How women farmers of this Tamil Nadu village are going climate proof by growing millets

How women farmers of this Tamil Nadu village are going climate proof by growing millets

Friday May 04, 2018,

7 min Read

Rising temperatures and erratic rainfall in drought-prone Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu is making rain-fed agriculture non-viable. Here, some women farmers are going climate proof by growing millets

Women farmers of Dharmapuri are cultivating millets to protect themselves from the vagaries of erratic rainfall. Image Credit: Karthikeyan Hemalatha

Every time it rains in Dharmapuri, M Molagappan, a retired farmer from Maraavadi village, claims to know its name. The year is split into periods of 13.5 days, he says, and each period has a different name.

Ubba mazhai literally means heavy rains, and usually comes in the month of October. Pazhaya mazhai, or old rains, is at the end of the Tamil year, in March,” he said, but failed to recall all the names of rains in different seasons, which one can find in Tamil literature.

“We have forgotten their names, the rains have forgotten us,” says SA Chinnasamy, president of the Thamizhaga Vivasayigal Sangam (Tamil Nadu Farmers Union). “It is because it doesn’t rain like the way it used to. The last 15 years seem to be particularly bad,” says Chinnasamy.

Data from the state’s agriculture department shows that apart from 2016, the district has received average or above average rainfall since 2004. The problem here, is not really the amount of rainfall through the year, but its distribution. 

Dharmapuri was among the worst hit in Tamil Nadu in 2016 when the state saw its worst drought in 140 years, receiving less than half the average rainfall. While the long period average rainfall for the region is 853.1 mm annually, the district received only 397.6 mm of rain in 2016.

“It’s not just the total rainfall. Rain distribution over an area and time are most crucial for farming, and this has been a failure in Dharmapuri,” says Chinnasamy.

Farmers face the heat 

Farmers in the dry land districts in Tamil Nadu, like Namakkal, Dharmapuri, and Krishnagiri, are the first ones to face the heat. “Dharmapuri receives rain from both the south-west and north-east monsoons. Farmers can have two harvests, and sometimes three a year. Kanyakumari is the only other district in Tamil Nadu where this bi-modal climate is found. For a dry land district to have up to three harvests is very unique,” said Mani Raj, agriculture officer, Dharmapuri.

The south-west monsoon, which sets in June, gives rain to the entire country, except Tamil Nadu, and the trans-Himalayas in the far north.

Valliammal, who manages a rain-fed farm in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu, grew rice for the first time in three years. Image Credit: Karthikeyan Hemalatha

Despite having up to three bouts of rain, Dharmapuri is considered drought-prone. Climate change and encroachment of water bodies is making it worse, say experts. While the total annual rainfall remains normal on paper, the duration has decreased, while the intensity has increased.

“We have had times when the district received more than 120 mm of rain in just one day,” said Mani Raj. “While the total rainfall hovers around normal, the number of rainy days has decreased. This is not conducive to farming as it gives farmers a very tight window to sow. The unpredictability of rains also makes their traditional wisdom about rainfall patterns go for a toss.”

High run-off

The high rainfall intensity also deprives the region’s groundwater from getting recharged. “There is no time for water to percolate, and most of the rainwater gets wasted as run-off. With water bodies being encroached upon, the situation in Dharmapuri and other surrounding regions is becoming worse,” said S Paneerselvam, professor and head of Agro Climate Research Centre at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU).

“The only way to fight climate change is to ensure there is proper infrastructure to trap and channelise the rainwater.”

While the coastal regions of Tamil Nadu receive higher rainfall, there is a decline in inland regions, especially dry land areas like Dharmapuri, Namakkal, Erode, and Krishnagiri. Across the state, downpours are observed in shorter duration and in higher intensity.

“The coastal regions, up to 20 km landward from the sea, saw a 7 percent (projected) increase in rains between 1990 and 2020,” said A Ramachandran, professor at Anna University’s Centre for Climate Change and Adaptation Research. These observations are from a paper titled Climate change projections for Tamil Nadu, India: deriving high-resolution climate data by a downscaling approach using PRECIS.

Vulnerable to climate change

Dharmapuri is more vulnerable to climate change when compared with other districts in Tamil Nadu.

“While the state’s overall rainfall projection is showing a decrease of 2 percent, dry land districts like Dharmapuri show a 4 percent decrease in the 30-year-period between 1990 and 2020,” says Ramachandran.

It’s not just rainfall, but temperatures are also changing. In his study, Ramachandran observed that while Tamil Nadu is witnessing a 0.9 degrees Celsius increase in temperature, the north-western agro-climatic region in the state is seeing an increase of 1.1 degree Celsius. By 2100, there will be a 10 percent decrease in rainfall across the state, the professor said, adding,

“It is now up to policymakers and bureaucrats to come up with an action plan and mitigation tactics to ensure the state has a climate-proof future.”

Farmers in Dharmapuri are, however, not waiting for the state machinery to get out of their inertia. According to data from the state government, Dharmapuri leads in millet production. In the five-year period ending 2012, the district had produced nearly 13,000 tons of millets, grown over an area of 10,550 hectares - far higher than any other district.

Women farmers bank on millets

Women farmers are showing the way in making themselves climate-proof by growing millets.

“For the first time in three years, I managed to grow rice. Being on the hills, with no irrigation canals, I can grow rice only when it rains. Otherwise, I am happy growing millets from which I can feed my family,” said Valliammal, who has an acre of rain-fed land. “With rains drying up, more and more animals from the forests are coming out and damaging our fields.”

Rice, however, is not their first priority. Women farmers tend to grow millets and a variety of pulses, oilseeds, and vegetables. This gives them a cushion. “When one crop fails, we can depend on others. And this has helped us survive the drought. Along with the free rice provided by ration shops, women who did multi-farming and grew millets, managed better than those who grew only cash crops,” said Sheelu Francis, the founder of Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective.

“While men grow only water-intensive cash crops like rice and sugarcane, women grow millets to feed their families. These crops are sturdy against the vagaries of climate.”

The Tamil Nadu planning commission sees millets and pulses as an effective way of fighting climate change and low rainfall. They have advised farmers to start mixed farming to improve soil health and be more resilient to reducing rains.

“The ideal cycle is to first plant pulses, which through rhizobium, can fix nitrogen in the soil, increasing its fertility. Following that, millets should be sowed so that they can utilise the improved soil. Millets are C4 type plants, which means they are more efficient in converting atmospheric carbon-di-oxide to sugar. This means more biomass,” said KR Jahan Mohan, Head of Agricultural Policy at Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission.

“In a worse scenario of failed crops and no rain, at least the cattle will have biomass to feed on."

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