Drought
And there is some good news.
Image: Senapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation

This is the second in a two-part series on the drought in Tamil Nadu. Read part one here: Dead storage Mettur: Understanding Tamil Nadu’s drought from ground zero

Tamil Nadu is going through one of its worst periods of droughts ever, but the good news is that the Mettur Dam, that is the lifeline to as many as 12 districts in Tamil Nadu, will not close down, belying popular predictions. The present capacity of 5.324 tmcft will ensure the everyday discharge of 500 cusecs of water for drinking purposes till May 31.    

Comparing similar conditions during 2013, Public Works Department (PWD) sources say this can be sustained as the Cauvery basin is expecting to witness an advanced south-west monsoon. Predicted to be a near-normal monsoon, the rains that may begin after May 15, and the inflow from the tributaries of upper riparian areas of Karnataka is anticipated to augment the present 24 ft level. The total capacity is 93.47 tmcft at a full 124 ft.   

That said, it is a fact that it is a hand to mouth situation for drought-hit Tamil Nadu. While 16 districts are reeling under full-blown drought (80%), three are at the other end of the spectrum at 40%, and other districts stand at 60%. While the State is expected to crossover the worst next month, it would not be amiss to assess the situation to be prepared for another distress situation.

Untapped potential

The surface water potential of TN of about 853 tmcft has almost been fully (more than 95%) tapped since late sixties. There are 17 river basins in Tamil Nadu, with the Mettur Dam being the major one, yet Tamil Nadu depends on neighbouring states for a substantial quantum of water. 

K. Ramasamy, vice-chancellor of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Coimbatore, says, “We enjoy three advantages that most countries do not – good downpour, 10-hr sunshine and average temperature all through the year.  But this is not taken advantage of to plan and save for a rainy day.  This is because only 0.3% of the GDP is allotted to research in agriculture”.

Bane of rice

Rice cultivation, which has turned out to be the bane of the Delta farmers, should be reduced considerably, according to him. Farmer deaths in this region are not just a result of drought and poverty, but also due to lack of free cash movement following demonetisation. Prime Minister’s “per drop, more crop” call for farming with optimum utilisation of water cannot become a reality if there is no model system adapted for agriculture, he adds. 

“Rice consumption has reduced. Still we produce 30% extra for export. We have to stop this craze surrounding export of rice to the tune of Rs. 38,000 crore per year. So much of water is wasted in this. Rest of the surplus is stored, sometimes in the open or in unhygienic conditions like in black polythene bags, which also sometimes leads to wastage.  If this much of investment and effort is put in alternative cropping, conducive to the weather and water pattern, we will be able to manage with the average annual rainfall of 900 mm and also make the farmer self-sufficient”. 

He advocates cultivation of cash crops, vegetables, fruits and flowers, in the place of rice to save water as well as to make it profitable to the farmer. 

Interlinking water bodies

Most farmers and experts alike see another solution in interlinking the State dams to avoid a near-no water situation. While the industry is being blamed for not following the zero-discharge and effluent recycle system, it is also a reality that the municipality that distributes water for drinking purposes from the Mettur Dam does not recycle and reuse the waste water. 

In the midst of all this, it is a shame that surplus rainwater goes waste into the sea for want of smart alternatives. But there is a quiet revolution against this. The Cauvery Surplus Water Action Committee has been stressing the Government to implement the 2013 ‘Excavation of link canal from Mettur Dam to Sarabanga river, Ponnaiar, Thirumanimutharu, and Ayyaru rivers, to utilise the flood surplus and augment irrigation potential through existing anicut and tanks’ scheme that would ensure water supply to farmers of Nangavalli, Tharamangalam, Edapadi, Omalur and Konganapuram panchayat unions of Salem. 

R. Thambiah, the committee convenor, says that these drought-prone panchayat unions lose out on the dam water when the river is in spite and the level crosses the 120 ft mark, because the surplus water ends up in the sea. Despite a G.O. the Rs. 1,300 crore scheme that would divert the surplus water to these villagers is yet to be implemented.

A. Raviraj, Professor, Soil and Water Engineering, TNAU, says that with the river basin going dry, tankers will be targeting the ground water wells that will result in the water table decreasing by another five ft. Desilting ponds, wells, lakes, dams, canals and other water bodies at regular intervals will enrich surface water mobility, recharge and help increase ground water tables. Desilting should become 100% priority of the Government.  If adequate measures are taken to save rain water, the stored water will percolate down to recharge the underground aquifers.

Tanks are used for irrigation purposes while wells for potable water. Authorities do not only neglect to clean the water bodies, but also turn a blind eye when the approach canals / channels to these water bodies get blocked due to real estate encroachment. The same applies to rainwater harvest structures too.” 

Dying livestock

Beyond the land and water, a wretched fate has befallen the livestock. While many are already dead, more are dying, and others are sent away from their homes as a distress sale.

Karthikeya Sivasenapathy, Managing Trustee of Senaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation in Kangayam, Tirupur district, says the worst hit area in terms of distress sale is Bargur, close to Anthiyur in Erode district, where livestock farmers are selling the Bargur breed, said to be the second recognised breed in TN for as low as Rs. 5,000. Second worst is Kangayam itself. 

More than the animal or the farmer, the worst affected because of this sale is the woman of the house. “It is the women who rear the cattle, especially the cows. There is an emotional connect that cannot be replaced when the cow is sold. Most of the times the farmer will not be able to buy back the cattle. There are families that subsist on a single cow. When this is sold, he is forced to wind up and move to the city to end up as a daily wager”.

The lesson to be learnt, according to him, is not to waste even a drop of water. It is mandatory now that for every acre, 33 cents should be used to make a farm pond. If there is water, fodder will never be a problem. There are so many crops that can be cultivated on a small scale and area to feed the cattle. 

There are 81 lakh farmers in Tamil Nadu and 18% of land is with small farmers. Experts say farmers moving to urban areas only increases the urban poverty, which is at 35% as compared to rural poverty at 15%. Agriculture is the only trade that provides multiple alternative options for employment, if effectively used. NREGS, seen as a boon in such situations, in reality is not. A recent report says that Tamil Nadu led with 90% delayed payments in NREGS for the financial year 2016-17. Experts wonder as to why NREGS is not made agriculture-oriented. 

Vice-Chancellor Ramasamy has the last word: Politicians are interested in something, administrators in something else, and the end result is that these interests do not match the interest of the farmer.