The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cauvery belt practises Sen theory

Thanjavur, Oct. 16: Amartya Sen would be a proud man. His theory of “unselfish” strategy is having a field day in Tamil Nadu’s drought-hit Cauvery delta areas.

As Karnataka persists in its refusal to release waters from the Mettur dam, land-less labourers here have found out that the best way to beat the arid conditions and the resultant unemployment is by sharing their “meagre work”.

In many areas across the three districts of Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam, the labourers have evolved a “work-cum-time-sharing” system, with as many as 36 doing the work usually done by two. The strategy has helped them ward off acute pangs of hunger.

This simple survival tactic at places wherever paddy transplant has just begun with pumped bore-well water or where last week’s rains have brought some respite bears out the Nobel Prize-winning economist’s theory of collective rational behaviour.

In one of his papers, Rational Fools, Sen had showed how “individualistic rationality” was very often a failure. When two players act on purely selfish considerations, each may be better off personally. But, he argued, “both are better off if they both choose the unselfish rather than the selfish strategy”.

Mathiazhagan, a 32-year-old farmhand in 42 Kunniyur, a village in Mannargudi taluk, talked about how the strategy has paid off. “In this field, 36 of us are now doing what is usually done by two farmhands in a day. The statutory minimum daily wage for men here is Rs 70 per head. Now, because of lack of adequate work, we all share the Rs 140 which comes to about Rs 4 per head,” he said. “This way we share available work to barely survive.”

Uthirapathy, a fellow sufferer in Athichapuram village, said the plan was at least keeping them afloat. “Yesterday, we could get a day’s work in the fields. But that was done by 60 of us from our hamlet, a work done by 10 farmhands in a normal year. The income was pooled and divided,” he said. “This small income will at least help us to buy rice and prepare gruel, or else we all will have to starve.”

However, lack of water from the Cauvery link canals has affected the employment of women labourers who play a crucial part in the preparatory phase of paddy cultivation.

The Jayalalithaa regime had come out with a Rs 165-crore drought-relief package that involved de-silting canals and lakes besides food-for-work schemes. But in many places, farmers complained that either the cash or rice had “not reached us”.

With no fodder in these areas, farmers even sold off 2.65 lakh cattle to slaughterhouses in Kerala, said V. Thambusamy, a veteran CPM leader at Nagapattinam.

“The whole Cauvery crisis is due to the lack of political will on both sides to settle the issue amicably,” says S. Ranganathan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Cauvery Delta Farmers Welfare Association. “In 1976, a fair draft agreement was arrived at among the four basin states. But MGR rejected that when he came to power in Tamil Nadu in 1977 because the draft accord suggested a savings of 100 tmcft of Cauvery waters in a 15-year period. The ruling ADMK then did not agree to this, mainly because their concern was the opposition party (the DMK).”

With a political solution still elusive, political parties in both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu welcomed the setting up of a tribunal. Now, it is all the more imperative to have good neighbourly relations to “make the states concerned to agree to a legal solution”, Ranganathan emphasised.

And if superstar Rajnikant or film director Barathiraja jumps in to solve this issue, the less said the better, he added.

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