From banning borewells to switching crop habits, experts advocate drastic policy interventions
In the concluding part of the series, The Lede speaks to experts to understand the problems faced by farmers of Tamil Nadu, why they find themselves where they are and what the way ahead should look like.
“Rainfall patterns have changed across Tamil Nadu,” says Dr Jayshree Vencatesan of Care Earth, a non-profit focused on conservation, when asked about why farmers are increasingly finding themselves strained.
“The uncertainties have increased and the farmers are increasingly unable to cope with these changes.”
“If you study closely, geo-hydrologically Tamil Nadu is what can be called a water starved state,” says Nambi Appadurai who is the Director (Climate Resilience Practice) for the World Resources Institute, India (WRI India). “On top of that there has been erratic monsoon for the past 10 years. Adding to the problems is the unpredictability of north-east monsoons which give rains in Tamil Nadu. Over the years, we have been seeing a pattern where quantity of rain has not reduced but the way the rainfall is distributed has differed vastly. For some years now we have been having deficit rainfall but with the occasional spike too. Suffice to say, rainfall distribution is not what it used to be,” he says.
“Farming as an activity needs rains to be received at specified stages of cropping. For example, rainfall is needed before the weeding and sowing is undertaken. But at the same time, rainfall during harvest can have disastrous consequences. Rains at the right time is what farmers need,” says Nambi.
“But with farmers still following the age old cycles of cropping, the dependence on rainfall as a determining phenomenon is still very high,” says Dr Indumathi M Nambi, Professor, IIT Madras.
“The changes in rainfall patterns means that the traditional cycles of agriculture, on which the farmers have grown dependent on are being thrown out of place,” says Nambi. “This is why changes in rainfall patterns are affecting the farmers so badly.”
“There is a need for changing the water management strategies to adapt to the changing times,” opines Dr Indumathi M Nambi.
But the present water management strategy of farmers is to depend on borewells to tide over any shortages in rainfall, a trend which has resulted in ever deepening holes in the ground.
“Small and medium farmers try to mimic their bigger neighbours who might have found water and try to find water by digging deep,” says Dr Indumathi M Nambi, Professor, IIT Madras. “There is a trend of farmers digging half a dozen and more borewells, going deeper each time, all in search of water,” she says.
“It is like having one glass of Pepsi and putting in too many straws and expecting to get an unlimited supply. How can anyone get anything if it has been extracted already?” she asks. “Groundwater has to be seen as a bank. Unless you deposit something into it, there wouldn’t be anything for you to draw from. As of now, individual farmers have no requirements or caps when it comes to use of borewells. Only large apartment complexes and industries have been mandated the need to get permissions before drilling borewells. This has to be changed. There should be regulations for borewells meant to be used by individual farmers as well. Farmers are even selling their ground water freely.”
“Farmers started selling water for the easy money they brought in,” says Dr Jayshree Vencatesan.
“I have come across colleges having agreements with farmers in the surrounding villages to provide them with water. And farmers realising that they can just sit at home and make money with little efforts opt for such arrangements. What will they do when the borewells dry up?” she asks.
“Borewells acted as an equaliser temporarily, for a brief point of time,” says Dr Indumathi M Nambi. “But with groundwater going deeper, again, the rich farmers are the only ones benefitting from borewells now,” she says.
And the richer ones in the villages are the ones selling water and in turn transforming into businessmen themselves.
“The net outcome for the farmer is that they have lost the traditional agricultural wisdom which has also in a way become redundant and at the same time, farmers haven’t adopted modern systems which require very less water either,” opines Dr Jayshree Vencatesan. “They are caught up in between. In a way, everyone has failed the farmer, including the farmer himself,” she says.
Aided by the new found availability of water, farmers started opting for crops which they otherwise would not have cultivated. This promoted risky behaviour and the changes in cropping patterns they brought about has not helped the farmers in the long run.
“When water became abundant with the advent of borewells, farmers became greedy,” says Dr Indumathi. “They opted to grow sugarcane and paddy. There should have been caps on water extraction itself. But it didn’t happen,” she says.
