The biggest drought in 140 years- why Tamil Nadu must concern us all


Beaten by nature’s wrath, starved livestock, man-made chaos, over-exploitation of resources, empty pockets, and parched lands— the farmers in drought hit Tamil Nadu are left to fend for themselves. The Centre and the State government’s various relief measures are still a work is in progress.

Caption: A farmer cries during protest and hunger strike in Delhi. Image Credit: Anil Shakya

Fifty years of his profession bore him and his family a home, enough food and decent means of livelihood, surrounded by five acres of farm land. Today, 70-year-old retired Joseph is struggling to continue with organic farming. Scanty rainfall across Nagapatinam district in Tamil Nadu, combined with the dam construction in Mekadatu, and depleting water level in the pipeline, has rendered his land parched. There was time when he was the top seller of rice and cumin in his area. He now depends on his meagre pension for survival.

His neighbour, Kumar, is struggling to maintain his joint family and provide for his 85-year-old ailing mother. “Even if we dig well or borewell, after 16 feet we get only salt water,” he laments. Growing up in an agrarian family, he was well-versed with various cropping techniques, and his mangoes attracted long queues of buyers from Kerala and Karnataka in the market. At present, due to successive monsoon failures, there is not enough water left for his cows. He wonders about the assurances made by the government, and says, “They had promised insurance and relief fund sometime back. But it has just been mirage till now.”

Welcome to Tamil Nadu, the southern State that is suffering the worst drought in 140 years.

As a mock representation, the farmers from Tamil Nadu demanded Rs 40,000 crore relief package from the centre to cover their losses. Video credit: Anil Shakya

Water mismanagement and scanty rainfall are the prime reasons for farmer crises

In the past four years, Tamil Nadu have witnessed the wrath of nature in varying forms— it saw the devastating floods in 2015, touted as the worst heavy rainfall witnessed in over 100 years; followed by the cyclones and in the present year, the failed monsoons have has resulted in drought.

Water has always been a contentious subject for the State. Tamil Nadu depends largely on the North-East monsoon, from October to December, for its water requirement. Post a 10-day delay, the 2016 monsoons entered the State with “spatial and temporal rainfall”, creating a deficit of 62 percent.

Hence the water reservoirs have fallen to merely 20 per cent of their capacity. The largest irrigation dam, Mettur, holds just 120 feet as against 93,470 M.Cft while the maximum drinking water is recorded in Poondi with 35ft as against 3,231 M.Cft. These alarming figures have rendered the farmer helpless with widespread crop failures, and rising debt has resulted in a wave of farmer suicides.

However, lack of rainfall alone cannot be blamed for the current crises.

In 2015, Tamil Nadu received a bountiful rainfall of 67 cm, 53 percent more than the expected rainfall. Further, from 2004 to 2012, Tamil Nadu received above normal rainfall for nine consecutive years. Yet, failed water restoration and lake rejuvenation projects led the State to severe water crises, and rainfall alone was insufficient for groundwater recharge.

Muthulakshmi was struggling to cultivate even one crop due to rain deficit in drought-prone Villupuram district. Image Credit: MS Swaminathan Research Foundation.

Tasks of well-restoration were undertaken by Villupuram district, under the mentorship of M S Swaminathan Research Foundation and VA Tech WABAG, in 2015 just before the onset of north-east monsoon. The timely intervention ensured that the enhanced storage capacity was fully utilised in the restored wells. As a result, 45 open wells were rejuvenated benefiting 71 small and marginal farmers from six villages; the cultivation area increased three-fold.

“For the past two years they have managed to use that water, even with less rain. Farmers are very open to change— be it water management or newer cultivation practices. Science has to connect with the society,” says B Jayashree, Head of the Media Resource Centre at MS Swaminathan Research Foundation.

Post well restoration projects in the entire village, the cumulative water holding capacity went up more than two and a half times, contributing to ground and surface water storage. Image Credit: MS Swaminathan Research Foundation.

Technological safety net needs to be adopted

With the increase in farmer distress, the state can no longer afford to blame poor monsoons for failed crops year after year. Lack of proper irrigation system, and provisions for alternative water sources continues to pose a big challenge. Further, climate change and over-exploitation of resources has created changes in the ocean currents and the wind patterns, which not only delays the monsoon but also causes insufficient rains.

