Land of drought and death: Journey through devastated TN villages as farmer suicides rise

Death and despair is in the air.
Land of drought and death: Journey through devastated TN villages as farmer suicides rise
Land of drought and death: Journey through devastated TN villages as farmer suicides rise
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The News Minute's Haritha John travelled through Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu, hearing stories of farmers struggling under drought. Here is the first in her series of stories. 

The village of Nattiruppu is about 12km from Nagapattinam town in Tami Nadu. A tarred road runs from the town to the village, and ends near a small, dried-up stream locally called Vellayar. About 3km further down on the banks of the parched stream, is a settlement of nearly 40 huts. A mud road runs through the settlement splitting it into two halves. The huts are not pucca structures, and are made of mud and coconut-leaf roofing. There are no doors to the huts. “We cannot afford doors,” says a farmer, in a matter-of-fact tone.

There is a palpable sense of gloom in the village. There is death and despair in the air. Towards the end of the settlement is 52-year-old Pannerselvam’s house. He was a farmer. He had two daughters and a son. He was among other farmers in the colony who depended on the Samba rice crop for their livelihood.

On January 1, 2017, as many were lying sprawled on their beds making the best of a Sunday, Pannerselvam took a piece of cloth, tied it to a wooden log on the roof, and hanged himself.

The hamlet in Nattirupuu

Pannerselvam's brother Ganeshan, his son Raj and other family members.

Pannerselvam is said to be one among the 26 other farmers in Nagapattinam district purported to have killed themselves in the last two months, thanks to the severe drought the state of Tamil Nadu is being crushed under.

“He was terribly worried in the last few weeks. Sometimes he cried. We knew that he was depressed, but we never thought he would die,” says Pannerselvam’s brother Ganeshan.

Ever since he died, his wife Mallika has not stepped out of her house. “She was shocked. She doesn’t even speak to anybody,” Ganeshan says, pointing in her direction.

Pannerselvam had no land of his own, and had taken two acres on lease from a landlord to cultivate rice and make money, his brother says. “We managed to get the lease amount by taking loan from private financiers. We don’t have any property in our name, so the only option was to get money from these financiers. We have to repay the amount and interest to them. We have to feed our kids too,” Ganeshan laments.

Pointing to the yellowish Samba paddy field behind the colony, Ganeshan says, “Look at that, it’s all dried up. Now cows and goats eat the crop.”

The entire stretch of land behind the colony, running into several acres, is abandoned and parched. The crop is dead. “We spent money to get the land on lease, sow the seeds and buy fertilisers and pesticides, and now we have to abandon all of it because there is no water,” he added.

“Most of the farmers who killed themselves were debt-ridden, and specifically because they had taken out a lease for the land. They did not own land,” points out Rajendran, a leader of the Cauvery Farmers Association. He agrees that both the failure of the Northeast monsoon and the Cauvery water issue caused the drought, but he is more aghast at the refusal of Karnataka to share the water.

Rajendran and Moorthy of Cauvery Farmers Association

Apart from the 26 farmers said to have reportedly killed themselves, at least 13 others have died of cardiac arrest recently, say farmer associations.

As you walk into Prataparamapuram village in Nagapattinam, you can see that its natural beauty belies the human sadness. Down a narrow road with musters of peacocks on either side, amidst mango plantations, lies the house of 72-year-old Pakkirasami, a paddy farmer. He breathed his last on December 29, but it is not clear how he died.

“He had just returned from the farm,” says his daughter-in-law, Latha. “He was taking rest. Later in the evening, he started frothing from the mouth and he died. We thought it was a heart attack, and we performed his last rites. Later we saw bottles of pesticide near the spot where we found him,” she says. Others in the village, however, maintain that he died of a heart attack, and did not kill himself.

Pakkirisami had also taken five acres of land on lease. “He had no huge financial crisis, but farming was his life. He couldn’t watch the fields go dry. We couldn’t help it, we don’t even have water to drink here,” Latha says. His death could be natural, but the sufferings of the family are very real.

But stories abound of suicide of farmers in Nagapattinam. Fifty-five-year-old Murugaiyyan is another farmer who killed himself following the failure of the Samba crop.

Murugaiyyan's home

Thirty-two kilometers from Nagapattinam town is the village of Thalainayar. Murugaiyyan’s home is in a hamlet, five kilometres further into the village, where only two-wheelers can reach. It’s a grass-roofed hut, and one has to bend down to enter the house. Murugaiyyan is survived by his wife, a daughter and a mentally-challenged son.

“At the beginning, we started cultivating the paddy with the available water. But we did not get more water or rain later, we did not expect it. He was always depressed, did not speak much. When the drought began, he just stopped talking. I knew that he would do something drastic. Now what will I do with my sick son,” asks Azhiyarasi, as she breaks into tears.

“The sight is heart-breaking for us. I don’t even go to my field, I can’t see it. This is just the beginning. We have no idea what we will do when summer arrives,” Rajendran says, pointing to a dry field being grazed by goats and cows.

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