Against the wind: Coconut farmers staring at abyss as they remember Gaja

A year back, on November 16, Cyclone Gaja crashed into the Tamil Nadu coast, and left a trail of destruction in its wake. Express travels through the Delta districts, which were worst-hit by the storm

Published: 10th November 2019 05:25 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th November 2019 07:08 AM   |  A+A-

Left to Right: Current situation of coconut trees in Thanjavur and trees fallen after Cyclone Gaja last year | MK Ashok Kumar

Express News Service

THANJAVUR/PUDUKKOTTAI: he thousands of coconut farmers affected by Cyclone Gaja are still trying to piece their lives together, still struggling to make ends meet after the gale winds flattened the sources of their income. Instead many of them have been forced to live off their savings, relying on money lenders and make lifestyle changes. The cyclone felled 62.42 lakh coconut trees in the delta districts, 45.07 lakh trees in Thanjavur district alone. As much of 70 per cent of coconut trees that fell across 12 districts were in Thanjavur.

The coastal blocks of Pattukkottai, Madukkur, Peravurani, Sethubachathiram and inland blocks of Orathanadu, Tiruvonam were the worst affected. Yet, in the district, the government has only distributed 9.88 lakh coconut seedlings free of cost to farmers against the target of around 25 lakh seedlings. Among such farmers few may have faced such devastation as small farmer A Veerasakthi of Ambalapattu village near Pattukkottai in the district. 

Express visited Veerasakthi a day after Gaja made landfall. The cyclone had levelled some 300 coconut trees that he had planted on his three acres of land. He had toiled for 10 years in foreign countries as a labourer to save up enough money to buy the land. He spent another 10 years raising the coconut trees on that land. Gaja wiped out 20 years of blood and sweat in a matter of minutes. “My whole family was working in the field the previous evening and went to bed. The next morning (November 16, 2018), the neighbours told me that not one of my trees had survived the winds. I did not even have the courage to go and see for myself,” he recalled, when Express met him a year later. 

“Though my wife and daughters went to see the land immediately, I only went a day later,” he said. 
Though many coconut farmers in the village had suffered losses in the cyclone, Veeraskathi was the worst affected. The family has struggled since as Veerasakthi has back problems and his wife has other health ailments.

“We have to spend a lot on medical necessities every month. Earlier, we had income from our coconut trees. Now, we have absolutely no income. We are now entirely dependent on loans,” he said.
With expenses piling up, something had to give. So, his twin daughters Aruna and Agalya, who were studying in Class 9 in a private school last year, have been enrolled in the government school at the village this year.

Veerasakthi has now planted coconut saplings — partially given by government, rest bought from private traders —on two acres of land leaving one acre for short-term crop cultivation.
“While raising the coconut saplings in two acres, I tried black gram cultivation but that failed due to bad seed quality. That was a double whammy. I still have not figured out a way to lead a decent life,” he lamented, pointing out that it will take at least six more years for his saplings to grow into trees and give yield.

Meanwhile, he is hoping the government offers a scheme to support inter-cropping so that he can earn a living. A special inter-cropping scheme would benefit the large number of affected coconut farmers like him, he said. Meanwhile, in Naadakaadu area of Peravurani block, S Krishnamurthy is waiting for the government to distribute coconut seedlings.

“I have kept my two acres of land — where over 100 trees stood — ready for planting coconut seedlings,” he said. While waiting, he cultivated black gram. He used to pluck 2,500 coconuts once in two months and earned at least `1.5 lakh per year. Over the past year he cultivated black gram over one season but says the income was meagre in comparison. He has had to depend on loans from money lenders. 

“Compared to my income from the coconuts, the income from black gram could only provide for a hand-to-mouth existence of my family. Even money lenders are now thinking twice to lend me as they are uncertain about my income. The coconut saplings will take at least six to seven years to give yield,” he said.  A Mathivanan, another farmer from the same village, is slightly better off as he has a used-car sales business to fall back on. However, for the past three months even that has been affected by the global economic slowdown, adding to the adverse economic impact of the huge losses suffered by local farmers last year. 

Mathivanan cultivated coconut over five acres of land and lost 400 trees. “I used to pluck 9,000 coconuts once in two months and earned around `10 lakh a year,” he said.
He used the compensation given for 50 per cent of the trees he lost to replant the grove with saplings. Part of the saplings were from  the government, the rest he bought from private traders. Cutting and removing of felled trees after the cyclone also ate into his savings as earth moving equipment and lorries had to be hired to remove and transport them. 

For M Tamilselvan of Kuruviikarambai, Gaja was a huge shock. Despite earning a degree in Mechanical Engineering Graduate in 1984, he had opted to stay in the village as coconut farming used to be a money spinner. “We did not know a ghastly cyclone like Gaja would shatter our lives like this,” rued Tamilselvan, who lost more than 400 trees. He has since replanted 400 seedlings, bought from private traders.

“I could not raise black gram as an inter-crop, as there was no rainfall at that time,” he said. His family has been living off their savings with some support from his sons. “Without their support it would have been difficult to get by,” he said.Even then, purchases made when times were good, have become a burden as he struggles to pay the EMIs for loans he took to renovate his house and buy a car. “I am afraid of how to manage my family once my savings run dry,” he worried.

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