Keralas Drought Triggers Farmer Suicides

Thiruvananthapuram | Updated: Mar 29 2004, 05:30am hrs
Kerala, so far a drowsy contestant in the row for Cauvery waters, may soon put on its fighting gloves on inter-state water disputes. The wake-up call had to come the rude way: The worst ever drought during the worst possible time ie., during a election year.

Rains have let down Kerala for three years in a row. This years drought has brought along with it dehydration deaths on hot paddy fields and even suicides of farmers with debt.

Pepper, cardamom and nutmeg grown in the valleys of the western ghats require farmers to make huge investments. When the fields leave only dead pepper vines and unwieldy debt, the traumatised grower torches his precious plants and himself. Last month, north Kerala has seen at least seven such farmer suicides.

With each passing day, the ruling Congress-led UDF government just cannot hide its jitters. The inactive liason panel of the ruling front went into a quick tailspin over the drought. The UDF convener pressed the AK Antony government into a drought-drill; of seeking central funds, opening crisis management cells and touring affected areas.

To make matters worse, the CPI(M) led Opposition LDF makes it a point to highlight that when the UDF government sought Rs 1,359 crore for drought relief, the Centre cleared only Rs 49 crore.

The Bharatiya Janta Party on the other hand is vocal that the state governments laxity in water management will now give it the opportunity to open its political ledger in Kerala this time.

The mix of drought and polls, however, could add a new found zeal in Kerala governments voice on inter-state water accords. As much as 20 per cent of Cauverys waters come from Kerala. The Parambikulam-Aliyar pact (1977), yielding 1600 cu ft per year to Tamil Nadu was due for renewal in 1988. Public opinion is bitter that the current talks are to renew it on status quo terms.

Experts warn that the fall in rainfall and ecological abuse have been such that six of Keralas rivers may disappear completely in two years. The Centre for Earth Sciences (CESS) in Thiruvananthapuram is already undertaking a study on the life-span of rivers, CESS director M Baba says.

Be it Cauvery, Parambikulam-Aliyar or Shiruvani waters, Kerala cannot afford to be benevolent anymore, says Chief Minister AK Antony.

What Congress dubs as benevolence, other parties call laxity. But the debate ends there. In the face of drought, all parties agree that all river pacts were carelessly signed when waters was surplus.