Counting the human cost of drought in India

Posted: 18 March 2004

Author: Lalitha Sridhar

For the past three years the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu has been suffering from poor monsoon rains, possibly linked to climate change. The resulting drought has had a devastating impact on poor rural families, not least the women and children, as Lalitha Sridhar reports.

Kasturi is painfully thin, not yet 35, and a mother of five children - two boys and three girls - with the youngest still an infant. She has just returned to her maternal home in the Vadagarai village (in the Kaveri river delta), one of the worst drought-hit areas of Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu.

Kasturi with her children outside her home in Vadagarai. Photo: Lalitha Sridhar
Kasturi with her children outside her home in Vadagarai. Photo: Lalitha Sridhar
Kasturi with her children outside her home in Vadagarai, Tamil Nadu.© Lalitha Sridhar

She says, "My husband drinks, beats me and demands more dowry. His mother and sister support him. I can't bear it anymore. I can't go back, but what am I going to do here? There is no water or work in this place. How am I going to feed my children?"

Her neighbour, Thangamma, who is 55 but looks much older adds, "We have had no celebrations for almost three years. A girl needs at least 10 coins of gold to get married. We also need to buy furniture - cupboards and cots. If we don't give, they (in-laws) will send the girl back. So, for the last two years we have had no wedding in the village. There has not even been any ear-piercing ceremony for a baby. Festivities need money."

Little work

While men are involved in ploughing, handling machines, lifting loads and harvesting, women are involved in sowing, transplanting, weeding, plucking and threshing. They also tend to cattle, care for children and perform a range of household duties.

Thangamma says, "Earlier, farm work was available for Rs 50 (1US$=Rs 46) per day. Now work is contracted out at the cheapest rate, ranging from Rs 10-15. Workers have to travel by bus to reach farms which still have water (from borewells) for farming. Half the money is gone in commuting." In her area, half a kg of fish costs Rs 15; a kg of rice costs Rs 12. "What can we cook? Mostly broth and rice with salt."

Children collecting water lilly roots for food, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Lalitha Sridhar
Children collecting water lilly roots for food, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Lalitha Sridhar
Food is scarce in the village and children have to collect the roots of water lilies for food. Many are sick and suffer from diarrhoea from eating this plant.© Lalitha Sridhar

Says Nagavalli, from the Puliyooru district of the Kaveri delta, "Last summer was really bad. There was no work to be found and we did not have enough to eat, forget saving for the non-cultivation season. Last year (2003), we fed our children alli (the root of water lilies dug and extracted from dried pond beds). It is not good for children, we know. Many vomited and suffered from diarrhoea, but there was no choice. We are down to one meal a day. We hunt crabs and snails and make kozhambu (broth) with them. If work is found, we have rice conji (gruel) with salt."

Little food

The All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) found, in response to a questionnaire in January 2004, that a majority of the affected families in the delta region had consumed less than 50 grams of lentils in the entire week. The average size of the family was taken to be five.

Vijaya, 30, also from Vadagarai says, "Our average day begins before dawn. We cook, fetch water, clean the house, wash clothes and prepare the children for school. By seven or eight in the morning, we go to the fields. It is extremely hot. We stand in ankle-deep water in the paddy fields for hours with our bent backs. By four or five in the evening we return, tend to the cattle (although some of us have sold them now). Then there are children to attend do, cooking to be done. There are no holidays. There is no time to stop even for a conversation."

Muniyamma, 65, says when they go to the primary health centre, the doctors are often rude. "The doctor asks, 'You have backache? Is that a disease?' They won't touch us. They will not even check our temperature."

Thiruvarur taluka (adminstrative block), like vast tracts of land in the delta, depends on borewells to provide water to its almost entirely agrarian economy. There has been very poor rainfall for the past three years.

Drought and the unresolved dispute between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over use of the Kaveri river's water, has seen the once water-rich area turn dry. Over-extraction has led to a sharp fall in the groundwater table. Small and marginal farmers are still dependent on canal irrigation since they cannot afford borewells.

Free meals

The state government, through its noon-meal scheme, has tried to provide free meals to children in the area. For a few months, the children were given eggs too. But now the eggs have been replaced by konda kadalai (brown lentil) as a protein supplement.

Children like Pabitha, a Class 5 student in Puliyooru village in the Koradacheri taluka, admit, "the food is not properly salted. The rice is powdered with turmeric, no vegetables. Sometimes, the cook adds a papaya or two from the tree that grows in the school compound. It only fills the stomach, sometimes not even that."

Says Chandra, General Secretary of the Thiruvarur, Thanjavur and Nagai chapter of AIDWA, "Everything is connected to water. Without water, there is no livelihood, no food, and no provisions. People send their children to school so that they may eat the free meal served at noon, but even that is of very poor quality. Higher studies are affected. The advent of machines like harvesters and threshers has also had a terrible impact on livelihoods."

"This time," she adds, "Pongal (the annual rice-boiling ceremony)was a day of grief. There was no harvest because there was no water to raise crops."

Lalitha Sridhar is a Chennai-based journalist, with an interest in on development issues. Source: Women's Feature Service, Delhi.