Agricultural Crisis
With ‘opparis’ and candlelight vigil, farmers in Cauvery delta expressed their grief as sluice gates of the Stanley reservoir in Mettur did not open for the eighth consecutive year.
Mettur dam with water/File Image (PTI)

The sluice gates of the Stanley reservoir in Mettur have not been opened for the last eight years. It was scheduled to be opened on June 12. Since the deadline has been missed again, the farmers in the Cauvery delta of Tamil Nadu are left with no choice but wait for another year to see the gates be opened.

Historically, June 12 meant that the districts in the Cauvery delta, including Thiruvarur, Thanjavur, Trichy, Nagapattinam, Karur, Erode, Perambalur and Pudukkottai, will be ready to welcome the first instalment of Cauvery water to their fields.

As the Southwest monsoon usually hits Kerala by May 31, it would be the right time to prepare the fields for a cycle of short-term paddy cultivation in the Tamil Nadu delta region.

This crop cycle, known as Kuruvai, is a short-term crop season when the paddy is cultivated in the Delta region, in early June. The Kuruvai paddy crops are dependent on the Southwest monsoon, which bring a copious amount of rainfall to Karnataka and Kerala, in turn, filling up the Mettur dam.

According to an official in the Tamil Nadu Public Works Department (PWD), which monitors water levels in reservoirs in the state, the water level in Stanley reservoir on Thursday was 45 feet. “We open the sluice gates only when we have a water level of 90 feet, which is 50 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) of water in the dam,” he tells TNM.

And so, this season, too, their hopes of receiving water for their crops have been dashed. Farmers took to expressing their grief by singing ‘opparis’ or elegies and carrying out candlelight vigils in various places across Cauvery delta on Wednesday.

Why is Kuruvai season important?

Kuruvai crops gave farmers one assured crop every year to make a living.

Speaking to TNM, GV Varatharajan, a Thiruvarur-based farmer and the state Joint Secretary of Thamizhaga Cauvery Vivasayigal Sangam, says, “Samba season is a vulnerable time for us in this region since we are affected by cyclones and flooding. Hence, we generally bet on Kuruvai crop for assured returns as Samba is a gamble.”

This is why the news that the Mettur dam shutters will not be opened on June 12 this year came as bad news for the delta farmers.

Farmers losing faith in government

Elaborating the water scarcity and the emotions of the farmers right now, Varatharajan said that since this was the first year after the Indian government set up the Cauvery Water Management Authority (CWMA), the farmers had believed that they would get water from Cauvery for their crops as per the scheduled release. But they never received water from the river.

“It makes us lose faith in the legal system since we believed that the government is giving us legal assurance when CWMA was formed. Our situation has not really changed in any manner now,” he points out.

In fact, the CWMA, in its latest meeting held on May 28, had ordered the government of Karnataka to release 9.19 tmcft water to Tamil Nadu in June. However, there has been no action on the order to date.

Lack of water forced migration

Varatharajan says that this lack of agricultural output in the delta districts has pushed people, who would otherwise be occupied with farming, to move out of their towns in search of other means of livelihood.

“There are no factories or any other employment generator in this region. There are around 35 lakh people dependent on agriculture for their survival in Cauvery delta. They are now being pushed to migrate to other towns and cities in search of employment or work as a construction worker in the town. Many young women from Thiruvarur, too, have gone to Tiruppur in search of work,” he points out. 

The threat of hydrocarbon projects

There is also a sense of impending doom among the delta farmers since the proposed hydrocarbon exploration project is progressing in full swing. The companies, which had received the allocation of exploration sites in Cauvery delta, are being given all possible clearances in quick succession. These actions by the government have made the farmers think if there is more to the entire scheme than what really meets the eye.

“We have started to think if it is all a planned conspiracy by the state government to implement the hydrocarbon scheme in this region. As you might know, the companies have been making great progress in getting the required permissions for digging hydrocarbon wells here,” Varatharajan notes.

He also points out that the manner in which the hydrocarbon project is being executed and the government’s inaction in the agricultural situation in delta districts have made the farmers suspect the worst.

“We now suspect if the government is trying hard to make the fields here dry and arid so that the farmers will let go of them. If they had wanted agriculture to really thrive, they would have somehow got us water,” he says. 

‘Global warming to be blamed, not Karnataka’

Despite the grievous allegations on government apathy, S Ranganathan, the General Secretary of Tamil Nadu Cauvery Delta Farmers Association, says that the monsoon failure in recent years is mainly due to global warming.

Although the farmers say that Karnataka has not obeyed CWMA's mandate of releasing water to Tamil Nadu in June, S Ranganathan says, “Karnataka is not responsible for this crisis; the farmers there are equally suffering,” says Ranganathan.

Advising farmers to focus on one profitable crop per year in future, Ranganathan says that it would be better to have one successful crop than two failed crops. He adds that it would be better to focus on Samba henceforth and abandon Kuruvai.

“One can be sure that there is no possibility to start Kuruvai hereafter. If the monsoon manages to get 30-40 tmcft of water in Mettur dam before the end of June, then the chances of Kuruvai revival is possible,” he explains, although he adds that the condition is precarious.