A well in disuse
A well in disuse|Photo credit: Jeff Joseph
Tamil Nadu

Part 3: Why Farmers Are Shifting Professions

Tales of how water scarcity is transforming lives in villages in Tamil Nadu

Jeff Joseph

Jeff Joseph

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.

“Before everyone in the village dug borewells, there was sufficient water here,” says 55-year-old Samraj C of Karkilnathom village in Krishnagiri district.

“Now there is no water to grow anything,” he says. The village and his families’ ancestral lands had enough water earlier to support two crops of rain-fed paddy in his childhood, he claims.

“Now we grow nothing at all.”

Samraj and his wife, Lakshmi, now herd goats for a living. Their son meanwhile is looking for jobs elsewhere in towns. A daughter, now married, has moved out.

Their lands have been left fallow in what he says was the end of a long drawn out struggle with farming.

“About 10 years back we turned to ragi when the water shortage began,” he says. And just before this shift, he grew banana - a water intensive crop, a practice common amongst farmers who had water. But successive crop failures led to change in practices.

From paddy, banana and ragi, Samraj C shifted to tur dal in an attempt to procure feed for the animals.
From paddy, banana and ragi, Samraj C shifted to tur dal in an attempt to procure feed for the animals. Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

“We have dug four borewells till now,” says Lakshmi, Samraj’s wife, about their long toil. “The first bore was 700 feet deep and the second one was 770 feet. Once that dried up, we dug a third one which was 900 feet deep,” she recounts. “Three years back that too dried up and we dug the most recent one which is 850 feet deep.”

What tempted the family to go in for a fourth borewell in their two acre stretch of land were the promising rains three years back.

“When we received rains, we planted paddy,” she says. “But there were no further rains and the borewell had dried up already. Seeing the land drying up, we borrowed money and dug a new borewell,” says Lakshmi.

This was the family’s desperate attempt to save their paddy which was nearing harvest and redeem their fortunes. Redemption never came.

“Even the new borewell failed to find any water. It was just a waste of money. With everyone putting three to four borewells all around, the fields have all dried up.”

“Now even the new borewells seldom find any water,” says Lakshmi
“Now even the new borewells seldom find any water,” says Lakshmi Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

“In the entire village here, only three houses have borewells which still have water,” says Samraj. “When I was a child, these fields used to grow paddy. Now we grow nothing at all,” he says.

“35 to 40 years back, we used to grow paddy and vegetables here depending on the seasonal rains and water from the well,” says Periyapappa in her 70s, Samraj’s mother. “The wells had water all year back then.”

Today, the well with its steps to go down, lies deserted.

The stone pillars on which were mounted the cattle-driven watering mechanisms also lay in disuse. The cut stones loosely hold together what was once the cornerstone of all farming activity.

The fall in water has seen a change in fortune for other farmers in Samraj’s village too.

“Many have taken to newer professions to support themselves,” says Samraj. “We are still in the village because of the goats. Others leave the village to find daily wage jobs. Masonry, loading, unloading work and helping in hotels and highway dhabas - people are doing anything they can find just to survive,” says Samraj.

Samraj’s foray into goat herding, he says, took off because he went into it earlier than others.

“We sold all the cattle and bought five goats,” says Samraj. Now his goat pen has more than 30 goats. The reason why they took to goats was also water.

“It was impossible to keep cattle,” says Periyapappa. “With no water anywhere, there is no grass to feed them. Moreover, with no rice being grown, we don’t have fodder either. We have to buy everything. Who can afford that?” she asks.

The goats meanwhile have a ready market for its meat. “The kids fetch us Rs 2000 to Rs 3000 and full grown ones get up to Rs 5000 per goat,” says Samraj.

But it is becoming difficult for them to maintain even the goats.

“We feed them straw and take them to graze in the wild,” says Lakshmi. “It was easier till a few seasons back,” she says.

But with continued water scarcity, farmers no longer grow anything at all.

“The forest lands in the area are also reducing.”

Their own attempts to raise thuvarai or tur dal, which can be used to feed goats and cattle, having failed, they are growing dependent on buying feed.