“The unscrupulous use of water by farmers hasn’t helped their cause in the long run,” says Dr Jayshree Vencatesan. “They have grown reliant on water guzzling crops like paddy, banana and sugarcane for a very long time now. There are many reasons behind it, from the assured minimum support price (MSP), to the commercial nature of a crop like say paddy which can be used for multiple exchanges.”
But with increased water scarcity, many cycles of such crops have been lost, further indebting the farmers.
“As long as the market price for the water intensive crops are high, the farmers will always opt to grow them,” says Arivudai Nambi Appadurai. “Sometimes it is understandable that they are trying to get out of their debts by doing this,” he says.
“But there is an element of greediness guiding such behaviour to a certain extent too. So unless there are very stringent systems put in place, this will not just stop on its own. Behavioural changes which are needed to effect such a shift would need to be looked into seriously. Overall, it is much like the situation that we find ourselves in today because of COVID-19. Though not everyone can afford to sit at home, it has to be done. The need for behavioural changes of farmers is at a similar critical juncture.”
“There have not been sufficient efforts to control behaviour such as opting of water intensive crops by farmers,” says Kalpana Ramesh, a water conservationist from Hyderabad. “Free power has contributed heavily to promoting such behaviours instead. Bigger farmers benefit more from the free electricity. But it doesn’t end there,” she says.
“It also promotes a culture of dependence on borewells. This further percolates down to the small and marginal farmers as well.”
“When it comes to farmers’ behaviour, there are sociological drivers which also require accommodating for,” says Nambi Appadurai. “Tamil Nadu being a rice eating state, there is a certain pride and status associated with paddy,” he says.
“But it is imperative that farmers are made aware of the fact that just because they own a well doesn’t mean they can keep on drawing all the water to grow whatever they want,” opines Dr Indumathi.
“The marginal farmers in particular exhibit some very high risk behaviours,” says Dr Jayshree Vencatesan. “They will take loans and grow paddy in fields not suited for paddy and with no assurance of water availability. Then they will dig to the bottom of the earth or demand that water be brought from the Ganges. They don’t realise the risks involved. They think of the rewards, the best case scenarios. One of the reasons why they think so is because of the desperate situation they find themselves in. They have also in a way lost their ability to take decisions with all the debts piling up,” she says.
The piling debts and failing crops have ruined livelihoods of many farmers who are now being forced to change their occupations too.
“Farmers with landholdings less than two acres have traditionally too opted for migration or working in multiple jobs as a means to mitigate their dependency on a small piece of land,” says Dr Jayshree Vencatesan.
“Given the excessive reliance on farming in India, it may be the right thing to do too,” says Dr Indumathi.
“The changes in occupational pattern on a large scale really started off in Tamil Nadu in the backdrop of the post 2000 economic boom aided by the IT sector,” says Nambi Appadurai. “The accompanying opportunities in the real estate sector opened up many jobs. This saw many people move out from the villages for the higher wages these jobs offered. Another outcome of this was the shift to cash crops which was witnessed in some areas of rural Tamil Nadu. For the lower castes who had mostly had a hand to mouth existence in the past, this has had a positive impact. Those who have gone outside the villages have seen a great betterment in their conditions. So in a way it has had a positive effect on improving their conditions.
Today, with the moving out of the younger generation for employment opportunities to urban areas, more and more farmlands are being left to be looked after by the old men and women who remain in the villages. This is a widespread phenomenon in Tamil Nadu,” opines Nambi.
The shifting occupational patterns, erratic rains, the drying borewells and the demographic shifts have in turn caused a change in land use patterns.
“Most of the common property resources of the villages have been lost now,” says Nambi Appadurai. “Farming too has shifted from a communal activity towards a more individualistic approach. The dependence on borewells pushed this further. But such an individualistic approach has seen soils being depleted and risk of farming increase with the increased preference for high value crops which promoted high cost inputs. This has made farming a high risk profession and farmers are not shy of putting their lands to other uses anymore. Roadside farmlands have reflected such changes more. This is a trend which is more generally observable too.
