TAMIL NADU faces its worst drought in the last 140 years. But do we care? How can the governments remain indifferent to their biggest vote bank? Why does our increasingly shrill nationalism not extend to embrace Tamil farmers in their hour of need?
These are the questions I faced repeatedly as we travelled across seven of the worst affected districts in the state last week. Unlike the rest of the country, Tamil Nadu receives most of its rainfall during the ‘receding’ or North-East monsoon, from October to December. It failed miserably in 2016. As per official records, there was 62 per cent deficit in rainfall during the North-East monsoon. A deficit of 25 per cent is considered serious and 50 per cent is alarming. The last time the state experienced worse rainfall than this one was in 1876. The water reservoirs in the state have fallen to merely 20 per cent of their capacity. The drought has affected 21 of the 32 districts, including the ‘rice bowl’ area of the Cauvery delta, where we travelled.
Farmers’ distress was visible everywhere: large tracts of uncultivated land, dry rivers, canals and ponds, cattle trying to scrounge for remaining straw from the field. Farmers everywhere reported almost a total loss of paddy, the main crop of this season. The shock of crop loss and mounting loans has triggered a spate of farmers’ suicide, highlighted by the protest of Tamil Nadu farmers at Jantar Mantar last month. Shrinking employment opportunities in rural areas have hurt agricultural labour the most. Loss of crop also means severe shortage of fodder. Farmers are resorting to distress sale of cows and goats, as they cannot afford to feed them. Some areas are experiencing a shortage of drinking water as well. Of course, the Cauvery delta is not Bundelkhand and is nowhere close to the nutrition crisis and cattle famine that we witnessed at the border of UP and MP in 2015-16. Yet the situation can take an alarming turn in the next five months before the rains.
This is not just a natural disaster. Our travel made it clear that a good deal of farmers’ distress is due to man-made or policy-induced disaster. In the Cauvery delta region, the farmers are very badly hit by the political dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over the Cauvery waters. Without taking any side in this dispute, it is only fair to say that politicians on both ends have tried to fan emotions rather than find an amicable resolution. The tribunal has given its award, which is constitutionally binding on all parties. Yet its implementation is being delayed inordinately. Despite its high rhetoric on nationalism, the Central government has not intervened to reduce this conflict that pits two regions of the country against each other. Successive governments in Tamil Nadu have been complicit in illegal sand mining of the riverbeds, reducing the recharging of ground water. Unsuitable cropping pattern has contributed to the misuse of limited water resources. All this has contributed to the crisis situation this year.
This is when the farmers need the state. Farmers and other citizens of Tamil Nadu have good reasons to expect state action in times like this. We should not judge governance in Tamil Nadu by the low standards of the Hindi heartland. Despite its highly visible political theatrics, governments of Tamil Nadu have a much better record of social welfare schemes than the rest of the country. Midday meals began in Tamil Nadu. It is among the best performers in PDS for cheap food grain through ration shops. The tsunami relief carried out by the state government was a model of swift and efficient handling of a natural disaster. This time, sadly, the government does not seem to be living up to these expectations. In this hour of their need, the farmers of Tamil Nadu face an indifferent Central government and a paralysed state government. There is an evident lack of political will.
So far, the Centre has limited itself to some routine steps. Against an admittedly inflated demand of over Rs 40,000 crore from the National Disaster Relief Fund, the Centre has released a meager amount of around Rs 1,300 crore. While the limit of number of days of employment per family under MNREGA has been increased from 100 to 150, the overall MNREGA ‘labour budget’ of the state for this year has been cut down by the Centre by as much as 34 per cent. The Centre has done little to enforce the RBI directive that prohibits commercial banks from carrying out loan recovery during the drought period. Clearly, the weak political leadership in the state does not any longer wield the clout vis-à-vis the Centre that the state governments have had over the last two decades.
The response of the state government too leaves much to be desired. Although summer vacation has begun in schools, the Tamil Nadu Government is yet to invoke the provision of the midday meal scheme that allows the meals to be continued through the summer break in such a situation. Almost every mother of a government school-going child that we spoke to welcomed the thought of a full meal for her child during this period. But the government does not seem to agree. The state has not initiated any proactive steps to use MNREGA for drought relief. Most agricultural labourers we interacted with said they either did not have the new job cards, or were not given work. And there were scores of complaints about inordinate delays in the payment of their wages. The government has announced crop loss compensation at the usual rate. But every village that we visited complained about the compensation amount being less than officially announced. As yet, no farmer has received insurance claims. The compensation was patchy, arbitrary and often discriminatory. The state has had a fairly high coverage under the flagship crop insurance scheme, the PMFBY. And despite clear instructions to the contrary, we came across many instances of loan recovery notices being issued by commercial and cooperative banks.
Five days of listening to tales of distress and neglect can be quite depressing. But one thing kept our spirits up. Wherever we went, farmers went out of their way to welcome and host us. Everyone said they were overwhelmed to see this group of farmers and activists from the rest of the country who cared for them. They bridged the language gap to convey their emotions.
Nationalism is not about discovering an enemy outside. True nationalism is about stitching the nation together. For me this ‘farmers’ rights yatra’ in Tamil Nadu was an affirmation of this positive nationalism.
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