Declare Tamil Nadu Drought Hit: TNKS and AIAWU Hold State-wide Struggle

S P Rajendran

A FARMER in Tamil Nadu's Thiruvarur district, sowed paddy hoping the Cauvery waters would irrigate his four-acre field. But the saplings he had planted began dying as the water released from the reservoir of Mettur Dam did not reach the tail end areas where his farm was located. Unable to repay a loan of Rs. 50,000, the farmer killed himself consuming pesticide, his family says. He was found dead near his field. His son said, "With no rain and no water, we are in debt too. My father was under stress seeing the fields. He then consumed pesticide."

This is the real scene in Tamil Nadu, particularly in the rice bowl of the state, Cauvery Delta. This is not the story of only one farmer, but the heartrending end of 45 farmers in the delta region and some other parts of the state. 

Farmers who began cultivations after the release of water from Mettur dam on September 20 were witnessing withering of their crops without water; they have either committed suicide or died of shock and collapse following crop failure. 

The rate of death by suicide or shock is very high. 45 farmers died in nearly 50 days.

The Cauvery Delta, which is considered one of the most fertile agricultural areas in the country, encompasses 14.7 lakh hectares of farmland across seven central districts including Trichy, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam. The fields here have remained mostly uncultivated this summer. Citing a poor monsoon, Karnataka refused to release Tamil Nadu's share of water from the Cauvery.

Even though the Supreme Court on October 1 has directed Karnataka to release the water, this may not help much. Tamil Nadu requires 163 thousand million cubic feet of water till May 2017 for its farming and drinking water needs, but is expected to get only 143.18 tmc ft – that too assuming the north-east monsoon is robust. The crisis has increased the debt burden on farmers and led to distress selling of cattle and land. 

Failure of the northeast monsoon – the lifeline of Tamil Nadu – accounting for nearly 50 percent of its annual rainfall – has only made matters worse.

Already the crisis of the last five years has also affected landless farm hands, which constitute 40 percent of the population in the Cauvery delta, according to government data. With an entire farming season wiped out, these workers are forced to bank on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which pays them less than what they would get, working the fields. 

Not only in the Cauvery Delta, but in other parts also, the agrarian distress is looming large. Rain fed crops such as black gram, green gram, maize and long-term crops like coconut too withered in many areas of south Tamil Nadu. Water level in dams came down to unprecedented levels, and wells had no water. This situation had brought agricultural activity to a halt. There was a serious threat to livestock, which did not have grazing land and adequate water to drink. The farmers had also been facing a scarcity of cattle feed.

With the state facing a drought with monsoon failure, Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam (Tamil Nadu Kisan Sabha) demanded the state government to declare the state as drought hit and pay a compensation of Rs 10 lakh each to the family of farmers who have committed suicide or died of shock following crop failure.

In a letter to chief minister O Panneerselvam, general secretary of TNKS, P Shanmugham said that the state has witnessed 19 percent shortfall in rain in southwest monsoon and 61 percent shortfall in northeast monsoon as per the Met department. Besides, the state also did not receive its due share of Cauvery river water from Karnataka, which refused to release it despite the Supreme Court direction.

“We demand the state government to provide adequate compensation to withered crops. The government should pay Rs 25,000 for an acre of paddy, Rs 50,000 for an acre of sugarcane and production cost for manila, ragi, corn and tamarind should be paid,” he said. He urged the government to waive off crop loans availed in the cooperative and nationalised banks. He also demanded the government to increase the numbers of working days under the MGNREGA scheme from 100 to 200 days and payment of Rs 10,000 as drought relief to agricultural workers.

But the government did not respond. Even the ministers or a single MLA of the Cauvery Delta districts did not visit the families of the farmers who committed suicide. This attitude of the ruling AIADMK government created anger among the farmers.

In this background, the TNKS and the state unit of AIAWU jointly called a state wide agitation on December 28, of waiting in front of district collectorates until the demands of farmers are accepted by the government.

Responding to the call, thousands of farmers and agricultural workers with red flags had organised across the state and sat in front of collector offices. The president of TNKS K Balakrishnan and general secretary P Shanmugham, all India president of AIAWU S Thirunavukkarasu, state president A Lazar, state general secretary V Amirthalingam and other state and district leaders led the protest.

Government authorities thought that the protest will end in the evening. But the farmers sat in the collectorate campuses and started public kitchens. They were prepared to stay until the government responded. Pressure mounted on the government to take a decision. At 8 pm, the minister for food called the president of TNKS K Balakrishnan and general secretary P Shanmugham and invited them to a discussion on the drought situation on December 30 and also appealed the leaders to halt the protest.

This is a big victory for the struggle led by TNKS and AIAWU. The leaders accepted the minister's appeal and told the government that it should declare Tamil Nadu as drought hit state and should take immediate relief measures. 

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