Farmers have sold off entire stretches of lands to be converted into residential colonies, or for building shops. It has slowed down a bit. But with continued failures, where is the incentive to stick to farming anymore?” he asks.
“With changes in land use patterns and the water distress across farmlands, cattle population is also seeing a decrease,” he says.
“It is the small scale farmers who are most dependent on cattle for their livelihood,” says Nambi Appadurai. “Having cattle has an influence on the quality of soil too. With the number of cattle dwindling, the fertility of agricultural land has also seen a fall. The move away from cattle started in the 1980s because of the mechanisation of farming. Today, with the shrinking of grazing land and the land fragmentation that has been happening all around, maintaining cattle is proving difficult for farmers. So most farmers have given up cattle.”
“Climatic changes have played their part in increasing the risks in farming activities in Tamil Nadu,” says Nambi Appadurai. “To mitigate this, vulnerability studies have to be done for each hydro-ecological zones. New normals have to be established and factored into the farming practices. Focus should be more on growing traditional crops suited for the climatic conditions,” he says.
“As farmers have been finding it difficult to find water at common depths, they are going deeper each year,” says Dr Indumathi M Nambi, Professor, IIT Madras.
“The problems with depths such as 1400- 1600 feet and above is that at those depths the water that these farmers are drawing from are the fossil water,” she says. “They cannot be replenished easily. It will take millennia to recharge them even if tried. So the coming generations are going to suffer because of these actions. Digging bore wells beyond 500 feet should be banned if you ask me.”
“Water is an invisible resource as long as there is no scarcity,” says Kalpana Ramesh, a water conservationist from Hyderabad as to why banning borewells were not deemed urgent enough for so long. “Once its scarcity becomes a reality, the lack of it will have visible consequences.”
And such consequences have are becoming evident in the everyday lives of the farmers of Tamil Nadu today.
“We have passed the stage when river linkages would make any sense. It could have been done in the 1980s or 1990s,” says Nambi Appadurai. “There is a lot of support for it among farmers because it is a grand idea. But if you look at it objectively, the investments are huge but possible returns wouldn’t be commensurate. River linkages cannot just be done at a whim. The inter-relationship between the upstream and downstream areas is important to determine whether it will be functional in the long run.”
“It is simply against nature and would need a lot of investment and energy to be spend and its consequences will not be known until sometime after it is undertaken,” agrees Dr Indumathi. “Governments shouldn’t promote such ideas as solutions,” she says.
“All of us blame externalities for our own problems,” is how Dr Jayshree Vencatesan sees the famer’s demands for water. “Farmers themselves understand that the problem lies with themselves and their decision making even if they may not admit it publicly. They hold up river water linkage as a solution as it is an easy demand to make and they wouldn’t have to do anything. It is an unnatural solution and not at all a practical one. One cannot be robbing Peter to pay Paul. This cannot be a government policy.
It is easy too to blame Kerala or Karnataka for the scarcity of water in Tamil Nadu. But the need of the hour is not to think of solutions from what we could have but to instead work with what we have right now. That is what the Israelis have been doing. That should be the way ahead for Tamil Nadu too,” she says.
“Groundwater recharging has to be more widely practiced but something which is not understood very widely is that ground water recharging is not the same as capturing water on bodies like lakes and wells,” says Dr Indumathi of IIT Madras. “Effective places of recharging groundwater can be identified only by studying the underlying geology. It is something which depends on the geological structure of a place.
Impervious geology underneath will not aid in groundwater recharge even if there is a very large water body above it. It will just act as a storage tank without aiding ground water levels. These things have to be understood.
Just as drilling bore at every place will not give water, when it comes to ground water recharging, some places are more suitable than others. This is even more stark in urban areas of Tamil Nadu where, because of government mandated requirements, people build ground water recharging structures without understanding the basic concepts of how groundwater recharging works. Groundwater recharging has to be undertaken as a common investment is what I think, as a solution to this,” says Dr Indumathi.
