Part 1: The Borewell Crisis In Tamil Nadu
A new borewell being dug in Tamil NaduPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

Part 1: The Borewell Crisis In Tamil Nadu

Failed borewells, farms lying fallow and farmers in debt, wanting to abandon their land

In a series of reports from rural Tamil Nadu, The Lede attempts to understand what is plaguing the agriculture sector in the state.

From lack of water to lack of water conservation to enhanced use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, Tamil Nadu’s farmers are struggling to make ends meet.

Much of this is damage done by borewells, crops that suck too much water and overuse of chemicals and hybrid seeds.

Read on to find a 360-degree perspective on the farming sector that is fast running aground.

63-year-old Murugan from Achumangalam village near Bargur in Krishnagiri district owns 6 acres of land which he shares with his two other siblings with each owning two acres. “This is our fifth bore,” he says.

“We are buying water in tankers to irrigate our paddy,” says Murugan
“We are buying water in tankers to irrigate our paddy,” says MuruganPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

“It is almost like every second year we have been digging borewells.”

But the difficulty in finding water has not stood in the way of them planting paddy in a portion of their land. This despite the fact that the fifth borewell which failed was 1200 feet deep.

His brothers, Shanmugam and Nanja Reddy, agree things did not pan out the way they planned.

“We planted paddy thinking it will rain,” says Nanja Reddy. But it did not. The trust they put on the rains failed them spectacularly. But the brothers had not stopped with planting paddy alone.

“We have left the banana plants which we planted recently to dry,” says Shanmugam.

“We don’t have any choice now,” says Shanmugam
“We don’t have any choice now,” says Shanmugam Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

Banana is another of the very high water intensive crops, an oddity, given water is the most sparse resource for the three brothers.

“We are buying water in tankers now to water the paddy,” says Murugan. “It is almost an acre’s worth of crop and it will be ready in a month’s time,” he explains the cost-benefit analysis.

“How can we let a crop which has grown so far to go to waste?” asks Nanja Reddy.
“How can we let a crop which has grown so far to go to waste?” asks Nanja Reddy.Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

“One tank of water costs Rs 600 and watering one acre requires about 10 tanks of water weekly. We collect the water from the tankers in our well and when we have sufficient water, we pump the water to the field,” he explains the methodology.

“If the lake here has water, our borewells will also have water,” he says. Whether the lake will ever have any water, given the crop and water management policies they continue to practice seem doubtful.

But the brothers have another solution still. “If canals are constructed to bring water to the lake and farms, all problems will be solved. Anyway if you see, water in the rivers is just being wasted by being allowed to run off to the sea,” they say.

And the three brothers are not alone in their desperation caused by water shortage and unwise crop selections.

If lack of water has forced some farmers to buy water to irrigate their crops, some farmers have taken to selling water as a means to beat the scarcity.

Farmer Then, Water Seller Now

Hailing from Achumangalam, 56-year-old Ramesh V claims he had been a farmer from the age of 12 up to three years back. Now he sells water to make a living, a decent one at that.

“This is my fifth bore,” says Ramesh. “I dug my first borewell in 2005. With each passing season we had to deepen the bore and three years back after digging the fifth borewell I decided to give up farming itself. The cost of labour and the risks involved were too much. One has to pay Rs 200 for a woman labourer, the wage is Rs 400 for a man.”

While Ramesh blames his shift on high labour costs and risks involved, his farmer neighbours insists it is the easy money available in selling water that has seen him change profession.

The fifth borewell Ramesh talks about is in the middle of his farm land. And it is 1220 feet deep.

Ramesh, a former farmer, supplies water drawn from his farmland to quarries and other farmers.
Ramesh, a former farmer, supplies water drawn from his farmland to quarries and other farmers.Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

Having outraced everyone else in the locality, he has been selling water not just to the locals for household uses, but also to farmers like Murugan who ran out of luck and ideas to keep farming and more importantly, according to the locals, to the quarry running in the village and a college far away, nearer to the highway.

“Digging borewells is a very expensive affair,” Ramesh says. “My last bore cost me Rs 2 lakh for digging and Rs 1.75 lakh for the 15 HP motor.”

