The year 2016 was not kind on Tamil Nadu, especially its farmers.

After losing much of their kuruvai (summer) crop to the dispute between Tamil Nadu and the neighbouring state of Karnataka over sharing water from the Cauvery river, a particularly weak Northeast monsoon – when the state gets most of its rainfall, between October and December – caused the samba (winter) crops to fail too. Even Cyclone Vardah, which crossed Tamil Nadu’s coast on December 12, bringing a few days of rainfall, could not assuage the water scarcity in the state.

Farmers associations now plan to hold a state-wide agitation on January 5 to demand that Tamil Nadu be declared drought-hit and to seek assistance from the state government.

In a desperate attempt to draw the government’s attention to their plight, farmers in the city of Tiruchi stood with dead rats in their mouths in front of the collector’s office last week, demanding loan wavers and relief measures.

The situation in other districts is just as bad. “In Thiruvarur district, 14 farmers have died in the past month,” said G Sundaramoorthy, Thiruvarur district secretary of Tamil Nadu Farmers Association. “The crops have been drying up and farmers are unable to do anything about it. Some are getting very upset and dying of heart attacks. Others are worrying about their rising debts and committing suicide. In neighbouring district of Nagapattinam, 29 people died so far. Reports peg the total number of farmer suicides in the state at over 50.

Severe distress

When most districts receive less than 20% of the normal rainfall, the state is declared drought hit, said K Sivasubramaniyan, associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. This year, the Northeast monsoon recorded a 62% deficit, making it the worst in over a century.

“Because the AIADMK is struggling to stabilise itself now, the government may be dragging its feet to declare the state as drought-hit,” he said. Tamil Nadu chief minister and AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5 triggered uncertainty over who would fill her shoes. Her close aide Sasikala Natarajan finally took over as party president on December 31. There is also a growing demand that Natarajan take the reins of the state from Chief Minister O Panneerselvam.

The second-worst monsoon in 150 years. Credit: Tamil Nadu Weatherman via Facebook
The second-worst monsoon in 150 years. Credit: Tamil Nadu Weatherman via Facebook

What makes matters worse is that unlike in 2012-’13, when both monsoons had failed the region, farmers somehow managed to salvage their crop as they received water from the Mettur dam in the state’s Salem district, for 2-3 months, said Sundaramoorthy. This year, however, the Mettur dam has consistenly registered low levels of water, as Karnataka, citing poor rainfall, refused to release sufficient water from the Cauvery river to Tamil Nadu despite several directions from the Supreme Court.

Sundaramoorthy said that this time, the Mettur dam was opened for barely 25 days. Even the village canals in areas that depend solely on rainwater for irrigation were empty.

Areas that usually have high groundwater levels, like Needamangalam and Nanilam in Thiruvarur, also suffered this year, said Sundaramoorthy. “Where we used to get water at 90 feet below ground level, we have to go to the depth of 200 feet to reach water. With no rain, groundwater levels is so low that sea water has started seeping in.”

In Virudhunagar, even animals are finding it difficult to find water to drink in the district’s 1,000-odd waterbodies, said A Vijayamurugan, district secretary of Tamil Nadu Farmers Association.

In many parts of the district, where a variety of crops, ranging from paddy to onions and pulses are grown, farmers sowed the winter crops two or three times. Each time the field dried up, they would make a fresh attempt in the hope that more showers would arrive and douse their crop. But the rain never came and expenses and consequently, losses, only piled up.

Demonetisation blow

The government’s decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes starting November 9 only worsened their plight. The surprise move to invalidate about 86% of the currency in circulation triggered a liquidity crisis that has crippled a cash-depedent economy.

“At the time of sowing the crop, we were unable to buy seeds, fertilisers or even pay our labourers their wages [owing to shortage of cash],” said Vijayamurugan.

It is the first time in many years that the drought situation in the state has gotten so bad, said K Balakrishnan, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA of Chidambaram constituency, Cuddalore district.

“Demonetisation situation has worsened the crisis further,” he said. “No transactions, income, employment, money, no agriculture, no harvest – there is nothing here. All of this is contributing to the suicides and deaths of farmers.”

Balakrishnan said he, along with his party members, had a discussion with state ministers, who assured them that action would be taken swiftly. But nothing has been announced yet.

“The government should come up with a scheme to help the farmers, there is no way to save them,” said Sundaramoorthy. “Even if it rains now, the crop cannot be saved. At least if farmers receive the crop insurance amount, they won’t be pushed to suicide.”

“If the government doesn’t pay attention to this issue, then nobody can stop the daily suicide of the farmers,” he said.