“With common land being given away to companies and construction activities undertaken, our grazing lands are getting farther too,” says Lakshmi.

Their village being a few kilometres away from the National Highway, the peripheral forest lands falling closer to the roads have all but been lost.

The imports of many private companies who are being allotted land in the vicinities of the highway are an added problem for Samraj and Lakshmi.

“The lands where buildings have been coming up were where we used to take our goats to graze earlier,” says Lakshmi. “Now we have to travel far. It gets late by the time we come back,” she says.

Water is not their only problem. Even the new profession they had been growing accustomed to seems to be slipping away.

If it was goats that Samraj C found as a way out of farming, many have been forced to find other ways to feed their family.

Four Borewells And No Water

“It was in my fifth bore that we found water,” says 50-year-old Madhamma of Chendrayagoundanoor.

“Earlier we used motors which ran on diesel to pump water. Now we have electric motors,” she says. “It was around 15 years back that the well permanently dried up.”

The drying up of wells, farmers all concur, coincided with the rise of the borewell technology.

Madhamma and her husband have dug 5 bore wells before finding water
Madhamma and her husband have dug 5 bore wells before finding water Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

“At that time, we used to grow coconut and marigold by paying for water from the neighbour who had a borewell. Then we dug a borewell ourselves. Then another. This continued for five borewells. In two of them, we didn’t even find water. Others have water when it rains. But rains too have been harder to come by. The bore we are using now is 770 feet deep. An earlier one which is 850 feet deep is still dry. One never knows where we will find water. My husband is working as a mason and my son is working in a hotel. That is how we are running things.”

Madhamma has a total land of five acres and is among those with a higher land holding in the village. But yet, water scarcity has pushed her and her family to searching for other sources of income.

She is not alone. Raguna Sundhareshan who now works as an agricultural labourer has a similar story to tell.

One Acre And Four Borewells

“I have only one acre of land. But in trying to grow crops on our land, we have ended up digging four borewells. While two have water seasonally, the other two are totally dry,” says Raguna.

The land she owns was also bought by her after her marriage. Her husband had no properties and farmland seemed a good bet, she says. With the well drying up, a borewell seemed the natural course of action.

“It cost us Rs 1,75,000 to dig our last borewell. We found water after digging to 1200 feet. Our earlier borewell was 850 feet deep. Yet the result was the same.”

“I am working here in someone else’s field to pay off the debts incurred,” says Raguna Sundhareshan
“I am working here in someone else’s field to pay off the debts incurred,” says Raguna Sundhareshan Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

“I took loan from the Sangam and now it has become difficult to pay back. We are not doing any farming anymore. I still keep two cows. It is getting difficult to get them fodder and grass to feed. A bundle of hay lasts 2-3 days and we have to spend Rs 250 for that too. We had become dependent on borewells for the past 10 years. But now even the borewells have no water. Farming is badly affected. If you look around, you will see a lot of fields have been left dry. Had we had water, we would have grown something.”

Her work as a labourer earns her Rs 200 a day. While her husband she says earns around Rs 400.

Their attempts to keep alive their investment and get returns by digging obsessively have seen them getting indebted further.

Rathna, a daily wager now working on other people’s fields where she finds work occasionally, also has a similar story to share. Her husband working as a labourer finds work in the construction industry in the nearby towns while their one acre land lies fallow.

“We cannot grow anything without rain,” says Rathna.
“We cannot grow anything without rain,” says Rathna. Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

“If there is water in the river, the bores might also have water. Will the government build canals to bring us water here?” she asks expectantly. “That could change our fortune,” she says, as she harvests ragi.

The ragi, though a hardy crop which used to be grown rain-fed, is being grown with borewell supplied water today.

While those whose borewells have dried up have shifted to other areas or employment, it is those with water in their borewells still who fuel the race to the bottom resulting in the dried up aquifers.

The Borewell With Water: Race To The Bottom

42-year-old Samraj A owns three acres of land and is one of the only three in his village to still have water in his borewell. But he does not have enough to grow on the entirety of his land.