Drawing water from deep within the earth requires high power motors too.

“Inspite of that, the water I got was salty. Now I have to treat the water to get permission to sell it,” he complains. “There are other expenses as well. I have to maintain workers to run the tractor which pulls the tankers as well. Diesel costs come extra. I have taken commercial electricity connection for the motor too.”

But none of these seemed to be valid given the irony that barely a few feet away from Ramesh’s 1220 feet borewell, Murugan and his brothers had to rework their own 1200 feet borewell this year and buy water in tankers to irrigate their ill thought crops of the season.

Was it not their water too that Ramesh was selling?

Ramesh insisted it was not so. But the silence and accusatory looks of the surrounding farmers suggested otherwise.

It is in tankers such as these that water is sold
It is in tankers such as these that water is soldPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

Krishnan And The Racing Cattle

63-year-old Krishnan R who hails from Achumangalam owns a total landholding of 3.2 acres.

“We are bringing water on two wheelers for daily use,” says Krishnan when asked about how the water needs were being met. “If not for the panchayat water, we have to get water from people who have water still in their bores.”

Krishnan is left with no water in his mango plantation with his most recent borewell turning dry
Krishnan is left with no water in his mango plantation with his most recent borewell turning dry Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

“We are thinking of digging one more bore,” he says matter of factly. “The last one which we dug in December cost us Rs 2 lakh but was of no use.”

While Krishnan had once kept cattle, both for milk as well as for ploughing the fields he has none of the kind today.

“I used to keep bullock carts earlier, I sold them too. We used to get around 25 litres of milk every day. But the costs of hay, feed and water became prohibitive. So I sold them all.”

With the mango trees in his plantation drying up one by one, Krishnan says he is helpless but to see them wither away.

All around his plantation, many have left their fields to nature while Krishnan mends to them occasionally still.

His two daughters having been married, his unmarried son is who stays with Krishnan and his wife.

His son, Govindraj, has found job as a home guard with the Tamil Nadu police and has recently picked up a hobby of rearing racing cattle (Ther Ottam not Jallikattu).

Asked how they had been bought, Govindraj says that he has taken loans. With racing cattle costing lakhs, he has taken to it as he says it will make him famous and earn him a good name.

“It is just a matter of pride,” he says. “We win money if we win races. But that doesn’t come to anything. Just transporting them to races and bringing them back alone costs Rs 8000 to Rs 10,000. We have to spend Rs 6000 to Rs 10,000 per month for their upkeep alone. But it will get us a good name,” he reiterates.

The Jallikattu protests which rocked Tamil Nadu a few years back, Govindraj says has revived interest in cattle races and he is amongst the many who has pursued it seriously. With numerous WhatsApp groups he is a member of (which he proudly shows The Lede) it is not only the love for an ancient tradition that drives him.

Having bought four racers of varying ages, Govindraj has other hidden ambitions as well.

“The former MLA was known by the name of his racer and to this day people remember his racing cattle,” he says when asked to explain why he had bought so many racers and their pressing need at a time when their bores were failing and crops drying.

And it is to feed these racing cattle that Krishnan is now planning to dig one more borewell, not for the families’ needs or for the failing crops.

Krishnan’s son Govindraj has bought 4 racing cattle
Krishnan’s son Govindraj has bought 4 racing cattlePhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

“I am thinking also of building a small tank to store water here, in front of the house,” says Krishnan pointing to the empty space, a little away from the toilet with no running water.

“Do you know how to find the correct place to find water?” he asks pointing to the dusty ground around his house.

When asked how he saw his son’s plans and how they will find money for the new borewell, he says, “Money we will arrange somehow,” with a confidence at odds with the failing crops and the recently failed borewell he has to his name.

While it may seem preposterous, for a generation of farmers who found themselves losing respect day by day, these measures can perhaps be convinced as a necessity to regain lost glories and redeem their fortunes in a desperate dash.

Krishnan seemed convinced and proud of the four racing cattle resting under the shade of his dying mango trees. They brought neither income nor promises to.