Underground aquifers do not follow the topographical demarcations. Sometimes you may have to recharge in Kerala for Coimbatore to get groundwater. These concepts have to be understood before short sighted measures are taken.
While the ideas behind the Kudimaramathu scheme might be good, unless there is someone holding people accountable for their actions, and special care given to ensure groundwater recharging as opposed to just cleaning water bodies, it will not be effective in recharging groundwater.”
But the problems with Kudimaramathu as alleged by farmers in not only limited to their groundwater recharging capabilities. Allegations of corruption and a top down approach have been widely raised by villagers.
“It is truly a top down approach rather it ought to be bottom up approach which is the very principle of Kudimaramathu,” says Dr Ramaswamy Sakthivadivel who has studied the Kudimaramathu activities undertaken in Tamil Nadu in depth.
“Implementation of Kudimaramathu scheme is under the control of Assistant Engineer or Assistant Executive Engineer (AE/AEE) of that area. He in consultation with political bigwigs of that area and selects a contractor.
The contractor and the AE/AEE are the main ones to select WUA’s (Water Users Association) members for just name’s sake to complete the formalities. Once this is accomplished, it is the work of the contractor under the control of AE/AEE. Village politics also play a role in selecting members of WUAs.”
This, the villagers have alleged, is why the activities though they look good on paper, does nothing for them.
“Hydrologic endowment should form the basis for selection of tanks for Kudimaramathu,” says Dr Ramaswamy Sakthivadivel. “This is not fully adhered to. Kudimaramathu has been treated as heavy maintenance work rather than to augment tank storage. Therefore, Kudimaramathu has become a piece-meal work rather than to increase the storage capacity of hydrologically endowed tanks,” says Dr Sakthivadivel.
“Accounting in many cases are flawed because the contractor has to account for the leakages through the works carried out. Collusion between contractor and the monitoring officials also leads to inflated figures. The removal of earth within the tank bed is also not done properly in many Kudimaramathu tanks resulting in water stagnating in the borrow pits and ultimately evaporating.
The fundamental issue in TN is water shortage. With vagaries of monsoon due to climate change and altering of the land use of tank catchment areas due to population growth, the water coming to tanks goes on decreasing. If we know how much water we will likely get during a drought year, a normal year and a high rainfall year, then we can plan accordingly. Otherwise, the ground water will continue to be mined and many aquifers will become over exploited; affecting drinking and livestock water.
So micro level planning with close involvement of farming community is essential. Once planning is done, the planned activities need to be implemented by the farmers committee.
NGOs can play a vital role and the government should act as facilitator rather than being the implementer. The whole institutional set up for tank maintenance and management has to be recast to make it people centered work rather than government work,” says Dr Ramaswamy Sakthivadivel on how to transform the scheme so as to make effective.
“With landholdings becoming smaller every year, cooperative farming should have a greater role to play in the days ahead,” says Dr Indumathi M Nambi of IIT Madras. “Right now, even though agricultural universities are bringing newer developments, the farmers aren’t nimble enough to adopt them on time. Maybe the entry of businessmen into farming can encourage or fasten these changes. Again to reiterate, farming as a cooperative activity needs to be more popular. Water is a common property resource and hence farming should also be done so.
A lot of redundant investments, say for example in the case of multiple individually dug borewells, motors and pipes, can be cut down if entire villages came together and undertook farming as one unit.
Better equipment can be brought and better monitoring mechanisms can be put in place if such changes are adopted. The issue of loans and debts incurred in subsequent cycles can also be brought down which will also reduce the tendencies of farmer’s suicides,” she says.
“One cannot reach a singular conclusion and tout it as the solution for all the problems faced by farmers,” says Dr Jayshree Vencatesan. “The diversity in problems has to be reflected in the policies too. A singular state or national level policy will never work. There are seven agro-climatic zones in Tamil Nadu and a zonal policy would be much more effective. Policies have to go down to the level of the village.
That there are no common patterns when it comes to the problems faced by the farmers has to be the starting point for anyone trying to understand their problems and finding solutions for the multitudinous problems.”