High-velocity winds during Cyclone Gaja damaged nearly one crore coconut trees, including 50 lakh that were uprooted, in Tamil Nadu’s delta region, the latest enumeration data being compiled by the Tamil Nadu agriculture department has found.
Three weeks after the cyclonic storm stuck the state on November 16, leaving 65 people dead and more that 1.34 lakh electricity poles damaged, officials in the state agriculture department said at least 70,000 coconut farmers have been directly affected in mainly four districts – Thanjavur, Pudukottai, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam.
According to the latest government data, maximum number of coconut trees were uprooted in Thanjavur district’s Orathanadu, Pattukkottai, Peravurani – the three areas are known for producing the best varieties of the fruit and for maximum number of coconut farms.
As farmers’ groups have started raising demands for reprieve, the government has fixed the compensation amount at Rs 1,512 per coconut tree that fell during the cyclone. “The amount includes Rs 600 as a compensation, Rs 500 for cutting and removal, Rs 312 for replanting, and Rs 100 for maintenance,” the official said.
However, the compensation and promise of coconut seedlings – number to be decided after the enumeration process is over – has been touted as too little as a single coconut tree bears at least 15-20 coconuts per month and generates a revenue between Rs 7 and Rs 11 per coconut for a farmer. More over, a coconut tree takes around five to 10 years to grow fully and bear fruit.
According to the state agriculture department data, on an average, a farmer holds two to five, or even 10 acres, coconut farms in the state. The average size of land holdings in Tamil Nadu, according to various government studies, is only 0.80 hectare (ha), while per capita availability of land in Tamil Nadu is 0.19 ha. The share of marginal and small farm holdings in Tamil Nadu increased from 89.9 per cent in 2001 to 91.75 per cent in 2011, while that of semi, medium and large holdings declined significantly.
“Majority of the farmers with small land holdings have lost at least 100 trees to Cyclone Gaja,” the agriculture department official said. An acre land can have upto 75 coconut trees.
VC Selvam, founder of Thiruvaiyaru Coconut Research Centre who is also known as the ‘coconut doctor’ in Cauvery delta region, said in many farms with more than 2,000 coconut trees, only 50 or 100 trees were left standing after the cyclone. “Like any other crop, coconut also treated as a child by farmers. This massive conversion to crops, like coconut, happened about 30 years ago following a severe drought. The advantage with coconut tree was lesser water consumption and maintenance compared to other crops. But this cyclone was devastating. A farmer will have to wait for four to seven years now to restore his coconut farm,” Selvam said.
Selvam, who owns over 8,000 coconut trees of which he lost at least 110 in the cyclone, is now working closely with government workers to intervene and restore many damaged trees.
“A four- or five-year-old coconut tree will have about 5,600 live roots. If at least 50 roots are intact even after it is uprooted, we can restore the tree. But a majority of the uprooted trees were in very bad shape and couldn’t be revived,” he said.
Using a heavy vehicle and huge supporting gears, his team has done a few demonstrations to show how a tree could be erected back at a slope of 80 degree without damaging the roots that are left alive.
“The trees that have been damaged in its head alone also can be revived by treating them, removing the damaged portion, and using an organic powder that can strengthen the damaged roots within six months… But this is definitely not an ideal as hardly very few farmers can afford to spend money for this restoration process,” he said.
T R Pandian, leader of the Cauvery delta farmers engaged in coordinating dozens of farmers’ unions across the state, said the cyclone has taken the region at least 10 years behind.
“You can revive your cultivation within a year if you have lost annual crops like paddy. But destruction of plantation crops such as coconut means you have lost a decade. It takes five to 10 years to revive your coconut farm with full growth and yield. It was terrible. I, myself, lost so many trees,” said Pandian, who is also a farmer from Nagapattinam.
The agriculture department official said 75 per cent of enumeration process is over and they will complete the process within a week by engaging over 1,600 government staff. “We hope to commence the disbursal of compensation within a week,” he said.
Farmers in the delta region, meanwhile, are also facing a host of other challenges for the past two decades, including drought and huge debt that was worsened by the demonetisation rolled out by the Centre. More than 250 farmer suicides were reported from the region in 2016-2017, a crisis that may have reflected in the Census 2011 – the Census shows 17.74 per cent increase in workers’ population since 2001, indicating a crucial shift from farming sector as productivity dipped.
Explained: For farmers in state, a 5-year wait for revival of livelihood
More than 70,000 farmers in Tamil Nadu, hit by Cyclone Gaja, are bracing for the worst because unlike annual crops like paddy, any kind of revival in livelihood of cultivators due to destruction of plantation crops such as coconut takes not less than five years. Ideas such as replanting uprooted trees, which are being proposed by the Tamil Nadu government, are likely to help rescue less than 10 per cent of the total damaged trees.
The market impact on the price and availability of coconut products, due to the large-scale destruction, is also likely to be felt in the coming months.