Farms flounder in bone dry Tamil Nadu
In the winter of 2018, Kamal Ram’s livelihood was destroyed.
As cyclone Gaja barrelled through the coastal districts of Tamil Nadu in November 2018, uprooting trees, electricity poles and power transformers, the gale-force winds that accompanied the storm also destroyed the ready-to-harvest paddy crop on farmer P Kamal Ram’s two-acre plot in Thalainayar village of Nagapattinam district.
“In 200,000 hectares, the yield was halved. The farmers had paid a premium for crop loss insurance but it has not reached all,” said Ram, 41.
This summer, he hoped, would be better, but is battling another crisis — a lack of water to irrigate the Kuruvai, or short-term, seasonal paddy crop cultivated between June and September. Ram and other farmers have had to abandon Kuruvai sowing, typically completed in the first week of June in the delta districts of Thanjavur, Nagapattinam, Thiruvarur, Trichy and parts of Cuddalore and Pudukkottai, which account for 1.17 million hectares of farm land.
The Mettur dam on the Cauvery river is the only source of water for irrigation in the delta districts. Poor rainfall has ensured that storage is as low as 42 feet, out of a total capacity of 120 feet, and most of it is being used for drinking. Last August, nine of the 45 sluice gates of the 190-year-old Upper Anaicut dam in Trichy were washed away along with their piers.
The dam, which acts as a regulator of water released from Mettur, hasn’t been fully operational since, hampering irrigation downstream. Irrigation canals that cover 46,000 km in the delta districts weren’t properly desilted last year, meaning that water in the rivers from the last monsoon was drained into the sea.
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Farmers say water from the Cauvery should have been released from the Mettur dam on June 12, according to the Cauvery Water Management Tribunal’s award in 2007. But it has not happened yet, and farmers blame neighbouring Karnataka, which Tamil Nadu has been locked in a longstanding dispute over the sharing of the river waters.
“After closing the sluice gates of Mettur dam, we managed to cultivate with the support of groundwater and the south-west monsoon last year. However, due to the monsoon failure, lowering groundwater table and non-arrival of Cauvery water, we are facing a tough time this year,” said PR Pandian, chief of the Tamil Nadu All Farmers Coordination Committee.
Tamil Nadu experienced a 35% rainfall shortage in June, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD). Nineteen of 33 districts in Tamil Nadu are reeling under a severe water shortage. Groundwater levels went up in 2018 because of abundant rain, but 317 of the 1,127 revenue circles in the state now have critically low groundwater levels, according to data from Tamil Nadu Public Works Department, which looks after the state’s rivers, dams, and water bodies.
Water scarcity has halved the yield of summer cash crops. “Sesame, urad dal, oil seeds are the common cash crops cultivated in 30,000 acres every year. Due to the poor rainfall and groundwater depletion, the acreage of cash-crop cultivation has dipped to 15,000 acres this year, which led to losses of around ₹50 crore,” said S Ramadoss, leader of the Tamilaga Cauvery Vivasayigal Sangam, a body of farmers in the Cauvery delta.
Farmer groups say Kuruvai cultivation is unlikely to produce a healthy yield in places they have cultivated.
“In the delta districts, the groundwater level has gone down by three metres compared to the previous year. In Nagapattinam, at least 24,861 hectares of cultivation land now depends on saline groundwater,” said Cauvery S Dhanapalan, general secretary of Cauvery Delta Farmers Protection Association, adding that the groundwater in the area had turned saline because of its proximity to the Bay of Bengal.
“As a result, the acreage of Kuruvai will be halved to 40,468 hectares from 80,937 hectares a decade ago. What is most worrying is that farmers have not yet cultivated Kuruvai in even 20234 hectares this season,” he said.
Last year, the state government announced a ₹2.77 crore Kuruvai special package for cultivating short-term paddy crop in 79,285 acres, but no such announcements have been forthcoming this year. Gagandeep Singh Bedi, principal secretary and agriculture production commissioner, refused to comment.
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The crisis has also hit farm hands and agricultural labourers. “As farming activity is not giving enough income to the farmers, it is hard to find farm labour jobs. While men are moving to Tiruppur, Singapore and Gulf countries to earn money, women farm labourers are working as construction workers,” said V Elangovan, district secretary of the Tamil Nadu Farm Labourers’ Association.
Water conservation expert S Janakarajan said proper desilting work and adequate release of water from Karnataka dams was the only way out of the dire situation confronting Tamil Nadu farmers.
“Though the state government has allocated ₹100 crore every year to do desilting works, it has not been done in a proper way. The system should be monitored by an expert committee. The government should bring stringent provisions to save water bodies from illegal acquisition. Also, getting water from Karnataka as per the Cauvery Water Management Authority award is very essential,” he said.