Tamil Nadu farmers look for antidote as shrimp farms sting

Agricultural activities in coastal Tamil Nadu take a hit as lands turn saline and labourers opt for shrimp farm jobs that pay much better

Published: 03rd July 2016 05:54 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd July 2016 05:54 AM   |  A+A-

NAGAPATTINAM: It’s a transition that farmers think they can do without. With increased export revenue showering good luck on shrimp farmers in coastal Tamil Nadu, those who took up agricultural activities in nearby lands were stung by several issues. 

They claimed the shrimp farms polluted surroundings, leaving the fields saline. Plus they paid more money to labourers, leaving traditional farmers in a fix over how to find people for work.

Shrimp farms are nothing new to the State. But its popularity soared since 2010, when the Coastal Aquaculture Authority (CAA) introduced the Litopenaeus Vannamei species. The Vannamei shrimp is suitable for culture at high stocking density and more resistant to pathogens than other varieties. It was introduced at a time when the shrimp farming industry was devastated by the White Spot Syndrome virus, which infected tiger shrimps that was popular for over a decade.

The Vannamei species received positive response and it encouraged more people to enter the arena. The result: the country’s shrimp production soared from 1.42 lakh tonnes in 2010 to 2.93 lakh metric tonnes in 2013. In 2014-2015, the L Vannamei shrimp yield touched 3.53 lakh metric tonnes. This was the best of times for aqua farmers and TN earned `1,400 crore in foreign exchange. But not so for many others.

Fertile lands, a thing of past

The farmers in tail-end areas of Cauvery delta in Nagapattinam, for instance, alleged that the shrimp farms discharged saline waste water into irrigation and drainage canals close to the fertile fields, rendering hundreds of acres of land uncultivable for years together. 

In the neighbouring Thanjavur district, the situation is no different. B Balasundaram, a farmer and district secretary of Tamil Nadu Farmers Associations, told Sunday Express that there has been a disquiet among farmers. “The adjacent paddy fields in areas such as Aandikkadu and Pudupattinam often experience loss of yield,” he said, blaming it on the seepage of water mixed with various chemicals into the ground.

The most affected are marginal farmers, mostly Dalits, in the coastal blocks. “A decade ago, the acreage of paddy cultivation and the harvest were such that traders from Kerala would line up to procure our produce in lorries. Now here we are, just like the spineless shrimps cultured in farms,” said R Ramasamy (69), a farmer from Thalainayar in Nagapattinam.

The primary issue, farmers alleged, was the absence of an effluent treatment system, which is mandatory as per the CAA guidelines. According to farmers, the district level committee comprising fisheries, revenue and agriculture departments was responsible for monitoring the shrimp farms, but was doing nothing to ensure that the farms had an effluent treatment system in place.

The salinity of water has not only made the lands uncultivable, but also triggered migration of agriculture labourers to metropolitan cities in search of menial jobs. “The youth who would have taken up agriculture like their fathers are now working as drivers and daily wage labours,” said Somu Elango, an organic farmer from Thalainayar.

“Majority of the drainage canals in Thalainayar region are encroached by shrimp farms, leading to inundation of paddy fields during heavy rains,” said P Sambandam, district secretary of CPI-affiliated Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam.

After repeated confrontations, the traditional farmers have started taking the legal route to rein in shrimp farms. People in Marakkanam in Villupuram — the place has about 2,000 farms, but half of them are said to be illegal — first approached the district collector, complaining that the water has become unsuitable for drinking or farming. Some of them then moved the southern bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and also the Madras High Court. The court asked authorities to remove illegal shrimp farms immediately, so did the NGT. Based on this, many illegal farms, including those on government lands, were removed earlier this week.

“Hundreds of trees had been destroyed by saline water, which also killed local species of fishes, crabs and many other organisms in the local ecology. It is important to take action not just against the illegal shrimp farms, but also against the ones with permits that do not follow norms on effluent release,” said social activist and district organiser of Anna Tamirabarani Trust Sarveshkumar, who moved the NGT. “We can reclaim both the soil and land if the government took stringent action,” said V Babu, whose one acre land turned saline.

The other side

According to Marakkanam Shrimp Farm Producers and Workers Association president D Rajendiran, the farms in Marakkanam employed nearly 2,000 people directly and an equal number indirectly, earning about `50 crore. “All these shrimp farmers were once agriculturists like me,” he added.

Recounting his own experience, Rajendiran said his forefathers did agriculture in the poramboke land for many years, before it became unsuitable for farming after salt water from Buckingham Canal left it saline. He took up shrimp farming in the same place about two decades ago, but only after the government declared it unfit for agriculture.

Most of the farmers are small-timers. A 65-year-old lamented how he was one among the 10 partners of a farm that was removed by the officials in the recent drive. At this age, he added, he was forced to return to back-breaking farm labour.

Lakshmi, a farm worker from Anumandhai village, told Sunday Express that shrimp farms provided them wages that they never could dream while being a farmhand. They get paid every evening, receiving money that is about three or four times higher than what agriculture paid. During the floods, she added, it was not the government officials who visited them, but the farm owners who gave them advance salary to tide over the difficulties.

M Kalyanasundaram of Thambikkottai Keelakadu village in Tiruvarur district, himself a farmer and shrimp farm owner, said shrimp farms in his area do not affect agriculture. “I am still a farmer and cultivate crops,” he said, adding that the land in which the shrimp farms are located were not cultivable and were fed with the brackish water from tides.

In some areas, the groundwater itself is brackish, he said. “We do not use Cauvery water for shrimp farms as it would affect the culture,” Kalyanasundaram added.

Future prospects

With the sea wealth depleting due to imprudent exploitation and unsustainable fishing activities, shrimp aquaculture might be a viable alternative for Tamil Nadu due to its geographical edge - it has the second longest coastline after Gujarat.

Despite the concerns raised, only 15 per cent of the total 1.3 million hectares of the coastal land, identified to be good for aquaculture, were being used for shrimp farming, said officials. “Shrimp is a commodity that earns us precious foreign exchange. At present, China tops the global list with a share of 60 per cent, way ahead of India’s 5.8 per cent,” said K Rathna Kumar, registrar and acting Vice-Chancellor of the Tamil Nadu Fisheries University, Nagapattinam.

Ruling out the alleged negative impacts that shrimp farms have on the adjacent lands, Kumar said most farms were established over alkaline lands. “We have almost stopped freshwater shrimp farming and have adopted its marine version. It could be an alternative livelihood for fishermen who cross the International Maritime Boundary Line to get a good catch,” he said.

(With inputs from C Aruvel Raj @ Nagapattinam, Bagalavan Perier B @Villupuram and N Ramesh @Thanjavur and Tiruvarur)

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