Finally, there’s hope on the horizon for the drought-hit farmers of Tamil Nadu.
After losing much of their kuruvai (summer) crop to the water-sharing dispute with Karnataka, agriculturists across the state watched haplessly as a weak northeast monsoon – which usually accounts for 50% of Tamil Nadu’s overall rainfall – failed to provide for their samba (winter) crop. Even the Cyclone Vardah couldn’t bring about enough rainfall to alleviate the situation.
The farmers, desperate to draw attention to their plight, resorted to the only tactics they could fall back on: Taking out protests, and when that failed, committing suicide. Reports say at least 60 farmers have killed themselves until now, and the number continues to rise.
The Tamil Nadu government finally responded on Tuesday, with chief minister O Panneerselvam issuing a statement after meeting various farmer associations. “The Northeast monsoon usually brings 440 mm of rainfall to Tamil Nadu,” he said. “However, only 163.8 mm of rain was received. Of the 32 districts in Tamil Nadu, 21 had a deficiency of 60%.”
The statement said drought relief measures can be announced only if 10% of all village crops are surveyed by committees formed by district collectors and senior civil authorities.
The government also promised freebies to drought-affected families that possess ration cards. “To ensure a happy Pongal (the Tamil harvest festival), a kilo of rice and sugar will be provided, besides cashews, raisins, cardamom, and two feet of sugarcane.”
Most of the affected farmers hail from the Cauvery delta – the fertile breadbasket of Tamil Nadu –comprising Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam. “First, there was a river crisis because of the Cauvery dispute,” said K Subramaniyan, assistant professor at the Madras Institute of Development studies. “The failure of the northeast monsoon worsened the drought situation.”
Subramaniyan, an expert in the fields of agriculture and irrigation, said a drought is usually declared when a majority of the state’s districts receive less than 20% of the normal rainfall. This year’s northeast monsoon, which acts as a lifeline for Tamil Nadu’s farmers, was the worst in over a century with a 62% deficit.
“The government is too busy trying to stabilise itself to officially declare a drought,” he added.
The ruling AIADMK is currently in an uncertain position, with many in the party calling for newly appointed general secretary Sasikala Natarajan to take over as chief minister from O Panneerselvam.
According to Subramaniyan, the type of crops sown and the technology used by farmers have also exacerbated the situation. “Farmers do not know enough to change their crops depending on the groundwater available,” he said. “Instead of paddy fields, pulses and oil seeds would have been a better bet given the low groundwater supply in key reservoirs like Mettur dam.”
Hope of assistance
Farmer associations hailing from all parts of the state voiced their concerns before Panneerselvam and the minister of agriculture for over an hour on Tuesday. “We told the chief minister about the immense struggles we are facing,” said PR Pandian, president of the Coordination Committee of all Farmers Associations in the state. “The poor monsoon, combined with the anguish caused by the Karnataka government’s refusal to release Cauvery water and the resultant financial losses, left many farmers across Tamil Nadu with no option but to commit suicide.”
The farmer leader said Panneerselvam assured immediate assistance, and also promised to seek financial aid from the Centre after the coordination committee made 18 demands from him. A state-wide protest planned for January 5 has been “indefinitely postponed” because the farmers are satisfied with the government’s response, he added.
Opposition parties had already demanded that the state take urgent steps to alleviate the farmers’ problems. “It is imperative for the state to declare a drought and extend financial support to the farmers,” DMK leader MK Stalin said late last month, after presenting a list of demands to the AIADMK government.