Dividing land as the generations go along has meant that farming is no longer as profitable
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.
40-year-old Ramaswamy Chinnaiyan of Ennegole Pudur village in Krishnagiri district inherited two acres of rich rain-fed land from his father.
While he has been farming for 15 years now, his fortunes have changed like none before him.
Reason? He has sufficient water to irrigate the entire two-acre stretch of land.
“While earlier rain fed pearl millet, maize and some paddy were grown, now I grow two crops of paddy every year,” says Ramaswamy.
The source of his prosperity is the Thenpennaiyar river which flows almost half a kilometre away from his land. But unlike many in his village, he has access to the water.
“I bought access to a land just next to the river which had electricity connection in 2006 for Rs 70,000,” says Ramaswamy. “This was apart from the expenses for motor and laying of pipes to bring water this far.”
This has meant that while those dependent on rain water and borewells face winter shortages (when streams dry up after the monsoon is over), Ramaswamy has none of those issues.
“In my grandfather’s and father’s time the river would dry up in winter,” says Ramaswamy.
“But with water from the dam being released periodically, the river now can be depended on to irrigate the fields.”
This has naturally resulted in evergreen fields on either banks of the river alone in a village which is otherwise reeling under climate change, drought and failed borewells.
“Paddy is otherwise sown on all lands in the village during the rains, while in winter only two or three plots grow paddy now.” Ramaswamy’s is one of those.
“Most of the people do not have enough land to be able to do what I have done profitably,” says Ramaswamy about the others with land on the river banks.
“Partition has also reduced their landholdings considerably. Access to water is the most important factor. If you see, even the land lying next to mine, though it is closer to the river comparatively, they don’t have access to water still.”
The land on which is placed Ramaswamy’s motor too is one such small landholding. The small size, Ramaswamy says, makes the farming too focused on subsistence unlike his own which is a mixture of subsistence and cash oriented.
Ramaswamy, had till recently too plied his two auto rickshaws in the village. But stretched between his very successful farming and the need to pay daily wages to an auto driver who according to him was slack in his job meant he sold them off last year.
“It was too much headache for nothing,” he says.
But the real reason was the bumper crop he has discovered in recent years - rearing African catfish.
While rearing fish in what is otherwise a water scarce village should be surprising, Ramaswamy has successfully allotted almost 40 cents of land to raise African catfish in two separate plots lying side by side - a luxury, given the water requirements and alarming because of the virulent variety of fish he is rearing.
“The fish finds takers from Maharashtra,” says Ramaswamy. “They themselves give us the seed fish and transport them back live.”
The standing waters on the paddy fields and fish ponds have further led to standing waters in the well too. This, in a village where most farmers otherwise do not have water in their 1000 feet borewells.
Ramaswamy is clear as to the reason behind his relative prosperity both compared to many of his own villagers as well as his ancestors.
“In my grandfather’s time we were dependent on rains alone. In my father’s time, we moved to well irrigation. While everyone in my generation went for bore irrigation, I was lucky to put my bet on access to sufficient river water. Bores are never able to provide sufficient water year around and need further investments frequently. It has worked out well for me,” he admits. “I am happy with what I have.”
In sharp contrast to Ramaswamy, Rani Ponnuswami and many others of Bheemandapalli have seen a reversal of fortunes with the stream which once carried water almost all through the year having dried up completely.
“We were earlier dependent on the check dam for farming,” says 45-year-old Rani Ponnusamy of Oddur village in Bheemandapalli.
“The stream has now dried up almost permanently because of no rain,” says Rani. “With the stream drying up, the groundwater levels have gone down. Even until 10 years back, the wells here had water and we grew crops all around the year. But with changing climate, we are seeing less rains now. And more importantly, no water in the stream.”
Rani, whose husband died three years back, has a total landholding of two acres, similar to what Ramaswamy owns, but unlike Ramaswamy, Rani’s land has been left fallow with no water to irrigate with. Farming is not the only means of income the water shortage has put to an end.
“I used to keep 2 cows earlier. Now I have just the one. Left with no water or grass to feed the cattle, I sold one off,” she says. Her attempts to find water are a long story too.
