Thanjavur has been a flourishing centre of cottage industries and handicrafts for centuries. Mat weaving is spread over a number of places and superior varieties of mats are made in Vilankudi, Chakkrappalli and Madukkur. This district is also famous for a wide range of utility and decorative articles like Thanjavur bell metal plates, bronze icons, inlay work, musical instruments and silver metallurgy. The handloom sector also occupies an important place in the economy of Thanjavur District. It provides employment to more than 60,000 people.
However, in a depressed economy, these luxuries are no longer selling, directly affecting the lives of thousands of craftspeople and artisans. This is because, even though the non-agrarian sector is significant and was successful in the past, the historical Thanjavur delta has always relied upon agriculture as its mainstay. Today, with the ongoing and bitter dispute over the waters of the river Cauvery with the neighbouring southern state of Karnataka, and a crippling drought that has dried the entire region, agriculture is no longer a viable or reliable source of income. While the distress in the delta over its traditional livelihood has been discussed, the indirect consequences of the devastating failure of agriculture in the area, deserves equal attention.
Says Arupathy Kalyanam, Secretary of the non-political Federation of Farmers Association, "Without the Cauvery, there is nothing here." The only industries are the sugar factories, also entirely linked to agriculture. The majority of them have become insolvent. Hulling mills in the region are out of work or under-utilized. The labourers they used to hire can no longer find work. Large scale migration is being witnessed.
Cauvery delta : a new reality
Srikumar is a farmer with a mid-sized holding in the most acutely affected Thiruvarur district and an engineer by qualification. He has undertaken many contracts for renovation of temples in the region. "Traditionally, all villages were oriented towards temple activities. This began during the reign of the early Cholas, a period that witnessed the building of some of the best temple architecture India has seen. This was for partly religious and partly livelihood reasons. Artisans, blacksmiths, tailors, oil merchants, archakas (officiating priests), painters, carpenters, cooks, Vedic scholars, bronze idol makers, flower sellers - the temple was the pivot to all the inhabited areas nearby. Land was gifted in perpetuity to temples so that there would always be income-generating assets. Farmers worked the land, earned wages and contributed to the temples spendable income by paying rent. It was all interconnected. The men who were hired to lift the deitys palanquin or pull the ther (car), were given fishing rights to the temples many tanks. While they got no cash salary, their income was assured and they were given sumptuous cooked food. Temple ooduvars (poets/saints) recited hymns and songs from the Thevarams and Pasurams, also called the Tamil Vedam, at every temple. They conducted classes for all children of the area."
"The temple thiruvizha (festival) was a time for gathering. Each temple had a unique thiruvizha. It meant prolonged festivities and a time for bazaars and melas, which again meant spending and sustaining livelihoods. Periodically, temple renovation would happen under the aegis of the traditional kumbhabishekam, which again employed everyone from silversmiths to cooks to painters. Now, renovations and upkeep no longer take place. There is no money. Today, the temples of Thanjavur are crying for attention. Masonry is crumbling, tanks are going dry, there are no funds for the upkeep of these massive structures. Once the fulcrum of economic activity, temples are silent now. Young people are migrating and whatever renovation is happening is based on contributions sent from those who have left. The Cauvery delta is withering and it seems nothing will save us from our fate."
"It is not as if we have not given thought to finding alternatives within the agriculture sector. If there has been no action on this subject it is because the options are so limited as to be non-existent. The Cauvery delta is too hot for floriculture. It can also get too wet - when it rains, it is for a brief and torrential period - for flowers. Flowers are more suited for dry watersheds like Madurai and Krishnagiri where large scale cultivation of jasmine is already ongoing", says Srikumar.
He continues, "Now the government says that we should be innovative. Instead of transplanting, hybrid rice is now sown by the broadcast method (directly, without raising shoots in a nursery first). They say we must have a mid-sized tank dug every ten acres. They say we must use water efficiently. Thats all very fine. But where is the water?"
Besides, "It is very difficult to change traditional practices. I tried growing ladys fingers in a large way. But the women labourers here are unused to plucking the vegetable. They said the thorns made plucking painful so they would not do the job. That was that. I had to incur a substantial loss."
He also adds, "It takes 10-15 years for coconut plantations to bear fruit. In any case, to covert vast tracts of paddy fields into plantations is not feasible - there are land ceiling laws to be reckoned with. We simply cannot afford to work on trial and error basis. Where did the so-called Green Revolution get us. We have destroyed our own land. Now, without large-scale use of chemical fertilizers, the soil is not responsive. It must be understood that we are already reeling under the combined effects of drought and lack of water in the Cauvery. We cannot be expected to work on a trial and error basis. Where is the money for that? So we feel cheated. We climbed stairs and then the ladder was pulled away. The soil and weather in the Thanjavur delta is suitable only for paddy cultivation. Either that or sugarcane. Till a few years back, water was also available. That is no longer true. Farming is no longer viable here. It is better to sell and leave but then, who is going to buy our dry lands?"
Says L.K.S.Murthy, a farmer in the Asikkadu village of the Mayiladuthurai district, "Now there are objection to the advent of threshers and harvesting machines. In those days every household used to have 6-7 pairs of bullocks which men harnessed to till land. Then tractors came in and there was a big hue and cry over doing away with human labour. There are no bullocks now. Like computerization has resulted in technology-enabled layoffs, some amount of modernization of the farming sector is inevitable. When the weather is uncertain, a farmer cannot risk his standing crop in the hands of labourers who will take weeks to accomplish what a harvester can do in a couple of days. There is surely a social conflict here and that is something we are aware of. You must remember, we are all traditional agriculturists, as loyal to the families we employ as we are to the land itself. But it is a sad fact that some day, harvesters and threshers will be the order of the day. The job scenario is very insecure. Part-time labour is only hired."
All the farmers quoted here feel that the imminent Interlinking of Rivers project is the only solution. "What other way is possible? Even the law of the land is not able to get us water."
But, says Ramaswamy Iyer, Honorary Professor at the Centre for Policy Research and noted author on water issues, "Technically, economically and environmentally, the Interlinking proposal needs to be examined very critically. It is gargantuan and raises many concerns. However, desperation has made people look upon it like a magic mantra of some kind."
Srikumar has a global perspective too. "Both my sons have left for city-based jobs. One of them studied in America and is now going to Germany for work. Life here is a constant struggle. We barely break even. We cannot give up. This is what our family has done for generations. But for my sons, I know there is no future here. It will all be gone after us."
Says L. Kadiamurthy, who has a small holding of 1½ acres in the Thiruvarur taluk, and drives a cab for tourists in order to earn a regular income, "I am traditionally a farmer. But I cannot depend on my land for a living anymore. When I manage one crop from the water that is released in the Cauvery, I take time off from the work of driving cabs. I harvest my fields. I cannot afford to employ labour and I cannot give it (agriculture) up. My whole family works with me as and when required. Then my land gives me enough rice to take care of my family. It is my traditional occupation. We feel attached to our land."