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Saving The Coconut

Coconut trees in and around Pollachi have dried up

Why the small onion, tender coconut and the coconut in Tamil Nadu’s western districts are on the verge of destruction

A Maruthamma, 63, is hot and bothered. The unnatural heat of the usually cool climes of Pollachi and surrounds is only adding to her irritation.

She lives in a mud hut 12 kilometres from the Aliyar dam in Arasur village. Water should not be a problem here, one would think. “There has been less rainfall for the past two years,” she told The Lede. “Two years ago we got a new pipeline in our street. At that time we used to get water once in two days. Slowly that changed to twice a week, then once a week, and now we get water supply only once in two weeks,” she lamented. The tap coughs and sputters even during this time – the water that is released is just not enough for the residents of the village, who are neighbours of the Aliyar dam. Each resident is able to get 10 to 15 pots of water once every two weeks. “So we are forced to limit our usage to one pot a day because there is no water anywhere around here,” says Maruthamma.

When she and others approached farmers who had borewells in their land, requesting them to share some ground water, they were told that the farmers themselves were buying water in tankers from elsewhere.

Arasur is less than 10 kilometres from Pollachi, a scenic town at the foothills of the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu. Say Pollachi and people smile – images of a perennial cool breeze, lush green fields and towering coconut groves waving in the wind, is what comes to mind.

This year, Pollachi and the western districts are facing severe heat conditions. Last week, the Met Department recorded high temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius in the area. This is two degrees higher than the average for the month.

With little drinking water and suffocating heat, the region wears a deserted look. Especially Pollachi, the all-time favourite shooting spot for Tamil film directors. “There is usually some shooting taking place here, all 365 days a year,” says K Loganathan, 45, coconut farmer in Pollachi. “Tamil films, Malayalam films, they all like to shoot here because it is a scenic spot. But in the past two years, film units are fewer here. In the past four or five months I have not seen any film van in this area,” he says.

The Withered Coconut Trees

The reason for this is evident, if one looks up at the sky. The tall coconut trees that the western belt is so famous for, have dried up. Fronds droop down, withered brown. The earth is parched.

Loganathan owns 18 acres of coconut groves. His land falls in the Aliyar basin and is irrigated by the PAP (Parambikulam Aliyar Project) scheme. He has two 60-feet wells to supply water to all of his 18 acres of coconut trees. Three years ago, Loganathan’s wells went dry. With the rains disappointing the state over the past two years, he dug a borewell in 2017 to a depth of 1,500 feet to find water. Now this well too is dry.“Every 50 days, I used to get 20,000 coconuts from my land,” says Loganathan. “This time, I have got only 4,000 coconuts. Our issue is not that we have got less yield. The bigger issue is how we are going to save our trees without water,” he says. His concern is genuine. A coconut tree takes three years to begin yielding coconuts and has a life of more than thirty years. Coconut trees in the western belt are so integrated into the lives of residents there, that a Tamil saying aptly captures their essence – “Pettha pulla kayyi vittaalum, natta pulla kayyi vidaathu”. Even if a son abandons you, a coconut tree will not.

Now the ‘natta pulla’ is in danger. According to the farmers’ association in the area, the Aliyar basin consists of 50,000 acres of coconut groves. Each acre has on average 70 coconut trees. Of the 35 lakh trees, around 5 lakh trees are already dead. Another 10 lakh trees still stand but there is no yield. “50 percent of the coconut trees in this area are dead,” says M Senthil, secretary of the Aliyar Basin Farmers’ Welfare Association. “We are protesting now to try and save the remaining 50 percent. Wealthy farmers are able to afford tankers to irrigate their crops. Those who cannot afford tankers are the losers,” he says.

Loganathan’s coconut grove has been destroyed due to lack of water

The Aliyar dam, situated in the foothills of the Western Ghats, irrigates two basins – the Aliyar basin and the Palar basin. The Aliyar basin is supposed to get 1.5 TMC of water from the dam to irrigate 50,000 acres. The Palar basin is supposed to get 2.75 TMC of water from the dam to irrigate 3,50,000 acres. This entire quantum of water is released over a period of 130 days in the Aliyar basin and over 260 days in parts of the Palar basin.

In 2017-18, water was released to the Aliyar basin for a mere 44 days. This year so far, water has been let out only for 20 days. “Only if water comes through the canals, will it be stored in our wells,” continues Senthil. “Only if it is stored in the wells can ground water be recharged.” Hence the double whammy of lack of dam water as well as the disappearance of ground water.

Coconuts Fall With A Thud

M Raju, Professor of Economics at the Bodi Arts and Science College, has been researching the coconut industry over the past five years. He says that in 2014-15, on an average, yield per hectare was 14,000 coconuts. “But in 2017-18, the yield has fallen by 50 percent – an average of 7,000 nuts per hectare,” he says. “One of the key areas for industries surrounding the coconut in India, is in the western belt of Tamil Nadu. Coir, copra (dried coconut), coconut oil are all linked to this region. The drop in coconut yield has impacted the entire economy of the area,” he says.