“We dug the first borewell 20 years back. All the brothers combined. It was reworked up to 800 feet deep. But the water still dried up. Eight years back we dug one more. That didn’t find water at all. A few years back I myself dug a borewell covering all the expenses,” she says, removing the stone covering a now defunct borewell not very far from the dry well which had been passed on through generations.
“Our land is right next to the stream and the check dam. Yet we have no water in our wells or borewells. What can we do?” she asks.
“All of our land is now lying fallow for many years now,” she says.
Rani is surviving on remittances from her two sons, one of whom is serving in the army and the other working in Bangalore.
72-year-old Vedayappan also owns two acres of land in Oddur. His field too was a paddy field many years back.
“30-35 years back, we used to grow two crops of paddy here,” says Vedayappan. “Then everything dried up. We did try growing thuvarai (tur dal) as grass for cattle,” he says. “We also tried finding water by digging two borewells but to no effect. With no water and farming, I have sold the two cattle I owned three years back.”
And with no cattle needing to be fed, his land now lies fallow. His two sons, one of whom studied till 8th standard and the other till 7th, found work elsewhere. Having married off his daughter, Vedayappan too occasionally finds work as a loading worker on palm plantations near Bangalore.
“Loaders like me make Rs 500 a day, while those who climb trees earns up to Rs 1000 a day,” he says. One of his two sons is a palm climber and lives separately. The other, he says, is in the military.
With no sources of water to rely on, Vedayappan is totally dependent on the water tankers which distribute Cauvery water, a name referring to the far away source of water for the tankers which bring water to his village.
“We have been dependent on tankers for almost 10 years now,” he says. “They give us six pots of water per house. We have to manage everything with that. So naturally, farming is out of the question.”
37-year-old Kalai Mani who owns one acre of land near the stream in Oddur village has been herding goats for the past six years. While he had not so long ago owned 50 coconut trees, just 10 of them remain.
“The land has dried up,” says Kalai Mani. “Earlier the stream close by used to have water. Around 13 years back the stream dried and after that, people like me have been left with nothing. Many dug borewells trying to find water. I could never arrange that kind of money and hence didn’t even try.”
Kalai Mani’s land which is lower than most fields around his has been left fallow for many years now. On it grows thin and wiry eucalyptus grandis trees - a variety known for sucking dry even the marshiest swamps and in good pace.
“Earlier I tried ragi depending on the rains for water. When that was not possible I left the field fallow. It was the government officers who gave me the saplings saying I will get good money if I sell the trees and that they don’t need water. Even the trees haven’t done any better.”
Neither have the officers come back, offering money.
Kalai Mani lives with his wife, mother and two children. He feeds them by grazing the 17 goats he has.
“A kid would fetch me anywhere from Rs 3000 to Rs 5000,” he says. “A full grown goat can get anywhere from Rs 7000 to Rs 8000. We make a living with them,” he says.
Apart from the goats what keeps the family running are the work he and his wife find under MNREGA.
“It earns us anywhere from Rs 150 to Rs 190,” he says. “We get 100 days of work in total. It helps us stay alive. Even 20 years back, we used to grow betel and rice on our lands. Now we are left with nothing but the 100 days of work and few goats,” says Kalai Mani.
The change in fortune for former farmers like Rani, Vedayappan and Kalai Mani is even starker given how they have gone down in their social standing.
With the streams and rivers drying up, the traditional water sources which still have not dried up have gained in further significance. Partition of lands has also made water management difficult for the later generations, causing them to incur losses even when avoidable.
60-year-old Ganeshan’s well in Oddur village has water still. His is one of the few to still have water.
With the water available to him, Ganeshan is supposed to be better off compared to most of the other villagers, in theory at least.
Hailing from a large land owning family in a previous generation, Ganeshan’s well is divided up between him and his relatives which is what makes the well’s wellbeing and what uses that the water is put to, contentious.
“I am growing paddy in less than an acre of my land,” says Ganeshan.
