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The Cauvery delta: An economy under threat

By Lalitha Sridhar

Thousands of farmers in the Cauvery delta are being forced to come to terms with a new reality: perennial water scarcity. The lack of water in the rain-fed Cauvery is destroying livelihoods and disrupting communities

N Kadiamurthy is a marginal farmer with a holding of 450 kullis (300 kullis equals an acre) in the Thekkuthenkurunthi village of Thiruvarur taluka in the Thanjavur delta region. During the dry months he drives a tourist vehicle as he waits for water to flow in the Cauvery river.

Kadiamurthy says: "The Cauvery is our life but we are no longer sure if water will arrive in it, and when it does how long it will last. I cannot afford to sink commercial submersible borewells. They go over 300 feet deep, need broad pipes that themselves cost tens of thousands of rupees, and, with frequent power cuts, have to be run on diesel with a backup generator. So I wait for water in my Cauvery. So that my children will not go hungry as I wait, I drive a car for tourists. If I don't, we might as well die waiting for water."

Kadiamurthy is one among thousands of farmers who have seen their livelihoods threatened by the changed course of the river they depend upon. A hitherto rich agrarian delta, whose entire economy was inextricably linked with agriculture, tries to come to terms with the collapse of its mainstay.

The fertile Cauvery delta comprises the whole of the Kumbakonam taluka and parts of the Thanjavur and Papanasam talukas. The rest of the southern and western areas of the district are non-deltaic or upland. A good portion of upland regions which were originally dry have now been brought under irrigation with the help of the Grand Anicut canal, fed by the Cauvery-Mettur Project and by an extension of the Vadavar river.

The five districts that depend on the Cauvery for irrigation produce over 40% of the food crop in Tamil Nadu. This is achieved on less than a third of the region's arable land, with less fertiliser, electricity and groundwater than the rest of Tamil Nadu. The agricultural economy directly employs over 4.4 million people in the delta. Cultivation failures have impacted the economy as a whole, causing ripple effects and having far-reaching consequences.

Farmers in the Thanjavur delta have to come to terms with their new reality: perennial water scarcity. The region has been affected by an acute drought after three years of failed monsoons and an ongoing, acrimonious and unresolved dispute with the upper riparian neighbouring state of Karnataka over the waters of its lifeline, the river Cauvery.

Traditional cropping patterns, tested over millennia, are now unfeasible. This is a reality the farmers find hard to accept. Explains Srikumar, a traditional agriculturist with a mid-sized holding in Thirumarugal village in Thiruvarur district: "Typically, the upland area is covered by kuravai (main cropping, long-duration paddy) and thaladi (optional third cropping, subject to the availability of water). The middle and tail-end holdings raised the samba crop (short-duration paddy). Traditionally, water from nearby tanks would be used to raise nurseries of paddy saplings. Then, the water would flow from the Cauvery. When sugarcane and cotton are grown, the dead plants become manure for the next crop. Multiple-cropping depended entirely on water from the Cauvery, either stored and released or through rain overflow."

L K S Murthy, another agriculturist from the Assikadu village in Myladuthurai district says: "The entire agricultural economy is now running on borewells. This is a matter of great concern. We need one borewell for every 10 acres. The average size of a village is 500 acres. In Assikadu, for example, there are 180 borewells. Somebody has to stop this. We should just harvest one paddy from the north-east monsoon and then do less water-intensive crops like cotton and pulses. Surely the borewells will run dry in less than five years."

Murthy continues: "We are now competing with farmers from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The whole of India is one market zone, but the playing field is not level. Their basins are fed by jeevanadis (perennial sources) like the Krishna, Godavari and the Cauvery, that has been controlled. Globalisation only works on the principle of greater common good. Somewhere along the way, many people have their rights trampled upon. We are now among them."

L K S Murthy says: "They are now talking about the second Green Revolution. All of us followed the advice of those who led the first one -- they told us we must use chemical fertilisers to boost output. Do you know how much effort it took to wean farmers following traditional methods away from them? Even today, the third thaladi crop uses only the dead stalks of paddy or ulundu as manure. Now they say organic farming. It simply doesn't work for large-scale cultivation. Cutting roses or chillies is labour-intensive. Marketing is a big problem. Middlemen eat up a lot. With paddy and pulses the infrastructure is already in place. Corporates like HLL (Hindustan Lever Limited) have added a new dimension to farming. Apples and potatoes are deep-frozen and sold throughout the year. The Cauvery delta is too hot for floriculture. Farming is no longer viable here. It is better to sell and leave, but then who is going to buy our dry lands?"

