Rethinam smiles from the framed photo that stands somber over the entrance to his house in Aadhanur in VedaranyamTaluk of Nagapattinam. A proud and passionate farmer, he would get up at 4.30 in the morning and go straight to his field. “It was farming that defined him” notes his distraught family. Unable to bear the loss of his crop – he sowed twice and bought saplings and planted a third time, but to no avail. The standing crop dried andseeing his field thus, Rethinamsuffered “a heart-burst”, to quote his daughter-in-law, and collapsed on the field, and died.
For many decades now, the delta farmers have been at the receiving end of the water dispute between the two riparian neighborsTamilnadu and Karnataka. This year, along with Cauvery the monsoon also failed them. More than 250 farmers have died over the last three months – some committed suicide while many died of shock and pent-up trauma, according to media reports and farmers associations. There are other issues too: In many villages ground water is already salinated due to the sea water inversion and there is acute scarcity of drinking water. Fodder and water for livestock are meagre, which means that one may not hope to access that line of survival as well.
Driving through the delta is like watching a Van Gogh painting turn ash-grey. In a good year, January is a beautiful month in the region – the golden yellow ochre of endless rice fields, flush with crops ripe and ready for harvest is a joyful sight. This year, though, village after village stands forlorn, with the land parched and cracked, recalling famines of older times. The government is conspicuous by its absence, and the only visitors to these impoverished villages are credit-sellers of various kinds. “This is the worst ever drought. I’ve seen the three worst floods of this century. But never was our situation so horribly bad” says 77 year old Dakshinamoorthy whose brother (from Varambiyam village in Tiruvarur district) died of what is clearly “crop distress”.
The farmers are a desolate lot whichever village you go to. In a teashop in AavaraniPuduchery an elderly person, clad only in a lungi and muttering to himselfheard us speak of agriculture and immediately interjected: “I sowed directly on my 1 acre plot and it’s all charred. No money has come in for the 100 days work we’ve put in. I’ve taken Rs9000 as bank loan and other loans from self-help groups and microfinance institutions. All gone. If my crop stands alive I don’t need anybody’s support. But now, seeing my field makes me want to die. I have a sick wife to care for. Otherwise I would have killed myself.” Jayaraman lamented that the apathy of the state is as intolerable as the drought.
On January 6th the NHRC took suo motto notice of newspaper reports and asked the Tamilnadu government to respond to the reports of more than 106 suicides and deaths in the months of November and December. Even before the NHRC notice the two communist parties and the Cauvery delta protection farmers association have been conducting many struggles seeking government action and compensation. In fact farmers in the region have been protesting since August 2016, when it became clear that Cauvery water was not to be had. But government too no notice. Only after the NHRC intervened, Tamil Nadu governmentannounced – on January 11 – a compensation package of 5475 per acre and Rs 3,00,000 ex gratia for 17 deceased farmers. But this is far too late and far too little, as farmers point out, since each of them has incurred from Rs 20,000-30,000 expenses per acre.
There appears to a be a consensus in regional and national media seems that Tamil Nadu farmers are a pampered lot with freebies and loan waivers made available to them at opportune moments. However the farmer, whose average holding is between 2-5 acres, has another story to tell: “Co-operative credit is given only to 11% of the agricultural land that’s cultivated. The rest of us take loans from banks and private sources” says Dhanapal of the Cauvery Delta Farmer’s Protection Association. “Also, we cannot depend on the co-operative banks. They seldom pay on time – too many formalities and too little loan. I have five acres. The credit limit is 20,000 per acre with a ceiling of 90,000. So I should have got at least 80,000 loan right? I have only received 5000 so far” says Selvaraj, a doctorate-holding farmer in Arunthavamangalam. “Forget the loan, we have not received the insurance money for last year’s flood affected crop”is the chorus you hear from every farmer you meet in the delta.
Many small and marginal farmers who lease in land for cultivation draw on family and private credit, and when it became clear, as happened this year, that they may not be able to clear their dues, they have taken their lives. Murugayyan, who leased in 3 acres of land for Rs80,000 and 30-year old Veeramani who incurred loans up to a lakh of rupees both died thus. The former has left behind wife, son and daughter (the son is a special child) and the latter, a young wife, a dilapidated hut and two infant children. Media and fact finding groups have made public their fate, but state officials are yet to visit them.
The delta farmer is convinced that he has to farm, because everyone else has got to eat, and his sense of vocation is what goads him on to persist in raising his crop, even if that means he has to borrow at every turn of the agricultural cycle. The slow yet relentless disregard for the farmer’s fate that is now written into state policy and common sense has meant that to farm is to get indebted.
Another untold story is that of the agricultural laborers, the large reserve army of delta farming. On the way to Kizhvenmani village we saw a flurry of activity on the roadside and stopped to enquire. A survey was under way and a group of women was busy filling forms. Their glittering earrings told their own story – clearly they had pledged their last gold and these look-alikes were all they could afford, and now they were filling in loan forms for yet another round of credit. This time, they were going to borrow from Asirvad Microfinance a subsidiary of Manappuram Finance Limited. Waving her MGNREGA work logbook Prabavati angrily noted: “I’ve completed 80 days of work. But they haven’t paid us since last May. The crop has withered and how am I to feed my children?” When we asked her about repaying, “It is difficult. Yes. I have loans from three MFIs and two money lenders. When the money lender comes to the Village we all run and hide. It’s not tenable at all. But what else is left for us?”
Prabavathi and the women of Vadakalathur in Nagapattinam district are landless agricultural laborers (many of whom are Dalits) whose lives depends on agriculture. The district has 33 lakh agricultural workers and their fate is dire, and for the most part, unreported. “We’ve managed to stay alive because of the PDS. But that’s only 16 to 20 kilos of rice and sugar. No pulses or oil this month. The rice gets over in two weeks. We have taken to eating less. But that’s not enough. To survive the month, to eat, we need to seek credit. Points outTamilselvi of Puduchery village. The women are hardy workers, and each time there is a visitor to the village, they mill around, demanding work. “Give us work and pay us at the end of every week. Otherwise we may not survive” says Senthamarai in ChinnaVerkudi Village in Kilvelur Block.
But where is the state, one wonders, and whether it has withered away, along with the crop?
This is based on a detailed survey of 4 taluqs. Prema Revati and Senthil Babu are part of the study team,