“There is a need to embrace technology with the agriculture sector. While bringing defence equipments for jawaans, Narendra Modi can also get agriculture equipment for kisaans,” says P. Chengal Reddy, Secretary-General of Consortium of Indian Farmers Association.

“What technologies have Mr Modi brought to India in the last three years for the agriculture sector?”, P. Chengal Reddy questions. Image Credit: Padikkasu Nagaraj

With technology and data analytics it is possible to not only predict drought, but also assess the crop stress level and provide customised solutions to the farmers as per their resources and land availability.

“Through satellite data you can calculate the actual availability of water in the plants; determine the strength of the crops and identify the stressed and the non-stressed areas; and accordingly schedule your irrigation,” says Abhishek Raju, founder of Satsure, a satellite data analytics company. A complete demand and supply chain can be formulated through big data, enabling the government and the agrarian society to prepare for drought in advance.

The NCRB report marked ‘Bankruptcy or Indebtedness’ and ‘Family Problems’ as major causes for farmer/cultivator suicides. Image Credit: Padikkasu Nagaraj

Loan waivers are not a solution to drought

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 606 farmers committed suicide in 2015 and the report marked ‘Bankruptcy or Indebtedness’ and ‘Family Problems’ as major causes for farmer/cultivator suicides. The present crises have allegedly claimed the lives of more than 144 farmers since October, 2016. However, the State government refused to acknowledge debt as a reason and in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court, they maintained that farmers died due to ‘personal reasons’.

The AIADMK government gave a sum of Rs 3 lakh on “humanitarian grounds” for farmers who died due to ageing, heart attack, prolonged illnesses and various other reasons. They sanctioned Rs 2,000 crore for introduction of drip irrigation and extended crop loans upto Rs 4,000 crore for the year 2016-17. However, their demand for a Rs 39,565-crore relief package from National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) was met with deaf ears; the Central government released a mere four percent, Rs 1,712.10 crore, to mitigate farm distress.

As a symbol to display the utter misfortunate faced by farmers, protests displayed the skulls of their fellow farmers who committed suicide in the wake of drought. Image Credit: Padikkasu Nagaraj

Following the apathetic response from the union government, 100 farmers staged a protest outside the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi for 41 days. The farmers indulged in various theatrics with the hope to gain a response from Prime Minister Modi.

“We, also, request the BJP government to fulfil the promises it made during the elections— implementation of the MS Swaminathan Committee report,” says Ayyakannu who led the farmers protest in New Delhi. As a long term solution to drought, Prof. MS Swaminathan advocated for the implementation of the Minimum Support Price and “recommended pricing and procurement based on total cost of production plus 50 percent principle.”

A farmer from Tamil Nadu put up a symbolic protest playing dead, others mourn. Image Credit: @protest_street

Loan waivers alone is not a solution to this impending crises. “60 per cent of farmers who own 1-2 hectors of land, just enough for their survival, take loans outside centralised banks at an exorbitant rate. There is no point talking about loan waivers because a money lender is very unlikely to say that, 'I will waive your loan because of poor yield',” Jayashree adds.

Rather the government needs to focus on financial inclusion system. “Insurance is our safety net. The farmers are pushed to the corner because they do not have the essential government support at the right time,” Abhishek says. Despite various schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, the penetration of crop insurance in India stands at just 23 percent. This huge gap, in a country of over 260-plus million odd farmers is alarming.

SatSure delivers decision intelligence for crop insurance, agri commodities and banking sectors over a simple mapping analytics dashboard. Image Credit: SatSure

A provision of proper risk assessment system will benefit both the insurance companies and the farmers. Through satellite, big data, cloud computing and IoT technology, the farmer can assess the crop stress level and cultivate crops according to the resource available. This, in turn, would aid the insurance companies to design better contracts to suit the risks undertaken by an individual farmer.

Abhishek adds, “These kinds of issues can be resolved with a push and pull effect— technology based push to procreate insights and the pull has to be from the political end. Unless you marry technology with policy and political will, things will not move.”