Parameshwaran, a businessman who sells coconut and tender coconut to Chennai and Mumbai, substantiates Professor Raju’s findings. “We used to send four lorry loads (40 tonnes) of coconuts and 10,000 tender coconuts to Chennai alone every day,” he says. “This year there is no tender coconut. As for coconuts, we are sending one load every alternate day.”

A resident of Negamam village collects dried coconut fronds

Negamam village near Pollachi is a hub for copra trading. Coconut oil manufacturers come all the way from Kangeyam, about 70 kilometres away, to buy in bulk the raw material for the oil. Around 5,000 ‘kalams’ or concrete platforms to dry coconuts into copra can be found in Negamam.

Lakshmana Prabhu is a dealer who collects copra from these ‘kalams’ and takes them to oil manufacturers such as VVD, Marico and others. “There are at least 50,000 people who are directly and indirectly surviving on this copra. This is an industry that sees a weekly turnover of Rs 50 crore. The copra business has taken a big hit this year. ‘Kalam’ owners have begun to buy coconut from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and coastal districts of Tamil Nadu,” he says. “Even with this, only 20 percent of the business exists.”

Not just coconut, the ‘chinna vengayam’ or the small onion too, is languishing. R Eashwaran, Tirupur district secretary of the Tamil Nadu Farmers’ Association, is praying hard after the State Chief Minister promised water release from the Aliyar in January this year. “The first release of water happened in January and using that, we have sown the small onions,” he says. “The second release of water is crucial because that will save the crop. But we are now doubtful about water being released because the Aliyar dam is at dead storage. The PWD (Public Works Department) is releasing water to Kerala as per their agreement. But what about us?” he asks.

Water Politics

The Aliyar agreement was inked between the state governments of Tamil Nadu and Kerala when the dam was built in 1970. As per the agreement, Tamil Nadu is bound to release 7.25 TMC of water to its neighbour every year.

With both states facing deficit rainfall over the past two years and groundwater resources drying up, even this small amount of water is now causing friction. Tamil Nadu had already released 6 TMC of water to Kerala and has time until May this year to fulfil the rest of its obligation.

But Chittur district in Kerala, which is the main beneficiary of this water from Aliyar dam, erupted into protests in the first week of February, with Chittur MLA Krishnan Kutty leading protests of farmers. Highways were blocked and vehicles with Tamil Nadu registration plates were not allowed entry into Kerala. Following these protests, the Kerala government insisted that Tamil Nadu release the remainder 1.25 TMC immediately, according to officials in the Tamil Nadu Public Works Department.

 Aliyar water released from Tamil Nadu, heading to Kerala

But the Kerala Minister for Water Resources Matthew T Thomas told The Lede that they did not force the Tamil Nadu government to release Aliyar water. “It is a routine process to give us 7.25 TMC water. In the previous years, rainfall was good, so there was no need for any talks on this issue. Tamil Nadu would automatically release the water and we would get it. But last year and this year, the western districts of Kerala, particularly Palakkad district, are severely affected by drought. There is no water resource other than the Aliyar water. There is time until May, yes, but we need the water now to save our crops. If water is released at the end of May, it will of no use for us. There is no connection between water release from the Siruvani dam by us and the Aliyar issue,” he said.

When Tamil Nadu hesitated, its own farmers’ needs in mind, Kerala brandished the stick. In mid February, the Kerala government opened up water from the Siruvani dam under their control – 80 cubic feet of water went waste every day for a week. Siruvani provides drinking water to Coimbatore and Tirupur, the textile and manufacturing hubs of Tamil Nadu.

An alarmed Tamil Nadu quickly released the remaining water from the Aliyar to Kerala. Farmers in the state though, who met with officials in the State Secretariat in Chennai, said that they received assurances that their demands for water would be met. “They told us they will divert water stored for use by thermal power plants to our lands,” said Eashwaran who attended the meeting. Farmers are doubtful about this too – at dead storage, they say, it is virtually impossible to bring water to their farms.

Pollachi’s lanes, which are normally covered with a green canopy, are now bare

Deputy Speaker of the State Assembly and Pollachi MLA, PollachiJayaraman told The Lede that the Udumalaipet and Pollachi regions have been suffering for the past three years. “We are speeding up the proposal to construct a new dam called Nallaruhere,” he says. “The irrigation system has to change. I am personally insisting that the Agriculture Department bring in a drip irrigation system along the lines of Israel, so that we can use water more efficiently. Officials are saying there is no money but I am insisting that our government find a way to implement this,” he adds.

A proposal for a dam may be a saving measure for another day, but for now, urgent measures are required to be taken if Pollachi is to retain its important cash crops.

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