Failed Borewells & Dried Mango Trees

65-year-old Kannan V bought 3.5 acres of land 18 years back and moved closer to the village of Achumangalam after marrying off his two daughters.

The land then had been rain-fed and over time he dug two borewells with each being reworked on multiple times when they dried up.

Today, Kannan and his wife Pushpavalli are in their fifth year without any farming being undertaken.

“Now we buy water in tractors,” he says. “One load costs us Rs 1000 and lasts for 10-11 days. We had 150 mango trees earlier,” says Kannan. “Now there are only 30 remaining. While we had around 250 coconut trees earlier, now only 40 remain. I had planted them all. It is painful to see.”

When Kannan bought the land he lives in, it was a mango plantation.
When Kannan bought the land he lives in, it was a mango plantation.Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

As part of intensifying cultivation, he planted coconut and resorted to digging borewell to meet the water needs when the well dried up.

“The first borewell was 450 feet deep,” says Kannan. “Then we reworked it to 750 feet and later to 950 feet. With each passing year, the water levels dropped a few hundred feet. What else were we to do?” he asks.

“Then our first borewell dried up completely. So we decided to go for a new one in 2016. This was dug to 920 feet. We had found water when we stopped. But it dried up and has never recharged again. While the first borewell worked for more or less for eight years in total, the second borewell failed very fast. For five years now, there has not been proper rain here,” he says.

“If it rains and the lake has water, there will be water in our borewell too. But there is no rain and the lake has been dry forever now. This is the same place where when I had bought land, water was available at 50 feet in a well. Today, even at 1000 feet, there is no water. Even six years back we used to grow rice on these lands,” Kannan says, showing his now desolate land.

“Will anyone believe if I say it was lush green once?” he asks. “One by one, everything dried. Tomato, chilli, banana, I have lost many crops to drought.”

The successive crop losses have left a worrisome debt on Kannan and his family. “I have a debt of Rs 4 lakh from the bank. Another Rs 50,000 from the Sangam. Sangam has stopped giving us loans now. We tried recently. I also have a loan from the society amounting to Rs 1 lakh. We have not been able to pay back even one debt properly. We have been moving on from one debt to the next and surviving. Without water where will we make any money?” he asks.

His daughter now married and having moved out, he is dependent on his only son.

“My son tried getting a job but failed,” says Kannan. “Now he is running a juice shop in the village. It is not enough to service loans. We are having difficulty paying school fees of our grandchildren even,” he says.

Kannan’s wife, 63-year-old Pushpavalli is worried about their plight.

“We don’t have water even for the two cows we have. We are using the tanker water for feeding them,” she says. “We had to buy feed too. Each bundle costs us Rs 300 if bought separately. So we bought them in bulk. That alone cost us Rs 13,000. We get only two pots of water per family from the panchayat. Even for that we have to fight with the others.”

The “others” being the Scheduled Caste “colony” which shares a boundary with their own land and which had been built on land taken over by the government from a relative.

“It is never enough, given that we have cattle to be fed too. So we have to buy water separately,” she says.

“It is not that there are no rains. But the patterns of rains have changed,” says Pushpavalli
“It is not that there are no rains. But the patterns of rains have changed,” says PushpavalliPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

“Earlier it would rain continuously through the day and night. Now it doesn’t rain even for five minutes at a stretch,” says Pushpavalli. “All the lands are lying unused. Nobody is growing anything anymore,” she says.

“And nobody is buying either,” adds Kannan.

“If our village was on the side of the highway we could have sold our land for something,” he says.

At the corner of his land, is a granite quarry. The quarry which Kannan says is owned by a Rajasthani, has been meeting its water demand by buying water from tankers like Ramesh’s.

Kannan says he is not so sure if the quarry has had an effect on his own water fortunes. But Kannan has been mulling his move away from the land for some time now.

“We know nothing else but farming. What are we to do?” he asks. “With no water to grow crops who will buy our land?”

Kannan is not alone in harbouring such thoughts.

Inauspicious Sights: Joseph

“I used to have 300 coconut trees here,” says 58-year-old Joseph C of Krishnarayapuram village on the other side of the Achumangalam lake a few kilometres away from Kannan’s house.

