Clad only in a green loin cloth, Mr Damodaran, a 47-year-old farmer, has been sitting at Jantar Mantar, the popular protest site, in Delhi for the past two weeks with a number of human skulls by his side. They are ostensibly of fellow farmers who committed suicide. Mr Damodaran, along with 83 other farmers from Tamil Nadu, is taking part in a protest, demanding that the Narendra Modi government step up aid to farmers in the southern Indian state which is in the grip of its worst drought in decades. They want relief from the government, including loan write-offs. Mr Damodaran’s rice field now lies barren and he is struggling to service a loan of 1.3 million rupees (S$28,000), including for a tractor he bought two years ago
“Every day the bank is sending people to my house but I have no way to pay it back. I started working as a carpenter’s helper and I get 300 rupees a day. But do I feed my family or pay back the loan?,” he said. “I even took a loan to come to Delhi. The government has to help us or we won’t survive.”
The federal government allotted 16.58 billion rupees as drought relief for Tamil Nadu two months ago, but the farmers – who have managed to get the attention of the media and government with their eye-catching protest – said it was not enough to stave off the crisis.
“After 140 years, Tamil Nadu is having a drought like this. There is no water in the Cauvery (river) and farmers are committing suicide. If they don’t help, many more will commit suicide,” said South Indian Rivers Linking Farmers Association president P. Ayyakannu, who was sitting next to eight skulls. “We could have brought many more.”
The Cauvery is a major waterway in southern India and is the lifeline for farmers in the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, which is its source. Tensions have often flared in both states over the sharing of the river’s waters and the drought is expected to intensify the feud.
The less than normal monsoon rains last year have exacerbated the water crisis for Tamil Nadu.
“It is a serious situation in Tamil Nadu. There has already been a water shortage and these problems are getting aggravated day by day and farmers are not able to find solution. The state also faced several natural calamities like a cyclone in the past year and that is not easy to recover from either,” said Mr P. Chengal Reddy, secretary- general of the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association.
He described the situation of Tamil Nadu farmers as “pathetic”.
Students in the state have also begun protesting in support of the beleaguered farmers. They have dubbed the protests “Jallikattu 2.0”, in reference to the massive youth uprising in the state in January to demand the right to hold “Jallikattu”, the traditional bull wrestling festival. The protests led to the federal government overturning a ban on the event imposed by the Supreme Court.
But for now, there is little good news on the weather front for Tamil Nadu, with below normal rains predicted as India heads into the peak summer months from May.
“We think this year’s monsoon rains over Tamil Nadu will be on the lower end. We expect below normal rainfall,” said Mr Mahesh Palawat, director at the private weather forecaster Skymet.
“There is little respite.”