Never in his 73 years had Adikesavalu Naidu, a farmer in Thiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu, witnessed destruction of the kind he saw on Monday.

The roaring winds of the cyclonic storm Vardah, which crossed the coast of northern Tamil Nadu on Monday, brought down at least 60 coconut trees in Naidu’s farm in Thervazhi village, about 60 km from Chennai.

Naidu could not believe his eyes. “Coconut trees can withstand any force,” he said. The trees that came crashing down were at least 35 years old and had been a dependable crop in drought as well as floods. They had even stood by him last year, when his paddy and flower fields washed away during the floods in Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu last December.

Almost exactly a year later, Naidu faces even bigger losses as raising a new coconut crop would take years – once planted, the palm tree can take up to 10 years to mature.

In Thiruvallur, the northern-most district of Tamil Nadu, Cyclone Vardah has flattened thousands of acres of banana, sugarcane and mango crops. Still reeling under the debts they accumulated after last year’s floods, farmers are now contemplating selling parts of their land holdings to tide over the crisis. The cyclone has killed 18 people in Chennai, Thiruvallur and Kanchipuram district, which were badly hit.

Unprecedented damage

Farmers consider the coconut palm tree, which can live up to 80 years, an asset. Naidu said that an acre of land can hold 50 to 60 trees and once they bear fruits, farmers only need to apply pesticides and fertilisers to sustain them. The tree yields nuts throughout its lifetime and unlike food crops like paddy, there is no need to plough the field every season. Thus, with time, investment in cultivating the crop goes down every year even as profits climb.

The hardiness of coconut trees also make them a favourite among farmers. With deep roots, they are expected to withstand strong winds and drought. Plus, coconuts are in demand throughout the year and it usually isn’t difficult to find buyers. Naidu said that on average, he would spend about Rs 60,000 on an acre of the crop and gets about Rs 1.5 lakh from the of the harvest – a profit of close to Rs 1 lakh. So confident was Naidu about his coconut farm that he had not even insured it, a mistake he now regrets.

On Monday, Naidu was devastated. “It was painful to witness these trees, which were like my brothers, fall down one by one,” he rued. Given the haphazard manner in which many of the tree trunks were broken, he said even wood would not fetch much.

Fields flattened

Naidu’s neighbour, Dilli Babu, was even more distraught.

On his four-acre field, Babu had chosen to plant banana. The crop was just a week from harvest, with the trees bearing fruits that were beginning to ripen.

Farmers in this area refer to banana as gold as it one of the few crops that is profitable in multiple ways. “The fruit, flower, trunks and the leaves can be sold separately,” Babu said. In other words, nothing in his banana plantation would ever go waste – except this year, when Cyclone Vardah wiped out his entire crop.

Though profitable, bananas require a higher investment than coconuts, which is why small farmers prefer not to grow it. Babu said he spends about Rs 1 lakh per acre to cultivate the crop and the yield fetches him close to Rs 2.5 lakh. However, the crop is highly susceptible to damage during strong winds.

“The entire field was gone in one hour,” he said. Readying the land again for the next round of plantation will be expensive. Unlike paddy, where the stalk is ploughed into the land after harvest, the damaged banana crop will have to be removed using machines or will have to be watered and left to decay so it can be used as manure. This means paying for rent and labour, an added burden on the farmer.

Dilli Babu with his damaged banana crop. Photo by Sruthisagar Yamunan

This is the second year in a row that the vagaries of nature have destroyed Babu’s crop, but this time, the damage is even higher. Last December, he lost his entire banana crop to the flood and ended up with a substantial debt. So, this year, he opted for a costlier variety of banana, one that was said to be flood-resistant. “This time there was no rain but just wind,” he said. “Nature has been very unkind to us.”

Official data puts the total area under banana cultivation in Thiruvallur at 700 hectares.

Both Naidu and Babu also have small mango plantations and the cyclone hit at a time when the trees had just begun to flower. Babu’s wife said she couldn’t hold back tears when she saw several mango trees uprooted. “I planted them myself,” she said, adding that just last week, she was showing the flowering trees with pride to her daughter. “It is like losing a child.”

Thiruvallur has about 9,600 hectares of mango plantations, primarily the Banganapalli variety.

Hit before harvest

Sugarcane farmers in Thiruvallur had an even sadder story to tell. December is their peak season, when they race against time to harvest the crop before Pongal. Sugarcane is integral to the celebrations of Tamil Nadu’s harvest festival, which takes place over four days in mid-January.

There are two varieties of sugarcane – one that is sent to the mills for extracting sugar and the other specially raised for the festival, called Pongal Karumbu, which farmers said has lesser sugar content and is softer.

Chakrapani, another farmer, said his entire crop spread across three acres was bulldozed by the cyclone on Monday. He is now scampering to find labourers to salvage whatever was possible and send it to the mills. “But since it had not fully grown, they will pay me very little,” he said.

Agriculture officials fear the situation will be identical across 7,100 hectares of sugarcane plantations in the area since the cyclone did not spare any area.

Sugarcane farmers were hit just before the peak Pongal season. Photo: Sruthisagar Yamunan

Inadequate compensation

When asked about government compensation for the damaged crops, farmers were visibly enraged.

After last year’s floods, they received between Rs 17,500 and Rs 22,000 per hectare, depending on the crop. This, they said, was far lower than even their investments leave alone the loss of profit on the crop and other allied expenses.

Take mango, for instance. Apart from keeping the crop safe from pests, they also have to protect it from thieves. So, apart from fertilisers and pesticides, they also have to spend money on a watchman for the fields, if they are located away from the farmer’s house. The guard, usually a labourer living on the field with his family, is paid Rs 8000 to Rs 10,000 a month.

It was as though the government officials were oblivious to such factors, the farmers said. A new mango tree will take years to bear fruit and farmers go without the income in the interim.

Banana cultivators said they should be compensated for the input cost as well as the number of fruit clusters lost per tree, as they earn between Rs 250 and Rs 600 for a cluster.

In the case of sugarcane, farmers said, not only do they get low compensation but also have to deal with delayed payments from sugar mills to which they sell their crop. Some farmers said they are awaiting payments that go back three years. Farmers unions in Tamil Nadu have protested against these delays consistently, even taking the agitation to Delhi in November. In the Tamil Nadu Assembly, the government has time and again said it is doing all it can to get the farmers their due from the mills, but the problem has persisted.

B Thulasinarayanan, secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, said the right compensation should be two-and-a-half times the invested amount to tide the farmer and his family over till the next season.

Naidu, though, is not optimistic about this. “They will come and collect information, but by the time the compensation comes, it will be too late,” he said, as he picked up the leaves from the fallen coconut tree.