“Earlier, we used to grow rice and maize – two crops a year. Now I grow rain fed thuvarai (tur dal) and kadalai (groundnut) in a major portion as the water is not sufficient.”

He has been luckier with his borewells. But luck has more to do with his family’s comparative financial well-being too, say others.

Samraj’s father was in the military and he got a slight push ahead because of the capital base, something which has determined the depth of his borewells, say villagers. But the depths of his borewells suggest there is not much of a difference.

Samraj A is one of the only three in his village to still have water in his borewell
Samraj A is one of the only three in his village to still have water in his borewell Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

“Our first borewell was dug in 2005. It was 500 feet deep,” says Samraj. “Then once it dried up, we dug a new one two years back. It is 1000 feet deep.”

While he is aided by the fact that his land is more favourably placed, his own farmlands have no water of their own.

“I have put pipes to carry water to the fields from the borewell at home,” he says. Without them, he is no different from the rest.

“Only those with electricity can farm using borewell. Using diesel generators is not feasible,” he acknowledges the other privilege he holds.

“Others have to leave their fields like this,” he says, pointing to the fallow farmlands lying around his.

“There is no rain. Those with water grow crops. Farmers are hence leaving farming and joining the workforce for daily wages.”

Objectively speaking, Samraj is just one borewell away from seeing his fields dry up. But in the eyes of the other farmers who are forced to leave their fields fallow, Samraj is the one they all aspire to be.

And it is the demonstration effect that farmers like Samraj A, who with their working borewells and relative prosperity which influence many others to obsessively dig to the depths.

This in essence is fuelling the race to the bottom, to find water, to revive their farms and to find prosperity once again.

Meanwhile, while most former farmers of Kirkilnathom and Chendrayagoundanoor have become indebted by the borewell gamble which did not pay off and reduced to daily wages, the former daily wagers like Samadi find themselves relatively better off compared to their own past generations.

A Labourer Then, A Labourer Now

“We have always been labourers,” says Samadi. “My father and grandfather too were labourers.”

Samadi collectively owns an acre of land which is partitioned among his brothers and a few cousins. The landholding being miniscule, farming was never an option. Samadi belongs to the Scheduled Caste category and had a lower standing in a village which is predominantly made up of Most Backward Castes and Backward Classes.

His non-dependence on farming meant that he was saved the debt and agony that came attached with the borewell explorations that many of his richer and better off villagers saw themselves pursuing obsessively for the past few decades.

Samadi is today thankful for that.

“They live in bigger houses and all. But all are under debt,” says Samadi.
“They live in bigger houses and all. But all are under debt,” says Samadi. Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

“I have no debt. Zero,” he says. “I am happy with what I have.”

While his only son, a 6th standard dropout, works as an electric linesman, he has married off his daughter who has studied up to 12th.

Just as the farmers were pursuing borewells in a chase to self-destruction, Samadi had found other jobs as a daily wager outside the village. This in essence, he says, meant that he was not dependent on the villagers for a living anymore, another first for his family.

“I work as labourer assisting masons, earning Rs 450 a day. Masons earn Rs 550 a day.”

And it is the moving away of the former agricultural labourers like Samadi that many farmers blame for the rising wages which is affecting farming practices in turn.

Compared to the former farmers of the village, Samadi is relatively better off today. Though he lives in a smaller house and has a lesser standing in the society, he is debt free and content.

“I have no debts. Many farmers here have got into debt trying to dig borewells and find water. They live in bigger houses and all. But all are under debt,” he says.

With his son now entering a more organised job, Samadi is happier.

But with the village wild lands shrinking and the reserved forests no longer rich with wild grass to graze, Samidi has leased out a fallow piece of land and has sown grass on it.

And on this he grazes his two cows. The plight of his former “masters” has not befallen Samadi and he acknowledges it.

“We have lived within our means,” he says, seated on the leased land looking after his cattle.

“They get jobs easily,” remarks a farmer when asked how those like Samadi who live in settlements still outside the village boundaries were doing.

Although the economic and occupational differences are wearing down, some tensions seem inevitable.

The Lede
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