Coconut farmers yet to recover from Cyclone Gaja losses

Debris at a coconut farm affected by Cyclone Gaja in Tamil Nadu's Cauvery Delta region.

Vanji. Koothalingam, a farmer from Pallathur village near Peravurani in Thanjavur, shifted to coconut from cultivating paddy two decades ago. Coconut consumed less water than paddy and the move made sense with water scarcity becoming a problem in the Cauvery Delta. It paid off. In five to seven years, the coconut farm turned profitable, transforming his life.

But it just took three hours of high-speed winds to snatch away two decades of hard work. In the coconut belt of the Cauvery Delta -- stretching from Thanjavur to Mannargudi to Pattukkottai and Peravurani -- nearly one crore coconut trees fell during the devastation caused by Cyclone Gaja in November 2018.

The cyclone that packed winds with a speed of up to 120 kmph ripped through the fertile region, flattening most coconut farms that were responsible for the economic prosperity of farmers.

Even months after the devastating cyclone, these farms continued to look deserted with fallen trees and coconut leaves strewn all around. Farmers said they were finding it extremely difficult to gather resources -- monetary and otherwise -- to restart their lives. After the devastation, the leftover coconut trees were not able to produce their usual yield, forcing the farmers to take loans to even meet even their daily expenses.

According to Tamil Nadu government statistics, 35,268 hectares of coconut farms and 51.67 lakh coconut trees across the Cauvery Delta region were damaged in the cyclone. But in Thanjavur district alone, coconut is cultivated in an area of 36,136 hectares.

“The losses can never be measured or accounted for. I started cultivating coconut trees after 1995 when Cauvery water from the Grand Anaicut stopped coming to our village. Many embraced coconut farming because it raised our economic stature. But nature took everything away overnight,” Koothalingam told DH at his now flattened, four-acre coconut farm. 

Koothalingam’s neighbour Vasugi Gunasekaran sent her two daughters to Chennai for higher education by spending lakhs of rupees earned from her farm. “We were rich till November 15 night. But when we woke up on November 16 morning we were poor. All our coconut trees were gone. Now I have availed loans to ensure that my children continue with their education,” Vasugi said.

She said the money she had borrowed was just enough for her childrens’ fees. “Where do I get the money to clean the debris and bring back my coconut farm on its feet? Our lives turned upside down in a matter of just a few hours,” she said. 

Not just Vasugi and Koothalingam, many farmers in the region haven’t been able to clear the debris left over by Cyclone Gaja. “Of my 400 coconut trees, only 50 were saved from devastation. And it would take more than two to three lakhs for me to clear the debris entirely and plant new saplings,”  said G Selvam, another farmer from the same area.     

Coconut trees take six to seven years to produce the first set of coconuts. Farmers say they don’t have any other avenue to eke out a living till the new trees start yielding fruits. They want the government to announce a compensation of Rs 25,000 per damaged tree so that they can overcome the losses incurred.

The government has disbursed a mere Rs 1,100 as compensation for each fallen tree, including the cost of digging trenches for planting new saplings. Farmers say the amount is far too little to help them get their lives back on track. 

“We lost our livelihood and there is no way we can limp back without the support of the Tamil Nadu government. Rs 1,100 for a coconut tree is just not enough when the same administration had offered Rs 50,000 as compensation for a coconut tree when it was acquiring land for eight-lane highway between Chennai and Salem,” said V Veerasenan, a coconut farmer in Ponnavarayankottai village near Pattukottai. 

The government plans to distribute 35 lakh ‘tall coconut seedlings’ free of cost and has procured 43.26 lakh coconut seed nuts, granting a subsidy of Rs.1,750 lakh at Rs 50 per seedling. However, farmers are not happy with the compensation package.

They have been forced to spend from their own pockets to clean their fields and plant new saplings. But not all can afford it. Siva. Kamaraj, a farmer from Paravakottai on the outskirts of Mannargudi in Thiruvarur, said only people with “alternative resources or income” have been able to remove the debris and plant new saplings in their coconut farms.

“I spent nearly Rs 8 lakhs to get my farm to its past glory. I could bring back the farm only because of the money sent by my son who works in Italy,” Siva. Kamaraj said, noting that his son had been educated in Europe with the money he earned from his coconut farm.

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