CHENNAI: Hemanathan KV, a farmer from Seemapuram village near Minjur, born and brought up in a family which has been practising agriculture for four generations has different plans for his children. He has made it clear to them that there should be no more farmers in their family hereafter. This train of thought is not limited to just Hemanathan’s family.
Every farmer in and around Minjur has either given up farming and taken up another job or is struggling to get back the money invested in farming to pay back loans. The sole reason behind the steady decline in farming, in this region, since the 1980s is the highly saline nature of groundwater, said farmers.
City needs water
This phenomenon started ever since Chennai Metro Water and private players started extracting water from coastal aquifers along Tiruvallur district to meet Chennai’s drinking water needs right from the 1980s, said experts. “Agriculture in North Chennai is destroyed because of groundwater extraction for supply to Chennai.
Two decades ago, quite a lot of groundwater was extracted round the clock which resulted in seawater intrusion. Now, after destroying this aquifer, Metro Water has moved to Thamaraipakkam area in Tiruvallur district which is considered rich in groundwater field,” said S Janakarajan, a former professor at Madras Institute of Developmental Studies.
Though officials said water extraction in these sensitive areas has been drastically decreased, farmers and locals said new borewells and pits were dug recently to supply water to Chennai. A field visit by Express to villages located 10 km around Minjur confirmed this. Water from the ground and agriculture wells is being extracted by Metro Water from Siruvakkam, Vannipakkam, and Gangadikuppam villages in Ponneri Taluk and distributed to the city.
A Metro Water official at the site said, “In Vannipakkam, we have sunk four new borewells as the older ones were destroyed in Vardah cyclone. Also, we have signed agreements with farmers to buy water from 35 agriculture wells. We will be extracting 2,000- 3,000 litres a day from each borewell using high horsepower pumps.”
Deep borewells have been sunk along the Kosasthalaiyar river bed to extract water for the past six to seven years. Locals said that for a stretch of 15 km from Seemapuram in Ponneri Taluk till Janappanchatram in Sholavaram Taluk, Metro Water has been pumping water from the river bed at some places and from the river banks in the other. “As groundwater has been salty for 15 years now, we used to take water from the Kosasthalaiyar river. We cannot do that anymore.
The river has gone bone-dry because of over-extraction of water from its bed and also due to non-stop sand mining. Even if it rains, water doesn’t stand in the river anymore. Salty water has ruined crop yield, quality of the soil and our lives too,” said Hemanathan, who grows rice and watermelon in 10 acres of land.
Farmers said that saline water used for irrigation has destroyed the overall quality, yield of crops and polluted an otherwise fertile soil. A variety of crops like groundnut, green chilli and pulses are not planted anymore due to poor yield. “The rice grown with salty groundwater has affected the taste of the produce. The pests and insects menace has gone up drastically. For the harvest in December 2018, I had to spray pesticide eight to nine times. Crops which were grown with good quality freshwater never had any of these problems,” said Prabhakaran KV, a farmer from Seemapuram.
As fresh water of moderate quality is available only in small quantities at 50 ft depth, farmers mix this with salty water pumped from 100 ft borewells and use it for irrigation. But as salinity in groundwater has increased in the last two years, mixing fresh water doesn’t help much, said farmers.
“Ten years back, we used to get 30-35 sacks of produce in one harvest and made a profit of at least `10,000. But now, we struggle to get a yield of 20 sacks and make no profit at all. Whatever money we make goes towards repaying loans. Also, we used to have three harvests in a year. Due to poor yield, we have reduced it to one harvest a year,” said Rosie Naidu, owner of six acres of farmland.
As the water table had fully turned saline in Minjur and Panjetty — from where Metro Water used to extract water in 2004-05, locals said interior villages in Tiruvallur, which have rich groundwater presence, have become new targets for extraction. “Wherever Metro Water draws water, farming around that region collapses. Vannipakkam is one such village. In ten years, 75 per cent of farmers gave up agriculture and started doing odd jobs. Others have leased out their wells to supply water for their city as this is more profitable,” said G Ramamurthy, a farmer who owns 40 acres of land in Vannipakkam.