakkal Road where over 10 such sand quarries operate within a 10 km stretch. Inquiries with the police stationed outside the quarries revealed that about 350 trucks operated at each of these quarries every day. Sand mined from here fetches about ₹ 1,150 - ₹ 1,300 per truck load locally and was supplied across Tamil Nadu and to nearby states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka too. In the cities, the sand is purchased for a rate of ₹ 13,000 to ₹ 14,000 per truck load and sellers thus make a killing.

The Cauvery in spate after a heavy monsoon in 2006 (above) and the dry riverbed in May this year (below). Photos: M. Moorthy

N. Ramachandran, a block coordinator for the Tamil Maanila Congress, and owner of a banana plantation in Uraiyur, Tiruchi district, said that due to the quarrying operations from Thiruvasi onward, fields within the 10 km radius have been severely affected by falling groundwater levels. “The miners use earthmovers to dig deep into the riverbed, sometimes going up to 20 feet deep. If they hit on some water stream beneath, the miners use a motor to drain the water off, before beginning to extract sand again. This has left red blotches on the surface of the riverbed,” he said.

When it rains on such a surface, the clayey soil beneath the sandy upper layer of the river mixes with the water to form mushy puddles, with none of the water percolating below to recharge the river naturally. It also leads to accidents, with goats grazing the riverbed or people crossing by slipping into the pits left behind by miners, residents say. As one drives towards Karur from Tiruchi, the coconut trees in groves on both sides of the road begin to wilt and disappear as the sand mines approach.

In spite of the drought, the Cauvery and the Kollidam rivers continue to supply drinking water to 20 out of the 32 districts in Tamil Nadu. The Community Drinking Water Schemes, run by the State government, have caused great resentment among local residents in Thanjavur district, where many of these projects operate.

In Anaikudi, a village in Thiruvaiyaru taluk, Thanjavur, a sugarcane farmer S. Selvaraj reportedly committed suicide last month after attempts to extract water for his farm using a bore well failed. He had spent a large sum of money installing it. His wife Rasathi told The Hindu that her husband had lost all his investments in agriculture and the sugar mill to which he supplied sugarcane had not settled his dues. He had a debt of nearly ₹4 lakh and was unable to repay the bank. The family hasn’t received any compensation from the government.

About a kilometre away from here, a long pipe carrying drinking water under a government community drinking water scheme from the Kollidam River, goes to Pattukottai. At the pumping station, where a trial is currently underway, two motors were running, each pumping out 6,000 litres of water per minute. Villagers who protested the drawing of water from here say false cases were foisted against them to suppress local dissent.

Deepening distress

Many farmer families and agricultural labourers have begun to seek wage labour outside their villages out of desperation. In Thiruvalarsolai, near Tiruchirapalli, we saw farm labourers working in brick kilns to make ends meet.

P. Periyasami, who owns 2 acres of land in Thanjavur district, migrated with his family comprising his wife, two daughters and a son to this place to bake bricks after his paddy field failed to yield for three consecutive years. “We get paid ₹1-1.50 per brick and earn about ₹100 per day. The money is better in farming, but with no water available we have no choice but to work here,” he said. He pointed to a tiny, straw hut on the corner of the road, “That’s where we live.”

If this is the case in Thanjavur district, a relatively prosperous agricultural belt, the situation is worse in places that lie outside of the Cauvery irrigation zone. In Peragambi, near Siruganur, Tiruchi district, lemon farmers are buying water for ₹4,000 per tanker load to irrigate their withering fruit-bearing trees. The trees aren’t eligible for crop loss compensation from the government. C. Selvaraj, who had been growing the trees for the last six years, said, “It’s only this year that the trees started bearing fruit and there’s no water. Half of them have withered. I’m trying hard to keep the rest alive spending ₹30,000 per month watering them thrice.”

Not very far from Peragambi and Vazhaiyur is the Sanamangalam eri , a lake that stretches over 8 acres. While driving down the Chettikulam-Peragambi Road, we came across this lake that was covered entirely in thorny bushes. No one would identify it until someone told them that this was a lake! Less than a kilometre down the same road MNREGA workers sat resting under the shade of trees. They had just completed digging a small canal for irrigation here.

When we inquired as to why the eri was not taken up for clearing as it would help store water, the workers said that it came under the PWD and the village panchayat could not commission any clearing work in it. Farmers in Nagapattinam district had complained to us that work on dredging silt from a major irrigation canal, under PWD supervision, was progressing slowly. They say with some irritation that the officials seem busy overseeing sand mining operations with police protection.

Farmers growing Bt. cotton in Peragambi, Vazhaiyur and border areas of Perambalur district had mortgaged all their family jewellery and now risked losing them to bank auctions. A source in NABARD told The Hindu that a majority of farmers in Tamil Nadu had taken crop loans against gold jewellery.

Most often when the farmers failed to repay the loans, the banks recovered it by auctioning the jewellery. In spite of the Madras High Court direction to waive off loans and RBI (Relief Measures by Banks in Areas Affected by Natural Calamities) Directions, 2016, asking banks to restructure loans of farmers affected by drought, banks have continued to send notices for loan repayment to farmers who failed to return crop loans borrowed last year.

In Kadichambadi village, Kumbakonam taluk, Thanjavur, we met Aruljothi Murugan whose father Rengasamy, 78, died last month unable to bear the shock of crop loss. His total outstanding loan amount was ₹32, 263. The family continues to get notices for repayment from the bank.

“Three days after his death we received ₹10,000 as crop loss compensation from the government. But can we bring the dead man back?” his wife Amisham, 65, asked.

Usually, in times of distress such as these, farm animals provide some back-up for income generation for farmers. But with the agrarian distress deepening, maintaining livestock has become a challenge. G. Ravi of Panchanadikkulam, Nadu Setti in Vedaranyam taluk, Nagapattinam district, says he lost his father due to crop loss last year. He owned two cows given free of cost by a charitable organisation a few years ago. Feeding and maintaining them required ₹100 per day. But the 2 litres of milk he got from the cow fetched only ₹50 when sold. He owes ₹3 lakh to a private moneylender and ₹25,000 as bank loan.

“What should I do,” he asks, “Feed the cows or keep myself alive?”

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2022 12:27:27 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/along-cauvery-burned-down-by-drought-and-debt/article19144308.ece