Heat drives India’s farmers from fields to cities

Rina Chandran –
Vinod Kumar remembers a time when the fields in his village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu were green all year round. His family lived comfortably from its farmland of just over two acres, growing vegetables, coconuts and millet irrigated by the Cauvery river and the rain. But today, the 30-year-old drives a car for a living in the city of Chennai, 250 km away. On a recent journey back to the area where he grew up, he said he was far from the only migrant.
“At this time of year, these fields should be green with paddy shoots – but no one seems to be farming,” said Kumar.
Tamil Nadu endured its worst drought in more than a century after the monsoon rains failed last year – and the combination of lack of water and worsening heat is driving a gathering wave of migration.
In Nagapattinam, in the Cauvery river delta region of southeast India, drought and irregular rainfall have blighted lives for about a decade now.
As ponds and tanks dry up, causing crops to fail and cattle to languish, more people – like Kumar – are moving to cities.
“Two-thirds of the country is in arid and semi-arid regions, so they are already susceptible to higher temperatures and less rainfall,” said Suruchi Bhadwal, an associate director at research organisation The Energy and Resources Institute, based in New Delhi.
In the Cauvery basin, where Nagapattinam is located, the maximum temperature is forecast to rise by 3.7 degrees Celsius by 2080, while the minimum temperature is seen rising 4.2 degrees Celsius, according to research by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.
That increase will cause grain yields to fall up to 40 per cent, scientists say.
“We used to easily be able to harvest three crops a year. Now we can barely harvest a single crop,” said C. Subramaniam, a farmers’ leader in Vettaikaraniruppu village.
“Forget water for farming. We don’t even have water for drinking,” he said.
The amount of farmland available also is shrinking as salty sea water has surged inland, tainting the soil.
Erosion is also a problem, with the Cauvery delta having shrunk by a fifth over the past four decades, according to research by the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
Tamil Nadu has been fighting a long-running dispute with neighbouring Karnataka state over sharing the Cauvery river water, which is a lifeline for farmers.
Only those who can afford to dig borehole wells are able to coax a living from the land.
S. Murugan, who owns 20 acres of land in Karuvazhakarai village, installed a well five years ago, paying Rs 150,000 ($2,339) for it to be dug 100 feet deep.
Now, as the water table falls from overuse, he is only able to pump enough water to cultivate half his land. Lush green rice paddies lie on one side of the road, barren fields on the other.
“Today, you have to pay more, go 200-250 feet to hit water. Plus there are barely any men left here to work on the fields,” he said.
His own son is studying in Chennai and unlikely to return to the land.
Nagapattinam’s young men – and increasingly its women – are migrating in growing numbers to the cities of Coimbatore and Tirupur to work in textile and apparel factories.
Others go to Chennai and Bengaluru as security guards or drivers.
Bala Murugan, 28, moved to the apparel hub of Tirupur to sew T-shirts years ago when his family could no longer earn enough from farming.
Murugan doesn’t think he will ever return for good. — Reuters