“Now I am left with 125. Every year, more and more trees are being lost. With land drying up, how can they survive?” he asks.

“If it doesn’t rain this year, half of these trees will also be gone,” he says.

While the coconut trees dotted the borders of his farm land, it was paddy which grew in between.

“Our well, which was our source of water dried up and soon paddy had to be given up.”

Joseph and his family have worked on the land for 47 years. It was Joseph who looked after the land after his father’s death at a young age. He brought up his siblings himself and even got a younger brother to become a government school teacher.

“All from this land,” he says somewhat proudly. “It is sad to see these dried and dead coconut trees so I burn away the stumps of the dead ones. It is an inauspicious sight for a farmer.”

Joseph’s neighbours though have left their lands as is, not minding the inauspiciousness.

Joseph’s land borders the Achumangalam Lake, which has an extent of 110 acres.

“The lake has had no water since 2004,” rues Joseph.

While earlier the lake would shrink during summers, now the lake itself is just a bed of wild Juliflora Prosopis plants which have thrived.

“We tried to revive it many times, but to no effect. There is no rain itself,” he says.

Joseph was one of the farmers who got electricity long before electricity run pumps became the norm. But that has not saved him from the ignominy of having to leave his lands fallow now.

“It was in 1980 that we got electricity connection for irrigation. For thirty years almost, there were no issues. I used to grow maize and rice.”

But by 2006, the well having dried up along with the lake, and Joseph dug his first borewell.

“It was 500 feet deep,” he says. But that dried up fast. “In 2017 we dug a second borewell which was 900 feet deep.” Reworking the first one had not worked.

“Now that too has dried up. So we are deepening it. It is only meant for domestic use and for keeping the cattle.”

The dried coconut trees are an inauspicious sight for a farmer, says Joseph C
The dried coconut trees are an inauspicious sight for a farmer, says Joseph CPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

Another reason why Joseph has chosen to leave his land fallow is the lack of returns that farming has been giving. His only son, now working in a nearby town, Joseph says he can survive with the cattle providing an additional income.

His son’s wife and their two children live with them in the village.

“They are thinking of moving to the town,” says Joseph when alone. “What is the point of living here?” he asks.

The fields which grew paddy once, lay fallow and Joseph’s own house does not even have access to the road. A point he stresses on as the reason why they cannot just sell everything off and leave.

While his father passed on six acres, partition amongst the siblings has meant that each got two acres of land per head. With no water, the two acres are good for nothing and Joseph and his son no longer look at it as a viable prospect.

“For now they are all staying here,” he says about his son’s family. “We cannot afford town as of now.”

But town might be where the family would head to, sooner than later, he admits.

No End In Sight

According to Palar, who has been in the business of digging borewells for more than three decades, there is no end in sight as yet to the borewell obsession.

“When I started, we used to dig using chains,” says Palar. “At that time 400 to 450 feet were considered formidable depths.” But that changed with the advent of mechanised boring.

“For some years now, the depths have been increasing by 200 feet every year. And people are finding water lesser each day. We don’t know where it is going to end. If earlier it was for farm irrigation that borewells were predominantly dug, today, the purpose of digging borewells has also changed.”

Now people dig borewells more for personal use, says Palar
Now people dig borewells more for personal use, says PalarPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

“More and more people are digging borewells for personal use alone. The reason is simple - there is not sufficient water to be found for personal use even. So naturally farm irrigation is out of the question. I have dug borewells to the depths of 1600 feet even. There was no water still. What else do we do?” he asks.

Simon, in his twenties, who works as Palar’s driver and help, has a much touted solution to offer.

“You link the rivers and all these problems goes away. Water is being wasted by being allowed to run off to the sea. Government should do that,” says Simon.

“Otherwise, people here will all be forced to move out. What is the need of living here?” he asks.

A new borewell being dug on what is essentially a flood plain
A new borewell being dug on what is essentially a flood plainPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

In the next part of the series The Lede looks into how climate change has accentuated the crisis created by borewells sucking groundwater and running dry one after the other.

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