He adds: "My own thinking is that the Green Revolution did not do us any good. We have destroyed our own land. Now they are telling us, don't use chemical fertilisers, after everything, down to our groundwater, has been contaminated by pesticides. New hybrid varieties are not responsive to organic farming. Traditionally, we use our own seeds or purchase them from the government at subsidised rates. Now there are controversial issues like purchasing from lab to land, Monsanto-style."

Sand-mining is turning entire stretches of riverbed into shallow mines, exploited at an alarming rate. The state government has banned sand-mining from riverbeds and is attempting to take over controlled marketing through its own infrastructure. But this has met with limited success and rampant mining continues in the interior beds of the delta, like Arasalaru, Nandalaru, Thirumalairajan, Kudamuruthi, Vennaru and Vettarai. Says Arupathy Kalyanam, general secretary of the non-political Federation of Farmers Association: "The ecological consequences are visibly damaging. Mining is leaving deep pits in the Cauvery, which deflects the natural flow of the water. Given that we get so little as it is, it is only going to worsen the situation."

Another farmer, whose mid-sized holding is in water-stressed Thirumarugal, says: "I have 13 borewells and I have to pump water round the clock in order to keep minimum cultivation going. We have a mechanic on standby because something or the other keeps breaking down and we have to, say, remove a coil from one and put it into another which has burnt out, just so work continues. About 25 families depend on our farm. Starvation hasn't happened here but smaller farms have been badly affected. The investment in borewells is a great financial burden. Electricity is supposed to be free to farmers but supply is very erratic so most of our borewells run on diesel gensets. This adds significantly to our costs. Water from the bores is already getting a bit salty. Groundwater tables are falling. The rains have failed in the last three years so recharge has not happened adequately. The Cauvery does not bring relief anymore. I know we are over-extracting but what choice do we have? It is either that or no water. Without the Cauvery there is no life here."

"Without the Cauvery," Arupathy Kalyanam says, "there is nothing in the entire Chidambaram-Nagapattinam-Thanjavur belt. There are no industries here, barring the sugar factories, which, again, are linked to agriculture. It is farmers and farm labourers who are the clientele of shopkeepers and other establishments. Temple funds are affected because their lands do not yield results. Nowhere in the world do you have temples like the ones here. Entire economies are centred around them. Nowadays, lamps burn only because people send money -- those who have migrated. The business and service sectors are going through difficulties. People survive through other means -- men migrate and send money."

Twenty-seven hulling mills in the Thanjavur region are out of work. Others operate much below optimal capacity. Operators are laid off; loadmen (labourers who carry bags of paddy from trucks and into the mills) barely find enough work to last a couple of days a month. Truckers, financiers, shopkeepers, itinerant traders, even the famous vessel manufacturers of Kumbakonam and bronze idol makers of Swamimalai find it difficult to get orders as their customers grapple with the far more pressing concerns of survival. There is no work, no money and no sales. Everybody is affected.

Says L K S Murthy: "The sugar factories are in trouble. Production costs of sugarcane and sugar are both more than the selling costs, for the farmers and factories respectively. Between 1995-2000 a lot of factories came up but many of them are closing shop now. So sugarcane is out. Paddy prices are also going down. I don't know how long we can keep this (cultivation) up. We ourselves feel that the next generation would do well to leave."

Ossie Fernandes of the umbrella NGO, Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) explains: "Consecutive failure of the monsoons and the indifference of successive governments in Tamil Nadu to evolve and implement a water conservation and management system have resulted in severe drought and starvation. Thousands of children are being forced to drop out of school and find employment. These conditions particularly affect girl-children. Increasingly, girl-children are being pushed into leaving their homes to migrate to towns and cities several kilometres away to work as resident labourers in sectors like hosiery, powerlooms, spinning mills, fisheries processing and domestic work. Apart from being exploited economically, the girls are vulnerable to other forms of abuse. Most of them are paid low wages on a piece-rate basis, forcing them to forgo rest and leisure and work 12-14 hours a day. The system does not protect them."

The distress is even more apparent in the words of the most affected -- landless labourers whose lives depend entirely on the soil that sustains them. Says Manjakudi of Puliyoor village in Koradacheri taluk: "I have three daughters. All have passed school but what is the use of education? Where is the work? We supplement our diet by catching crabs in the fields. Even this will stop once the water in the ponds dries up totally in the months of April-May. Ask them to give us rice. Ask them to give us water in the Cauvery. If you want us to demonstrate we will come. Our government has failed us. Everything is gone. Only our life is left and it is only a matter of time before that goes too."

InfoChange News & Features, March 2004