Parched in Tamil Nadu’s rice bowl

Updated on: Jan 11, 2018






BLink_A Suicide Widow's

BLink_A Suicide Widow's

In the Cauvery delta’s worst drought in 140 years, a padyatra brings home the harsh realities of how Tamil farmers are living on the edge and what sustains their resilience

A farmer sells his sugar cane to the local public sector sugar mill, where he is mandated to sell his crop. Instead of paying, the factory hands him a slip of paper. Eighteen months pass by and he ‘sells’ the next crop to the same mill. There is still no payment. The farmer takes a loan in anticipation of the ₹4 lakh-odd that is owed to him by the sugar mill. Meanwhile, rains fail and groundwater levels drop. He takes another loan to dig a new borewell; the bore also fails. The company still does not pay his dues. His creditors lose patience and he caves into hopelessness.

Selvaraj had committed suicide the day before we arrived in Thanjavur as part of a four-day Farmers’ Rights Yatra or Ulavar Urimai Payanam across seven of the worst drought-hit districts of Tamil Nadu — Nagapattinam, Thiruvarur, Thanjavur, Perambalur, Ariyalur Karur and Tiruchirappalli. Among the most fertile areas in the country, the Cauvery delta is the rice bowl of the State. The drought in this region, unprecedented in the last 140 years, since 1876 to be precise, got Swaraj Abhiyan to embark on the yatra along with members of civil society from the National Alliance of People’s Movement, Ekta Parishad and Alliance for Holistic and Sustainable Agriculture.

The statistics are well-known. The rainfall deficit during October to December, the main monsoon months for this region, was 62 per cent. Nearly 87 per cent of the region’s farmlands has been affected. Water level in the State reservoirs is down to one-fifth of their capacity. In January, prompted by ground reports of 144 farmers committing suicide, the State declared drought across all 32 districts, with 22 severely hit, and some with rainfall deficit as high as 81 per cent. The worst-affected were Nagapattinam, Thiruvarur and Thanjavur. For instance, in Nagapattinam, 80 per cent of the paddy sown by 1,35,000 farmers didn’t flower. The agriculture ministry’s sowing data shows that till early February, farmers in Tamil Nadu planted rice in 7.5 lakh hectares, substantially lower than the 12.8 lakh hectares in the previous year. The same month, the Tamil Nadu government sought ₹39,565 crore as drought relief from the National Disaster Response Fund.

We first encountered some of these farmers at the dharna organised at Jantar Mantar in Delhi. Led by the articulate and charismatic Ayyakanu, these farmers used innovative and shocking techniques to draw the country’s attention to their plight, even wearing a garland of skulls they claimed belonged to farmers who had committed suicide. While we took the matter to the Supreme Court, we resolved to visit their home turf to understand their plight better.

Cauvery delta is no Bundelkhand, we told ourselves. Over the course of our samvedna yatra to various drought-affected States in 2015 and padyatra in Marathwada and Bundelkhand in 2016, we thought we had seen the worst instances of hunger, malnutrition and cattle famine. After all, the State has not withered away in Tamil Nadu, as it appears to have in many parts of the Hindi heartland. The administrative and social welfare systems are largely in working condition. After the tsunami, the State kicked into a model of disaster relief work. And yet, our motley bunch — comprising academics, advocates, chartered accountants, activists and a retired corporate honcho — were in for a few surprises.

Waiting for “very soon”

We passed through dry, post-harvested fields. It was clear that many farmers had not sown the crop. Yet the land was not completely barren. The cattle had something to graze on. Occasionally there were patches of green supported by borewells. Canals and streams were mostly dry but there were some ponds with water. People, although clearly in distress, weren’t lacking in basic hospitality. Rice on banana leaf was always accompanied by thick sambar, at least one vegetable and applam; water was often replaced by buttermilk. Every meal reminded us of the day in the Madhya Pradesh part of Bundelkhand where our host could afford nothing more than roasted atta litti and watery alu chokha.

But a closer encounter with farmers changed our impression. Crop loss here was heavier than in Bundelkhand. ‘Nil’ crop was not just an idiom. In village after village, paddy yields were indeed negligible. Unlike Bundelkhand, here the farmers had invested heavily in sowing and regretted. They were constantly spending money to deepen their borewells as groundwater tables shrunk dramatically. Their losses were higher than those of farmers elsewhere.

Losses means mounting loans and that drove those like Selvaraj to suicide.

We found that collectives of Tamil Nadu farmers, although in better solidarity than their north Indian counterparts, were outmanoeuvred by government apathy. In every village we visited, we were told about the opacity and inequality in distribution of crop loss compensation, no different from the rest of India. The fabled Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna has so far proved to be just that — a fable; Insurance claims have so far not been distributed anywhere in the State, at a time when payments were most needed by farmers. A senior official though assured us that insurance claims would be settled “very soon”.

Scraping for food

And then there were those haunting eyes of the farmer widows. A young widow with four small children, was solely dependent on foodgrains supplied by the public distribution system, ever since the drought left her 3 acres barren. Food supplies now run out in 20 days. For the remaining 10 days of the month, when there is no food in the house, she persuades the children to go to sleep. “They are very obedient,” she said.

For the poorest, the scenario was not very different. Barring occasional jarring notes, the efficient PDS in Tamil Nadu seemed to be functioning at least so far as foodgrain supply is concerned. But supply of other essential commodities such as pulses, oil, sugar and kerosene were whimsical at best and unavailable at worst.

The Mid-Day Meal scheme has a provision that allows its continuation during summer vacations in case of a natural calamity. While many other States have invoked this provision this year, Tamil Nadu is yet to send a request. A senior officer we spoke to said there was no demand for it. Every mother we met told us otherwise — they would gladly send their children to school for this vital meal, if only the State provided.

Rural employment guarantee, now known as MGNREGA, devised in the 1970s for the specific purpose of mitigating poverty and migration during droughts, has suffered the unkindest cut in Tamil Nadu. In a drought year, when more employment should have been provided, there has been a reduction of 34 per cent in the person days.

We could also not see MGNREGA being used for long-term drought-proofing work.

This is when the inadequacy of State response began to sink in. Just as the Tamil Nadu farmers had failed to meet the Prime Minister, we were unsuccessful in meeting the chief minister. We got no response from any of the Collectors of the districts through which we travelled.

The State’s response veered from business-as-usual to denial.

We couldn’t help but notice that like in other places, it is a man-made drought. There is rampant over-extraction of groundwater and under-recharging. The well-planned canal irrigation system of Tamil Nadu is in disarray, disrepair and disuse. The Cauvery water dispute has its own multidimensional ramifications, which are amplified by State-sponsored sand mining leading to the ever-reducing capacity of the riverbed to retain water.

The impact of drought on the rural population of Tamil Nadu seemed far more debilitating as the expectation of efficacious relief was far greater. Stuck between an uncaring Central government and an unresponsive State government, the tide of hope ebbs as a wave of anger rises.

But the farmers have not given up yet. Their zest to put up a good fight burns bright. That, in itself, makes all the difference between Bundelkhand and the Cauvery delta.

Avik Saha is the national convenor of Jai Kisan Andolan of Swaraj Abhiyan. Yogendra Yadav is the national president of Swaraj India

Published on May 19, 2017
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