|A coconut tree which fell on the roof of a house at a village in Andhra’s Srikakulam district. (PTI)
Hyderabad, Oct. 16: One by one they piled the bodies of their felled breadwinners. Then someone stepped forward with a lighted twig.
Farmers in Uddanam, Srikakulam, one of the cyclone-hit districts in Andhra Pradesh, cremated their dead at a mass funeral but the fires that crackled under the evening sky were a smoky smoulder of leaves, fibrous husk and a long sinewy trunk.
“Each dead tree is a dead family member for us,” said Padmavathi, 35, the wife of a coconut farmer.
In Srikakulam, cyclone Phailin has uprooted some 11 lakh of the district’s 15 lakh coconut trees, one of the main cash crops for farmers after paddy and sugarcane. The increasing demand for coconut water; copra, the dried kernel from which oil is extracted; and coir, the natural fibre spun from the husk, has made coconut trees a reassuring breadwinner for many families.
The mass funerals had started last evening. The sky had cleared by then, but the future looked bleak. For some years at least, the plantations here, some 600km south-east of Hyderabad, will not be exporting 30 truckloads of coconuts every day to seven states, including Bengal.
In Uddanam, coconut is said to be the main reason behind the relative affluence of the farmers, most of whom own at least a two-wheeler, plasma TV sets and microwave ovens. Some have Jacuzzis at their homes and iPhones. Others walk around in Reebok shoes.
The weekend cyclone has changed everything.
“It will take us another 10 years for new plants to become productive. Till then we have to make a living as labourers,” said a Kaviti Uddanam villager who has a five-acre coconut farm but has lost all but 10 trees. Around 50 plants can be grown on each acre.
Dilip Babu, an agro scientist, said every coconut farmer had lost between 50 and 80 per cent of his plants.
“Seawater is the enemy of the coconut crop. It needs saline water but only 40 per cent,” he said, adding that cyclone-induced rain and seawater had destroyed the crops. “It will take years to balance the ratio and revive even the half-dead coconut plants.”
Eight horticulture scientists and three specialists from the coconut board in Bangalore have been summoned to study the damage and suggest steps for re-plantation.
According to estimates, 30,000 acres of paddy, 1 lakh teakwood trees, 150 acres of shrimp ponds with king prawns were lost when the cyclone struck Srikakulam. The district is close to Odisha’s Gopalpur, which bore the brunt of the storm.
In Uddanam, Padmavathi, the farmer’s wife, looked at the flames as they rose from the mounds of the dead coconut trees.
“We have been hit again after 14 years with the same devastating impact,” said coconut farmer Borra Daruji, remembering the 1999 Odisha supercyclone.
“Then, too, most of our coconut trees were flattened,” said Panduranga Gopal Rao, another farmer.
In Srikakulam, the worst hit in Andhra, over 1.35 lakh people were evacuated in over 300 villages.
State minister Raghuveera Reddy, who oversaw relief operations and visited Uddanam, was dumbstruck by the havoc wreaked by the rain and the high-speed winds that lashed the belt on Saturday.
“My God, what damage! It will take a decade to grow new coconut trees and revive the livelihood of these 20,000 farmers,” the minister said in Hyderabad later.
Not everyone was complaining, though.
“Cyclones bring ashore a huge stock of aqua life — fish, crabs, oysters, sometimes even sharks that we normally cannot hunt unless we go into deep waters,” said Garuda Boyanna, a fisherman in Kalingapatnam, a tourist spot in Srikakulam on the coast.