Drought: Tamil Nadu’s Worst Nightmare

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Tamil Nadu is facing its worst drought in 140 years. Over 144 farmers have committed suicide in a month. Why is this happening?

For 40 days, the Tamil farmers at Delhi’s protest venue tried everything to get the Centre’s attention. They arrived in the national capital bearing begging bowls and skulls – which they said were of farmers who had committed suicide in their drought-ridden state. They shaved their heads and moustaches – but only halfway – to make a statement. In desperation, they threatened to drink their own urine – until they changed their minds and opted to send it back home instead. Some water from Delhi, as their logic went, was better than no water at all.

For, with no water, Tamil Nadu has dried up, facing its worst drought in 140 years (or ever since the Indian Meteorological Department started tracking drought). Two seasons worth of crops have failed, and farmers have run out of options. Over 144 have committed suicide in the last month.

But drawing national attention to their plight has been difficult. Headlines have been dominated by the sabre-rattling at the border, Sonu Nigam’s calls against the morning Azan, the release of Bahubali 2, the Delhi municipal elections and the detention of Vijay Mallya. The plight of Tamil Nadu is but a footnote in the collective consciousness.

Droughts need to concern us more because their cognizance and the government’s timely intervention is the only thing keeping them from turning into famines. Tamil Nadu has never forgotten the Great Famine of 1876-1877, which was the only other occasion where the monsoons had failed this badly. It was a telling example where apathy cost millions of lives.

Today, it seems to be a case of history repeating itself. In fact, the whole of South India is in a general state of drought – amidst a sweltering summer said to be the hottest yet. But the situation in Tamil Nadu is the outcome of years of water mismanagement.

Monsoon’s curse

In 2015, the state witnessed unusual amounts of rain – causing flooding in the capital of Chennai. At the time, it was called the worst rains in a century – and the cause was a particularly strong El-Nino. Then, poor planning was blamed for the water that filled Chennai’s streets, as reservoirs filled to capacity and released their waters into the rivers of Adyar and Cooum.

Poor hydrological planning was blamed – as the city’s rainwater harvesting systems (made mandatory for multi-story buildings in 2001) were largely dysfunctional, and the sewage system mixed freely with otherwise fresh water. Groundwater reserves, rather than being recharged, were only polluted further.

The next year, Tamil Nadu faced a weak monsoon. Aggravating the situation, a water war with the neighbouring state of Karnataka turned into a game of political brinkmanship. Karnataka refused to release any more water to Tamil Nadu, citing a shortage of drinking water. Despite Supreme Court intervention, farmers in Tamil Nadu lost their summer crop from a lack of water.

What do the rains mean for Tamil Nadu?

In 2014, agriculture accounted for just 7.76 percent of Tamil Nadu’s Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP). As India’s second richest state and most industrialised, Tamil Nadu makes most of her revenues through manufacturing and services. But farmers and farm labourers form a large chunk of employment – as per the 2011 census, little under half (42.1 percent) of workers were either of the two. This figure has been declining over the years, but it indicates that agriculture remains a staple livelihood for many. And when the rains prove to be unreliable, wells seem to be the only respite.

Wells were responsible for over half of Tamil Nadu’s irrigation in 2010. It’s a reliance that was hailed as drought-proof – but there’s only so much you can dig into the earth for water. Tube wells rely on the water table, which has been declining for much of the last five years.

Tamil Nadu’s various mafias are also to blame for the declining water table. As demand outpaces supply, a black market has emerged for illegal borewell water, led by the well-established water tanker mafia. And over the years, India’s infamous sand mafia have been illegally taking sand from the across the riverbeds – turning rivers into trickles and lowering water tables. In a bid to crack down on illegal sand mining, the state government shut down all but ten of its sand quarries. The result is a ‘sand crisis‘ to accompany the water crisis – putting a halt to building and construction.

Dealing with drought

Farmers whose wells have dried up have been selling their cows, unable to give them the 50 odd litres of water they need every day. And while some farmers have returned to growing drought-resistant traditional crops (that disappeared with the advent of the Green Revolution), many others struggled on with their crops, adding to their burden by taking up loans.

At first, the courts intervened. The Madura High Court ordered the state government to waive off all the loans given to farmers by the cooperative banks. It’s a move expected to benefit up to 200,000 – although many more farmers remain in debt, largely to nationalised banks and informal credit systems).

It was time for the government to intervene.

In February 2017, the then Chief Minister S. Paneerselvam announced a relief package of Rs.2247 crore ($349.38 million). Money was to be transferred directly to farmer’s bank accounts, between Rs. 3000 to Rs. 5465 an acre. In April, the Centre stepped in with a slightly smaller package – Rs. 1712 crore ($267 million) – twenty times less than what the striking farmers were demanding. But their demands weren’t restricted to money alone. They also wanted the Centre to set up a Cauvery Management Board to regulate the dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka once and for all.

It’s a far-reaching demand – as both states face a drought situation currently, making the prospect of political water wars a looming likelihood in 2017. It’s their other demand that’s a problem. In Delhi, a striking farmer issued a threat and said:

The prime minister must announce the inter-linking of rivers. Then only we can save our families. Otherwise, we will commit suicide

The farmers called off their strike after assurances from the Paneerselvam. River-linking, while desirable for some, raises severe ecological concerns – and needs to be understood better before it can be adopted. What needs immediate attention are state’s water-habits.

It is of utmost importance for the states to improve their water consumption patterns (and perhaps stop the cultivation of water-guzzling crops like rice – which are better grown in the northern rice belts). Rainwater harvesting needs to be used to ensure there is no wastage of rainwater, and that water tables can be recharged. And, tackling the sand and water mafias is of utmost importance.

The plight of Tamil Nadu has been made visible through performance in Jantar Mantar. English-speaking protestors with a good understanding of the visual message have made their point on multiple media platforms. Nobody can claim ignorance of the situation as an excuse any longer. Urgent action is needed, lest the images from the ground start to resemble those from famine-struck history.

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