NEW DELHI/CHENNAI: The debt ridden and drought hit farmers in the Cauvery Delta districts of Tamil Nadu are on the receiving end again, as Cyclone Gaja hit the coast on November 15 and 16, ravaging their standing crops of paddy, coconut, sugarcane and so on, apart from causing the death of 65 lives so far.

The government issued a red alert and people in low-lying areas were able to move to safer places, or the death toll would have been much higher. But Gaja has overturned the lives of farmers and others alike, leaving behind a trail of unbearable consequences, damage and destruction – of crops, farms and property.

The Indian Express reported that more than 1.3 lakh electricity poles were knocked down by the cyclone’s winds blowing in excess of 120 kilometres per hour.

Inadequate, slow or absent post-cyclone disaster rehabilitation measures by the state government have led to protests in various parts of the affected delta districts. The severity of the cyclone came to be known to the wider public only after the spike in protests by the distressed.

It has taken time to understand the gravity of the situation. The state government and the media underestimated the intensity and destructiveness of the cyclone.

21 days after Gaja passed, people in semi-urban and urban areas are only gradually limping back to normal. The affected rural areas are still in a shambles, with those rendered homeless sheltering in village schools. Power supply has yet to be restored in the far-off villages.

Cyclone Gaja has crippled the lives of fishermen and farmers in particular. The farmers of plantation crops like coconuts are bearing the brunt, as the cyclone uprooted, broke and damaged these crops very badly. According to an estimate by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural Department, about one crore coconut trees were uprooted, including some 50 lakh in the delta districts of Nagapattinam, Thiruvarur, Thanjavur and nearby Pudukkottai.

Everywhere in The Citizen’s interactions with farmers there was despair, depression and trauma among those who have lost their coconut trees, after nurturing them for 10 to 12 years.

Siva Kamaraj, 55, from the village of Parava Kottai in Thiruvarur district, has 12 acres of land where he had planted 900 coconut trees. He is left with just 90. They took him 10 years to grow.

Gnana Sekaran, 62, is a coconut farmer from Vaalloor in the same district – he has lost 3,000 coconut trees on his 40 acre farm, and is in depression from incurring such a huge loss.

Elangovan, 58, from Poovanam village in Thanjavur, lost 1,200 coconut trees from his farmland of 23 acres.

The coconut crop, being a plantation or perennial crop, is not covered under the centre’s flagship Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, which covers only seasonal crops, so coconut farmers have been left only with the compensation offered by the state government.

Their anger is palpable as the compensation being offered is Rs 1,700 per coconut tree, which they argue is not at all enough to replant their crop, or revive the partially damaged coconut trees again.

All of them demanded that apart from the state government’s measures, the centre’s Coconut Development Board should provide compensation measures for the losses incurred, and saplings for replanting their crop.

S.Ranganathan, general secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers Association, told The Citizen that “this is the worst cyclone that has ever hit the Cauvery delta districts, leaving behind severe damage to standing agricultural crops. It would affect the food security of the state as standing crops across 10 lakh hectares have been damaged.”

P.R.Pandian, president of the All Tamil Nadu Farmers Association Coordination Committee, confirmed that “nearly one crore coconut trees and 10 lakh hectares of paddy fields have been destroyed, along with trees like mango and teak, in the four delta districts of Tamil Nadu.”

Pandian added that “as there is no clear-cut methodology to assess the damages incurred by coconut farmers, there is confusion among the officials to fix a clear figure, so that the exact compensation measures can be provided to the affected ones. The Central Cyclone Relief Team comprising seven members made only a three-day visit, which was a flash visit like Cyclone Gaja, without doing any deep study or assessment.”

But P.Ayyakannu, president of the South Indian Rivers Inter-Linking Farmers Association told The Citizen that “Gaja has made us more vulnerable than before, as we were already reeling under agrarian crisis due to debts and lack of water. The central and state governments should provide adequate compensation measures to revive our livelihoods on a war footing, without red-tapism on the pretext of assessing losses.”

Agrarian distress in Tamil Nadu, especially in the delta districts, has led to various protests in the state and in the national capital. Farmers from the region camped at Jantar Mantar in Delhi for 144 days with novel modes of protest to highlight their plight. But in vain.

They were recently in the national capital again to take part in the Kisan Mukti March.

The Cauvery Delta used to be the rice bowl of the state. But no longer, because the protracted water dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and erratic monsoons leading to drought-like conditions have resulted in an irrigation water crisis.

So, farmers have over the past two decades shifted from water intensive crops like paddy to plantation crops like coconut trees. But now, these too have been destroyed by Gaja.

Under such circumstances, they have a bleak future and their livelihood is at risk. It will only accentuate the agrarian crisis.

More than 250 farmer suicides were reported from the region in 2016-2017, according to the Indian Express.

Eyeing the fast approaching Lok Sabha election and the much speculated-upon local body elections in the state, political leaders across the spectrum are vying with each other to visit the affected areas, and are carrying out relief works through their party cadres.

The governing AIADMK has sought Rs 15,000 crore from the centre for disaster relief. The centre has sanctioned only Rs 350 crore as interim relief to carry out rehabilitation work, and 200 crore for compensatory measures for coconut farmers.

Durai Manickam, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Farmers Association which is a farmer’s wing of the CPI, told The Citizen that D.Raja, Rajya Sabha MP and the party’s national secretary was going to begin the second leg of his visit to the cyclone hit parts of the delta districts.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made a visit recently to convey her sympathy and offered all possible help from the centre.

Actor turned politician Kamal Haasan who has yet to test his political prowess made three rounds of visits to different parts of the delta districts, and sought the help of people from all walks of life.

Actor turned aspiring politician Rajinikanth has yet to visit the affected areas, which has led to criticism from his fans and admirers in the state.

Cyclone Gaja has intensified the political heat in the state, which has been awaiting political transformation ever since the deaths of veteran leaders J.Jayalalithaa and M.Karunanidhi.