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Hunger death in TN rice bowl

Thanjavur, Oct. 14: There are no “water martyrs” yet in this heart of Tamil Nadu’s rice bowl in the Cauvery delta.

Unlike Karnataka, where one person died attempting a novel protest against release of Cauvery waters, the type one sees here are the likes of Renuka, a Dalit woman who lost her son to acute hunger. There was no work for her husband, a landless daily labourer.

Karnataka’s refusal to release water from the Mettur reservoir despite the Supreme Court’s and the Cauvery River Authority’s directives has spelt doom for people in the entire delta region.

“This has resulted in nearly 12 lakh agricultural labourers going without any productive employment for the last five months,” says S. Ranganathan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Cauvery Delta Farmers Welfare Association.

“Even if politicians on both sides have made a total mess of the issue, we have not gone on a rampage here in anger like the Mandya farmers who have already saved their crops.”

Renuka’s family is completely dependent on the daily earnings of her husband, Chandrasekaran. Elders of Athichapuram — the village in Mannargudi taluk where she and her husband barely eke out a living with their children — say seven-year-old Prakash died after the family went “without food for several days”.

There has been no respite. As the canals went bone-dry, another son of the couple, a polio-afflicted kid, last night fainted for lack of nutritious food. “With no work for my husband in the fields, we barely managed to live on cheap gruel. But after a point, my children disliked it and refused to take it,” Renuka says, recalling their trauma in August-end when the drought was at its peak. Prakash died on August 29.

The boy’s death is said to be the first due to “starvation” in several decades in Thanjavur, known for its rich cultural heritage and once famous as the “granary of the south”. “This is the worst-ever drought we have seen since 1927,” says an old-timer.

Hoping they would get some food at the Noon Meal Centre at the Athichapuram elementary school, Renuka had packed Prakash and two of his brothers off to school. But the boys fainted on the way.

Doctors at the primary health centre gave them injections. From there the boys were taken to the Mannargudi taluk hospital “with the help of Rs 30” that the village elders raised through “hat-collection”.

But doctors at the hospital asked Prakash, whose condition was rapidly deteriorating, to be taken back. “We brought him home the next morning,” Renuka says. “The same evening he passed away even as my two other boys survived.”

The death raised a storm. But the district administration issued a statement, saying Prakash could not have died of starvation as the family ration card showed they had drawn their monthly quota of rice just the day before.

“That is a lie,” fumes Uthirapathi, an elderly Harijan of the village, where most of the 1,500-odd Dalit families live under thatched roofs barring the few who occupy the small concrete houses built under the Indira Awaas Yojana.

They have no cattle or access to any other source of income except for farm labour.

Renuka also brought out the family ration card to show that they drew their quota on August 10 and 18, not as what the district officials claimed. “They must be having their own reasons to hush it up,” says another Dalit, Kasinathan. “The hospital did not even give a discharge slip for my son,” Renuka added.

After Prakash died, some employees of the Life Insurance Corporation in Thanjavur raised Rs 20,000 for the family and handed over a cheque of Rs 10,000 as the first instalment.

Last week’s rains also helped a section of farmers to take up samba paddy cultivation with water from tube-wells. “The last few days we have got some work in the fields. We are used to half stomachs, but not a situation like this with Amma (chief minister Jayalalithaa) recently raising the price of rice,” says Uthirapathi.

But the income was too meagre to buy even 1 kg of rice, he added. “The government has given us up and only the rain god can help.”

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