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Forced into farming after husband’s death, this woman took up canal desilting in drought-hit Tamil Nadu

Widowed at the age of 45, with three children to take care of, Ranganayaki is now working with the NABARD to help raise awareness on conservation of water in village tanks and canals.

india Updated: Jun 22, 2017 08:14 IST
Kavita Kishore
Kavita Kishore
Being a farmer,Farmer protest,Drought
S Ranganayaki, 65.

Farming is not something that came naturally to 65-year-old S Ranganayaki. Widowed at the age of 45, with three children to take care of, and 23 acres (9.3 hectares) of cultivable land along the Cauvery delta region, she had no choice but to take up farming.

Now, with Tamil Nadu in the midst of a drought said to be the worst in decades, she is wondering whether she made the right decision.

Ironically, it was Ranganayaki’s efforts around a decade ago that brought water to over 1,400 acres of land, spanning 13 villages and benefiting dozens of farmers.

“It was difficult to be a woman farmer,” she says, “Initially, people refused to take me seriously. It was not until I started fighting for the desilting of the Raja canal along the Veeranam Lake that the men realised I was serious about farming”.

In 2001, when Ranganayaki took over her farmlands in Vadamur village near the Veeranam lake in Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district, she realised that water supply for farming could be improved by desilting the Raja canal. This 10-km long canal is the primary source for irrigating 1,300 acres of farm land, spanning 13 villages. But it had not been desilted in decades, and officials were reluctant to take up the project.

S Ranganayaki leads a campaign on in Tamil Nadu.

“Without the canal, farmers had to rely on borewells, which are expensive and were not enough to meet the agricultural demands,” she explains.

Read | Tamil farmers’ strike over, but agrarian crisis looms large

In 2003, Ranganayaki started her campaign to desilt the canal by approaching the Public Works Department. When that failed, she employed her own tractor and labourers to clear a part of the canal. She spent over Rs 1 lakh, money she could ill-afford at the time, and managed to desilt around 3 km of the canal, bringing water to 400 acres of land.

“This managed to wake up the authorities, and the collector then sanctioned Rs 1.75 lakh to clear the canal in 2007-08, after which the annual release of water to the Raja canal became an event,” she says proudly.

R Kaviarasu, a farmer from Kaduvuli Chavadi, describes Ranganayaki’s efforts as path-breaking. “In the past 10 years, there have been very few farmer suicides in this area, and that is in most part thanks to Ranganayaki’s efforts in bringing water to the region,” he says. According to him, she made sure that the government took action in an area where farmers had started to give up hope.

While she has made a name for herself in the farming community, Ranganayaki is unhappy with the situation of her own lands. With an 80% deficit rainfall and no Cauvery water, her fields are lying fallow since last November. Paddy is the major crop, and on average she gets around 5,000 kg per hectare in a good year. In the last few years she had switched to organic paddy, and the yield had reduced a bit.

“Last year, however, was particularly bad. Droughts are typically a part of the farming cycle, and some years are not as good as others, but what we are facing is a lack of planning on the part of the official machinery,” she says.

The floods in 2015 meant that she lost a majority of crops in the Navarai season (December to January). “Since then, it has been a downward spiral,” she says. While she managed to cultivate around 10 of her 23 acres of land for the Samba season (August), by the end of 2016 the lack of rainfall meant that she had to leave her lands fallow. “It felt strange. I fought to bring water to the farmers around me, and I have no water to cultivate my own lands,” she says.

In the last few years, after her daughter died of cancer, Ranganayaki decided to switch to organic farming. “I find some peace in the practice, but now that my lands have been lying mostly fallow for almost a year, I am now looking to find different ways to replenish the water,” she says.

Sowing hopes, reaping losses
A farmer not by choice, but by circumstances, Ranganayaki lists her profits and losses.

As rains elude, farmers reel under financial burden
Loss estimate: There was no sowing since 2016, so no actual loss, only the loss of income from the land lying fallow.
Loan: She has a loan of around Rs 3 lakh and pays back around Rs 7,500 per month.
Irrigation: In 2003 before the canal was desilted, she spent Rs 2 lakh on a borewell, and some money to clean the canal. These are her one-time expenses for water
    The farm crisis in Tamil Nadu this year
  • In January 2017, CM O Panneerselvam declared a drought in all 32 districts of the state.
  • There was an average of 60% deficit in rainfall from the north-east monsoon in 2016.
  • Cuddalore district suffered an 80% deficit in rainfall.
  • Out of 16,682 revenue villages in the state, 13,305 villages were identified as affected by drought.
  • The government announced that paddy farmers who had suffered 33% loss in crops will receive Rs 5,465 per acre, and Rs 7,287 per acre for long-term crops.
  • Farmers from TN protested for 100 days in New Delhi, calling off their agitation on April 24, demanding Centre’s intervention.

In 2016, she started a campaign to rid agricultural lands of the small Karuvelam tree (Prosopsis juliflora), a species native to South America and West Africa that was introduced to Tamil Nadu almost a half century ago as fuel wood, but which has now become an invasive weed.

“I met some agricultural scientists who explained how these thorny brushes absorbed a lot more water than regular crops. These bushes grow along many of the farmlands and villages, and when I realised that simply cutting them could help us save water, I started to raise awareness on the need to eliminate these plants. By the time the Madras High Court had ordered the uprooting of the Karuvelam trees [in 2015], the farms around the Raja canal had already got rid of them,” she says.

Now, Ranganayaki is working with the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) to help raise awareness on conservation of water in village tanks and canals. “I am working with farmers in my area, as well as near Chidambaram, to help identify the canals and understand why they are drying up so quickly,” she says. They are currently collecting data from the villagers to try and understand what can be done, so a suitable project can be undertaken.

While there is no water in most tanks and wells at present, Ranganayaki is hopeful that there will be a resolution to the problem soon. “I am sure that if the farmers and the government work together, we can find a solution to end the drought and help us continue farming for years to come,” she says confidently.

(Published in arrangements with GRIST Media)

This is Part 4 of our series, #BeingAFarmerNow. Part 1 focused on the new age farmers of Madhya Pradesh while Part 2 examined how big-ticket projects cheat farmers out of their land and Part 3 talked about how loan waivers are just be a temporary relief.

First Published: Jun 22, 2017 07:23 IST