Ground Report: In cyclone-hit Srikakulam, coconut and cashew farmers are the worst-hit
K Venkateshwara Rao is devastated. The 44-year-old has just lost 2.5 acres of his coconut plantation and another 1.5 acres of his cashew plantation in Andhra Pradesh's Srikakulam District. The trees, which took years to grow, now lay flat on the ground in absolute ruins after Cyclone Titli struck the region on October 11.
The worried farmer says that even the 40 cents of paddy he had planted has been completely destroyed along with another 2,000 acres of crops in his village.
"It's completely gone. We never thought that this would happen. A night before the cyclone, we saw the news on TV that there would be a deep depression near our village. We thought it would be the usual rain and some strong wind. Little did we know, that it would sweep away our entire lives with it. By the time the sun rose, all the coconut trees and cashew crops had fallen," he says.
"When we saw how strong the wind and rain was at midnight, we didn't think we would survive to see the next day. I have nothing left," he adds.
Gollagundi is a small village near the coast consisting of nearly 500 households, whose residents are farmers, mostly dependent on cashew and coconut crops. The scenic village which usually paints a lush, green picture, is now a site of devastation and tragedy.
While the pleasant sound of sea waves can constantly be heard in the distance at the village, it was those same waves that completely destroyed everything, including the road leading to the village, which is now in ruins.
Many locals say that the night the cyclone hit was one of the most horrific nights of their lives and the only reason that there was no human loss was because people had returned home after their work in the fields.
Many in Gollagundi village have heart-breaking tales to narrate.
Tappela Laxmi is seen wandering around in her farm, assessing the damage to her coconut crops brought down to the ground by winds that are said to have reached speeds of 165 kmph.
Standing between the fallen trees on her 7-acre farm, she says, "We have spent close to Rs 70,000 per acre and if everything had gone well, we might have got at least Rs 1 lakh per acre. Now, we don't see any future."
"Since these are tall trees, It takes at least 10 to 15 years to grow a coconut field. Till then, what do we do? How do we eke out our livelihood? The government should take care of us. What about our lives and the future of our children?" she asks, as she breaks down and begins sobbing.
While a coconut tree takes a minimum of 15 years before it becomes profitable, cashew crops also take 6 to 8 years before they are ready, if not more.
Even as one comes to terms with the trouble of locals in Gollagundi, neighbouring villages have also only witnessed similar devastation.
Women farmers in Baruva, a small village nearby, stand surrounded with fallen crops.
As they see this reporter approaching, there is a flutter of activity as they assume that government officials have arrived to assess the loss that they incurred. On learning otherwise, they quickly resume their work.
40-year-old Tanada Tulasamma speaks as she collects fallen coconuts in despair. "At least you people (media) should show what this cyclone has done to our lives," she says.
Tulasamma is the owner of 1.5 acres of coconut crop and occasionally works as a labourer in neighbouring fields.
"In one acre of land, there used to be at least 90 to 100 trees and now there are not even 10 left standing. Just a month ago, I spent Rs 60,000 to level the land and for pesticides among other things. Now, I'm left with mere scrap," she says.
Nearby, T Haimavathi, who is accompanied by her 12-year-old daughter, is also assessing the damage to her 3-acre cashew crops.
"We never heard any warning about this and even if we had, what could we have done? So far, no government official has come to take notice of what has happened. They should come and give us immediate assistance," she says.
All these villages are a part of the larger Uddanam region of Srikakulam, which bore the major brunt of Cyclone Titli and is estimated to have affected as many as 9 lakh people.
Fallen coconut crops continued to be common sighting in Jagannadhapuram under Bahadapalli panchayat.
Boddu Lokesh, a young farmer, is supervising labourers as they collect and load coconuts into a lorry.
"I'm selling it off for half the rate as the crop is damaged and this may be my last load to Palasa town. It will take at least 15 years to grow a field and I have to figure something out to do, till then," he says.
Pointing at the lifeless coconut trees, the 22-year-old says, "They have grown like I have and they're as old as me. Now, neither me, nor labourers in this area, have a means of livelihood."
While the state government has announced a compensation of Rs 1,200 per tree, Lokesh says, "It will cost Rs 1,000 to just remove the logs. Whatever the government wants to give us will anyway go for clearing the field only."
However, the government has said that it would take up the field clearing and land leveling work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) programme, free of cost to the farmers.
While Cyclone Titli has left hundreds, if not thousands, of farmers with bleak futures, landless labourers who were completely dependent on working in coconut and cashew crops plantations now have it the worst. Overnight, their lives have been tossed into absolute uncertainty.
48-year-old Kalya Balyan is one among many landless daily wage labourers who have come to Kanchili Mandal's SRCPuram village. Most of them say that they do not know what the future holds for them and are planning to migrate.
"What can we do? How long will we be stuck here in this soil? We will go away somewhere else and live. If there are no crops, that means there is no work for us," Balyan says.
Gasya Parvati, seemingly in her late 50s, doesn't stop picking coconuts and putting it in her basket as she speaks.
"Maybe this is our last job. After this, we all have to leave," she says, with a mix of anger and pain. When asked if they're expecting government help, Parvati retorts, "Who will give us help? Why will they help us? We are landless labourers."
Kasya Shankar, another middle-aged labourer suggests, "Do come here after three months, and you will see for yourself what would have happened. We are not sure what will happen to our future. We have to move outside in search of livelihood, otherwise it will not be possible."
Bujjamma, a female labourer from Gollagandi, says, "While the lives of farmers themselves are in shambles and they don't know what to do, can you imagine how tough it is for us to survive? For now, we are now surviving on free groceries and the help being offered by the government during relief works, but what about the future?
"The government should also give ex-gratia and compensation and provide an alternative employment to agricultural labourers who were dependent on these cashew and coconut crops," she adds.
According to the government’s own estimates, loss in agriculture has been pegged at Rs 802 crore while the figure for horticulture is Rs 1,000 crore. Homes worth Rs 220 crore were also said to be destroyed by the cyclone.