A woman stands with a begging bowl and a placard strung around her neck. An old man shuffles along barefoot in the street at Jantar Mantar, the official site of a farmers’ protest in the heart of New Delhi. He finds his way through a group of farmers gathered at the protest site on a hot summer afternoon. Dressed in green loincloths, they are lying motionless on the road and the footpath exhausted after their meetings with the deputy speaker of Lok Sabha M. Thambidurai, MDMK general secretary Vaiko and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi in the past few days.
These are farmers from Tamil Nadu on a protest which is in its fourth week. The drought situation on the Cauvery belt in Tamil Nadu has gone from bad to worse this year with the state witnessing the worst spell in 140 years from a poor northeast monsoon, as per the India Meteorological Department. The state government officially declared a drought in January 2017.
“The Centre has not announced a drought relief package yet despite our long-standing protest. The High Court of Tamil Nadu has issued directions to the state government to write off all agricultural loans. But we will not budge from here till the Centre hears us out,” says Sivaprakash, a farmer from Dindigul in Tamil Nadu.
Sivaprakash is a part of the group of over 100 farmers representing the ‘Desiya Thenidhiya Nathigal Inaippu Vivasayigal Sangam’ (National South Indian River Interlinking Sangam). They have been protesting at Jantar Mantar since March 14, 2017. “Hundreds of farmers have committed suicide given the drought conditions in the state which was preceded by the devastating cyclone Vardah. Even the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has sought a detailed report from the state government on this,” says Sivaprakash. Earlier in January, the NHRC had taken suo motu cognisance of the media reports on the suicide of 106 farmers in one month in Tamil Nadu.
Waiting for an ethical response
With the government unmoved by their protest, members of the Sangam resorted to skull protest to intensify their agitation. “Through our skull protest, where we are displaying the skulls of farmers who have committed suicide in the wake of the drought in the state, we are seeking a drought relief package from the Centre. The skulls we are using in the protest symbolise our fate if the state does not help us out. Debt relief is being provided to the wealthy people. What about us, the farmers who have toiled so hard?” asks P. Ayyakannu, president of the Sangam, who hails from the Tiruchirappalli district in Tamil Nadu.
The state government had in February 2017 sanctioned a drought relief package of Rs 2,247 crore for 32 lakh farmers of the state. “The state government gave Rs 3,000 each as compensation for crop losses to those who depend on seasonal rain and Rs 5,465 per acre to those who depend on irrigation. How is that enough to make up for the losses we have faced?” Ayyakannu asks. “This is highly inadequate and we demand a drought relief package of Rs 40,000 crore from the Centre,” says Saravana Kumar Vasudeva, who belongs to a farmer family in Theni, Tamil Nadu. “We also want a waiver of loans, better support price for our produce, lower input prices and above all, solutions to water scarcity in the region," says Saravana.
Natarajan who has come all the way from Karur in Tamil Nadu says, “I lost my crops to this drought and have an outstanding debt of around Rs 5 lakh from a nationalised bank. How will I repay this? I have no money left. Why can’t the government extend the waiver for loans from nationalised banks like they have done for cooperative banks?”
“We wanted to make a representation to the prime minister about the agrarian situation in Tamil Nadu but even after 28 days, our representatives have not been granted an appointment. This only shows the government's claim that it is sensitive to farmers is hollow,” says Ayakannu. “Farmers would be forced to intensify their agitation unless the issue is settled,” he adds.
Catching the people’s imagination
The farmers from the Cauvery belt have been joined by farmers from the other states in the protest. “Our livelihoods have been destroyed. To drive home this point, we are using macabre elements in the protest like skulls, rats and snakes. We are carrying begging bowls, shaving half of our heads and staging mock funerals. We even stripped in front of the prime minister’s office yesterday. But other than the media, no one seems to be noticing us despite the gravity of the situation,” says Manohar Patil from Maharashtra who has joined in the protest.
Some of their demands include setting up of the Cauvery Management Board and interlinking of the national rivers to deal with the lack of water in Cauvery. “Why can’t the Centre force the Karnataka government to release water from Cauvery when the Supreme Court has directed Karnataka to do so as many as seven times? The Center talks so much about Ganga but nothing on Cauvery,” says Saravana.
“We are languishing here for days but the Centre has no interest in hearing us out. How do you think our families will survive with no income?” asks Natarajan. “Unable to repay our loans, we are left with no option but to rot in Delhi,” he says.
“Our crisis deepened this year because Karnataka, in spite of the Supreme Court order, refused to release Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu,” says Kuppuswamy, a farmer from Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu. Many agitating farmers are senior citizens and are also demanding a pension scheme where farmers over 60 years of age get Rs 5,000 each.
Whose fault is it anyway?
The Centre considers drought relief as the responsibility of the state. The state, on the other hand, has approached the Centre and sought an assistance of Rs 39,565 crore from the National Disaster Relief Fund for drought relief. Following this, a central team has visited Tamil Nadu to assess the condition and has submitted its report. Union Minister for Agriculture Radha Mohan Singh plans to take it up at a high-level committee meeting soon. However, it may be difficult for the Centre to waive off loans for the Tamil Nadu farmers alone as there are other states too which are in a similar situation. Tamil Nadu farmers may get some financial assistance but will that solve the current crisis of farmer debts and suicides?
Droughts are not just episodic in nature but are a structural problem. Drought or no drought, farmers will continue to fall in debt traps given their dependence on high-cost farming methods using fertilisers, pesticides, machinery and seeds. At the same time, crops are no longer fetching them remunerative prices from which they can profit. The answer to this crisis may be in adopting low-cost sustainable farming methods. Meanwhile farmers should be provided income security to wean them off the debt trap. Let’s wait and watch if the state responds well to the current crisis.