Temple tank, taps, fields—it is as if the entire village and its surrounding areas have been submerged in salt water
Parched riverbeds, canals like dead veins in a writhing body, barren fields, unusually long queues for drinking water, desolate markets with no buyers, men departing in search of work and wages to faraway places: these sights mark the unprecedented drought in the Cauvery delta.
Women walk the dry landscape that resembles a charred rice field in search of work, be it the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act’s (MGNREGA) promised 100 days of work, or indeed any other work that will feed their family. They go looking for grazing lands to feed cattle; with taps running once in 10 days, they trek miles looking for wells or bore wells to fetch water for themselves, their livestock, their family.
Nagapattinam district, at the tail end of the Cauvery delta, makes a huge contribution to Tamil Nadu’s paddy production. But today, the land is unable to keep its children from leaving. Everyone is fleeing, especially agricultural labourers and small and marginal farmers. They want to move, run, get away from the brown of the land.
MGNREGA work is the only thing that is keeping people employed today. But, even with the number of workdays having gone up, from 100 to 150, lives have not improved substantially. Worse, in many places such as Vadakalathur, Venmani, Thanikottagam, Kilvelur or Chinna Verkudi, workers haven’t received wages for work done as far back as May 2016.
The drought has thrown up in sharp relief the issues that plague agriculture in the delta—landlessness, irrigation, soil degradation, and debt. But a frightening dimension has been added in one region—salination of the water table.
Water for shrimp
As you enter Talainayiru block of Nagapattinam district, the backwaters spread out enticingly, apparently lush and fertile, enveloping many villages in the block. You then come to Oradi Ambalam Jeeva Nagar village, and here the dream-like landscape morphs into a long, winding, single street settlement with around 130 Dalit households.
Historically, the residents of Jeeva Nagar have been landless agricultural labourers. After the tumultuous decades of the agrarian struggle, 33 residents of this village acquired land in the 1970s through the Gandhian Land for the Tillers Movement, which had become active in the area following the Kilvenmani massacre, the gory killing of 44 women, children and elderly people by henchmen employed by the Paddy Producers Association. The killing had come in the wake of a fiercely fought battle over wages and dignity for dalit agricultural workers.
But Jeeva Nagar today is in the throes of a different crisis, several of them. Drinking water is so scarce as to be almost non-existent. Women took us to the taps to show how they were kept in three-feet-deep pits, all of them bone dry. The taps are for the Kollidam Kootu Kudineer project that was to supply drinking water.
Says Amaravathi, a middle-aged landless agricultural labourer, “If water comes in the taps once a week, we’re lucky. Otherwise, we go looking for water or find someone who won’t object to us taking some water from their pumps and we carry it back home.” Even the temple pond which until recently had been a place for villagers to bathe, wash clothes and tend to livestock, is unusable now.
An agitated Natarajan asked us to wait, then ran and brought a bottle of water and handed it to us. “Just taste this; it’s so salty that if you bathe in it your body itches the whole day.” The women complained of how bathing leaves their skin sticky and makes their hair fall out.
But salt water is not just a household crisis in Jeeva Nagar. It extends to the precious agricultural land they acquired after so much struggle. All the land today is salinated, useless for farming.
How did this happen? The short answer is salt water inversion from the backwaters that form the eastern border of the village. The long answer goes back to the 1990s.
But before that, a little bit about the land. Talainayiru block lies below sea level and is prone to seawater inversion during high tide and other seasonal upheavals. The seawater recedes and does not permanently affect cultivation. In the 1990s, however, large-scale shrimp farms began to mushroom in the region. These farms contain the seawater and store them in shallow tanks for shrimp breeding. They also create canals to bring sea water much deeper inland.
A huge collective protest was raised by fishermen, peasants and the agricultural labourer’s movement. Shrimp farms, the protesters pointed out, eroded the rich alluvial deposit of the estuary areas of the Cauvery delta and caused soil degradation, land fragmentation, splintering of the coastal commons, and depletion and salination of groundwater.
The battle resulted in a historic judgment from the Supreme Court, which ruled that shrimp farms could not be set up in the Coastal Regulation Zone and in coastal commons. Only traditional and improvements on traditional prawn farming were to be allowed. The district authorities shut down many of the farms.
In the last two years, however, there has been a fresh spurt in shrimp farming. A new species called Litopenaeus vannamei or white leg shrimp has kick-started a second round of the infamous blue revolution. The delta, already torn by repeated monsoon failures and floods and this year’s drought, is wilting under this fresh assault.
Very close to the eastern side of Jeeva Nagar, more than 200 acres have been cordoned off for shrimp farming. Farmers’ associations estimate that more than 2,000 acres of agricultural land in the Thalainayiru 3rd, 4th and 5th sethis stand to be salinated because of the shrimp farms expanding their bunds to breed Vannamei.
In effect, the 33 families that received marginal land holdings, not marginal in the dignity it gave them, have today been rendered landless even while holding pattas for the land. The systematic undoing of cultivable land by the shrimp farms has left them with no option but to migrate. “Everybody in this village goes out to work. They go in batches to Pudukottai, Ramanathapuram and anywhere else where there is a possibility of work. Laying roads, laying concrete, laying pipelines for ONGC—that’s the kind of work we get,” says S. Mariappa, a marginal farmer whose one acre of land became salinated from shrimp farms.
“There’s nothing to do in this village. We go to Poovathadi, Velankanni… we look for construction or repair work. After demonetisation, that’s also become scarce,” says Amaravathi. As we walked about, we didn’t see any young men in the village. They were all out, working in other districts or states.
Last year, it looked as if there might finally be some relief. With farmers in the region demanding a check dam regulator to control seawater inversion for more than a decade, the Asian Development Bank, under the aegis of the Central and State governments, announced at last an ambitious plan to build regulators on the three rivers that enter the sea in the block.
The ₹1,650 crore project, euphemistically called the climate readjustment project, is now all set to readjust the ecology of the region.
Ironically, the readjustment will have no impact on these small farmers and their precious pockets of land. “The proposed regulator,” says Somu Ilango, a social activist who is leading a fresh protest committee, “is being built at a spot where it will not control the sea water inversion completely.” He says the Public Works Department, the implementing agency, must shift the regulator further down, towards the sea, to a point where it can stop the seawater invasion completely. “Only then can we regain the lost agricultural land. We were not consulted about the site or the design and no public hearing of any sort was organised to take our opinions,” he says. The regulator in its present design will be useful only for the shrimp farms and not the farmers. The 45 villages in the Thalainayiru block are coming together to fight this technical glitch in a project that could otherwise have rendered the salinated farmlands cultivable again and resurrected agriculture in the block.
As the villagers get ready for another season of protest, the women leave on their daily expedition to find water. The sticky breeze from the salty fields of Jeeva Nagar accompanies us on our journey back. The sullen, sweaty faces of the women walking with their empty pots are all too real and stay with us. We find ourselves unable to merge them into the endless relay of statistics about the delta, the deaths, and the centimetres of rainfall.
Prema Revathi runs a school in Nagapattinam and is part of a publishing house named Maitri. Senthil Babu is a historian and translator affiliated with the French Institute of Pondicherry.