Water scarcity causes Cauvery Delta anguish.

Cauvery Delta in Disarray

The recent decades of conflict are a departure from the durable farm practices that
That, indeed, is the situation in Venganthankusi, about 20 kilometers from Mannagurdi, and just three kilometers from the Cauvery River. The ancient irrigation canals that typically supply water to the village’s paddies have been dry all year. Rainfall is scarce. Still, villagers said nobody anticipated Vjiaykumar’s death. His friends and family said it was the first suicide in the village’s history.

In December, Tamil Nadu state officials declared that there was no direct link between the dry conditions and the spike in suicides and heart attacks. They blamed existed in central Tamil Nadu for centuries. The rich soil of the Cauvery Delta’s 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of cropland have been farmed for thousands of years, according to historians and farmers. Farm families boast that they cultivate the same ground that their ancestors did 20 generations ago.

Here in the 460,000-acre Thiruvarur District, though, farmers are far from certain that agriculture will persist much longer. Wealthier farmers, who typically cultivate 10 or more acres of rice and other crops, rely on wells to tap groundwater for irrigation. But the drought and over-pumping are lowering the water table, and in some areas allowing salty seawater to seep into aquifers.

With 50 acres under cultivation in oil palms, bamboo, cashews, eucalyptus, and rice, Varadharajan (who like other Tamils has only a single name) is among the region’s largest farmers. His family has cultivated the same ground for at least 10 generations, he said in an interview in his airy and handsome home in Mannargudi.

Everywhere he looks now, though, Varadhajaran sees trouble.

Climate change has altered the seasonal monsoons so markedly that rain no longer falls in weeklong soaks. Instead the rain, if it comes, is heavy and violent. “Our ground water is not being recharged,” he said.

The wells themselves are going dry so they need to be drilled 30 feet deeper, adding installation expenses and requiring bigger and costlier pumps. According to state hydrology maps, almost all of the delta’s groundwater reserves are overexploited or unusable because of saltwater intrusion.

Varadhajaran’s harvest, typically 1.2 metric tons of rice per irrigated acre, declined this year by 30 percent. “We’re fortunate,” he said. “We have wells. Farmers that only have river water to irrigate, they lost everything. The whole Cauvery belt is in distress.”
the deaths on a range of emotional imbalances connected to family, age, health, or lingering financial stresses.

Dr. R. Bharathiselvan said he was offended by the official statements. Cauvery farmers and their families, he said, are rugged and lean people accustomed to hard physical labor, and have very low rates of heart disease. “Stress related to ruined harvests was the cause of these deaths,” he said in an interview. “I know that. I’m this area’s only cardiologist and none of these people that died were my patients.”

A Survey’s Findings on Heart Attacks, Suicides

Dr. R. Bharathiselvan is a 59-year-old cardiologist who practices in Mannargudi, a farming city of nearly 70,000 residents. He says the drought has led sharp increases in the number of death from suicides and heart attacks. “It’s the stress of not being able to harvest a crop,” he said. Photograph © Circle of Blue / Dhruv Malhotra

Pon Chandran, a retired banker from Coimbatore and a member of the People’s Union For Civil Liberties, a 42-year-old human rights group, also took exception to the state’s effort to shift blame for the Cauvery Delta deaths. In January Chandran, his wife Thanalakshmi, a retired teacher, and 21 other PUCL activists joined Dr. Bharathiselvan in undertaking a three-day field survey of Cauvery Delta heart attacks and suicides. The researchers divided into three teams that fanned out across three delta districts to interview 25 surviving families. The results, just published, clearly show that the principal cause of the spike in mortality occurred among farmers who relied only on monsoon rains and surface water for irrigation.
Unrelenting water scarcity ruined harvests and broke the strong hearts and steadfast wills of delta farmers.

“Our state officials disowned any connection, any responsibility for this tragedy,” said Chandran, in an interview with Circle of Blue. “They said, yes there are deaths. It’s not because of the crops. People commit suicides for different reasons. If they made the connection between the distressed conditions and the deaths that would mean they accept some responsibility. At the time we did the survey there was no announcement of relief measures.”

In the weeks since the PUCL survey findings were published, Tamil Nadu changed its position. State authorities in January asked India’s Central Government for almost 400 billion rupees ($US 5.9 billion) for drought relief. Farmers have been invited to work for 150 days as government-paid laborers at 60 rupees per day (almost $US 1), 50 days more than the standard government work program for farmers. Families of suicide victims have been promised cash awards of 300,000 rupees, about $US 4,700. Rice farmers that lost one-third or more of their crop could receive 5,465 rupees ($US 85) per acre in compensation, and land taxes could be suspended.

This village’s farmers doubt they will ever receive the government assistance. “Government people will loot what comes. We’ll never get paid,” said Vijayakumar’s nephew, a 39-year-old farmer named Mahendran. His uncle, he said, needed help before he died. “Nothing like this happens here,” said Mahendran. “We have never had anything like this.”

K. Manoharan, a farmer and close friend, said Vijayakumar’s suicide had changed the village. “We are trying to be strong ourselves,” he said. “Everyone is a little afraid. My wife. She comes with me to the farm now. She never did before.”

Her eyes red from weeping, tears streaking her cheek, Vijayakumar’s wife said she never suspected her husband would take such a step. “He borrowed a lot of money last year to plant. He couldn’t pay it back,” she said through an interpreter. “There is no rain. It’s been three months without water. He was under such stress. He never showed it. He went to the farm to look. There was no crop. It was burnt. Nobody watched him until they saw him hanged in the tree.”