From season of harvest to season of abandon: How TN’s worst monsoon in 150 years killed Pongal

Tamil Nadu is yet to declare the state drought-hit.
From season of harvest to season of abandon: How TN’s worst monsoon in 150 years killed Pongal
From season of harvest to season of abandon: How TN’s worst monsoon in 150 years killed Pongal
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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 third in her series of stories. 

Parked on either side of the narrow village road in Nagapattinam are rows of lorries. Driverless and empty, the vehicles that were meant to carry the season’s harvest will remain stationed, where they are. Not far away, the godowns meant to store grain have had their shutters down for the last few months. But it’s the fields of Nagapattinam that paint the real picture of gloom for those in the farming community.

Pongal, the season of harvest has now become a season of abandon in Tamil Nadu. The once lush green fields have withered and wilted, turning a yellowish-brown. The squishy mud now resembles concrete. Cattle graze on the fields where men and women should be working. What should have been the busiest time of the year for villages in Tamil Nadu’s rice bowl is now a season of unemployment.

A dried canal

With the soil in Nagapattinam consisting of “athannur clay”, most farmers are dependent on the samba season, with paddy being the major crop, while urad dal and groundnut are also grown.  The troubles, farmers across Nagapattinam district say, began in August, the beginning of the samba cultivation season. With scant rainfall during the Southwest monsoon season, Karnataka refused to release Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu, stating that there was not enough water in the reservoirs of the Cauvery basin. And as the legal battle between the states turned to one of angry protests, the farmers continued to suffer.

Dhanpal, the President of the Cauvery Farmers Association points out that 2013 was also a rainfall deficit year, but farmers managed to get by with water from the Mettur dam. “This time the water level at Mettur dam is very low and Karnataka claims it is due to low rainfall. But there is a reason for that. In Tamil Nadu, we do sugarcane cultivations in places where ground water is available. But in Karnataka they do it everywhere, consuming the Cauvery water in excess. Then how will the levels in the dam rise?”

With less inflow, Dhanpal notes that the Mettur dam was opened only for 25 days in the last few months, adding, “We received only 66.60 TMC ft of water from Cauvery, which is only one third of what is allowed the Cauvery Tribunal.” As per the final order of the Cauvery Water Tribunal, Tamil Nadu was allotted 419 tmc ft of water.  

Despite Nagapattinam being blessed with many streams such as Kaduvayar, Pandayar, Vellayar and the Keeran lake, all of them are bone dry, leaving farmers searching for a source of water. Rajendran, Nagapattinam District Secretary of the Cauvery Farmers Association notes that a few farmers relied on borewells during the crop season. “But that is also not a solution as water is available only for few hours daily in such wells. Also, everyone can’t afford borewells.” While calling for a permanent solution to the Cauvery dispute, Latha, a farmer, suggests, “The government can initiate digging borewells in the fields, which can be shared by two or three farmers. Ground water availability is very less here but still we need a permanent solution.”

While Karnataka and Tamil Nadu continued to spar over Cauvery water, farmers in Nagapattinam and other parts of the state had a prayer on their lips as the Northeast monsoon arrived in October. But three months later, Tamil Nadu is now facing a drought, having witnessed its worst monsoon in over 150 years.  IMD statistics reveal that Tamil Nadu has a deficit of 62% while the district of Nagapattinam is suffering from a deficit of 74%.


Having watched their crops wilt and die, and burdened with debt, 39 farmers died in Nagapattinam after losing all hope. While most of them took their own lives, some died out of shock, say farmers.  They were all small farmers and with no land of their own, had taken a few acres on lease for cultivation. In the rest of the state, over 60 farmers died after losing their crop.

Nagapattinam’s District Collector S Palanisamy has few words of comfort, stating, “Insured farmers will get compensation and the government will help families who have lost loved ones owing to drought and crop failure.”


Even as the Tamil Nadu government is yet to formally declare the state drought-hit, with a high-level committee presently assessing the situation, Nagapattinam’s farmers are fast losing hope of being granted relief. “The government is busy dealing with ‘Chennai politics’. After one or two months, all the crops will dry up. What will our cows and goats eat then? Now at least they eat the withered paddy from the fields. What will happen after a month? How many more have to die to declare the region drought-affected,” Rajendran asks pitifully.

Edited by Anna Isaac

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