Asked why paddy was being grown despite a seasonally drying well which was the sole source of water, he points towards his cousin brother working in his own field nearby and says, “You should ask him. He should be able to answer.” The spite in his answer suggested a tiff.
“I tell but nobody listens,” he said loudly.
41-year-old Venkateshan, Ganeshan’s cousin brother, also grows paddy on 70 cents of his total share of three acres. When asked why the two were growing paddy, a water intensive crop, Venkateshan demurred and said, “I have work in my field. You better talk to him only.”
Venkateshan refused to be photographed.
Ganeshan meanwhile egged him to speak up, a little rudely at times.
“I am leaving half of my land fallow and growing paddy,” complains Ganeshan again, still a bit hung over from an afternoon drink.
His two sons, Ganapathy, 27, and Manikandan, 25, become restless seeing their father irked and complaining still and tell him to calm down, the elder one, not so politely.
On the field nearby still stand remnant stalks from a previous crop – avarai, flat beans.
“We tried avarai,” says Ganeshan pointing to the now fallow land. “But because of shortage of water, it dried. Because it rained last year, our well has some water still. And that water is going into growing paddy. I understand it is not the wise thing to do. But these people do not understand. The paddy has reached 90 days of growth now and needs two more months for harvest. We are putting our trust in the rains,” says Ganeshan.
“If it doesn’t rain soon, the entire crop may wilt and dry. Once the well dries, we have nothing left to throw at.”
The paddy crop itself would not fetch Ganeshan enough to sell.
“If the yield is good, we may get anywhere from 500 kg to one tonne of rice. We have to share it with 25 people. What will be left to sell?” he asks rhetorically, still unable to hide his feelings.
In one portion of the two acres that Ganeshan and his two sons have inherited, also stands wilted brinjal.
“Earlier the entire stretch of our land had mango and sapotta trees,” says Manikandan, Ganeshan’s son.
Manikandan, like his elder brother Ganapathy, is a truck driver having taken to the profession five years back. While Ganapathy studied till 11th standard, Manikandan stopped studies in 10th itself. The undivided landholding which their extended family once owned collectively, he says, had almost 3000 trees.
“With no rains for many years, all trees started dying one by one and we removed whatever remained to clear our stretch of the land so as to grow something else. The thing with mango is that you get income only once a year. It is okay when you have a large stretch of land as it is money earned with no expenditure. But with smaller landholdings, short duration crops earn us more. Also, with short duration crops you have chances of earning more number of times.”
But their crop of brinjal was not promising any earnings.
“We bought bad seeds,” he says. “They have thorns. We didn’t know. We have stopped watering them now. Most have disease too. For seven years we had no rain or water and had stopped farming altogether. It was only for the last two years that the well has water. So we have started trying again.”
Meanwhile near their well, another set of Ganeshan’s relatives were using a hired diesel motor to pump water to their field further away.
“We didn’t try digging borewells,” says Ganeshan. “It will cost us almost Rs 2 lakh and there is no surety of finding water too. Many of our neighbours tried and failed.”
His two sons have taken loans from local money lenders to finish a two storeyed house though.
Both still unmarried, in front of the newly built house are parked the trucks they drive as also vehicles driven by the many similarly employed neighbours.
“None of it is ours,” says Ganesh pointing to the vehicles and posing in front of his house. “Until recently we had been living in a dilapidated thatched house,” says Manikandan with a little pride about how they have restored their house to match their former glorious past.
Walking back, Ganeshan points to the vast stretch of land on either side of the unpaved dust road and says, “All of this was ours in my grandfather’s time.”
With newer opportunities and further fragmentations on the anvil, dependence on farming was wearing off.
Neither of Ganeshan’s sons looks at farming as a viable option to meet their needs. A further partition awaits them still.
Except for the farmers whose next generation found timely and adequate employment in other sectors, the rest find themselves helpless and reeling acutely under the dual effects of failing ground water sources and changing weather patterns, putting them at a double disadvantage.
Partition and the subsequent fragmentation is the third factor.
In the next part of the series, The Lede looks into how the craze for borewells and their failures have enforced a change in equations and perceptions in the villages.
Read the first part of the series here.