When Noushadya and I chose to settle down for life in Tirunelveli, few geographical factors that this district had rooting for itself were :
- No major seismic activity in the past 100 years
- It was far away from the coast. So it wouldn’t face the wrath of rising sea levels directly in the next few decades
- Average rainfall above 1000 mm, very different compared to the strong 3000 mm that I was used to in Mumbai
- A perennial river Thamirabarani originating and flowing through the district
Like with equity markets, with climate too, past performance is no indicator of future performance; especially, with the quick impact that modern industrial human lifestyle has had on ecosystems of the planet. But, we needed some decision points on geography to choose a location. Maybe, it was just confirmation bias which resulted in us focusing on the pros and ignoring the cons.
Tirunelveli is one of the southern most districts of Tamil Nadu. And Papanasam, where our farm is, is close to the western ghats. If we manage to cross the ghats by trekking westwards, we will reach Agasthyamalai and then Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. And a drive to Kanyakumari is just a couple of hours drive from here. Because of this, we face the wrath of the weather systems of both Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, unlike the northern and eastern districts of Tamil Nadu.
The month of May is known for a period called Agni-nakshatram in the Tamil calendar. The name Agni-nakshatram elicits fear in people’s minds because it is the hottest time of the year usually. Agninakshatram has taken a break this year here and how! Thanks to the two cyclones that hit us in the beginning of the season.
Cyclone season has started
As all of you living in the west coast know first-hand, Cyclone Tauktae hit India hard, wreaking havoc in the coastal districts a couple of weeks back. It brought heavy rains and winds to our farm as well. This is the time when farmers around cultivate a lot of summer vegetable crops and pulses after the rice harvest in February and March. The plants start flowering right about now and it is disastrous to have winds and rains at this time. The productivity takes a hit if there aren’t enough wind breaks to protect the crop. Cyclone Yaas which hit Odisha yesterday also affected weather systems adjacent to Tamil Nadu bringing heavy winds and light rains to several districts.
Even before the cyclones of May, it has rained on and off between January and April. This is extremely unusual for Tamil Nadu. Tirunelveli 2021 makes it seem like I have returned to the 3000-mm-rainfall city of Mumbai.
Rice cultivation 2020-21
Around here, a lot of farmers had skipped preparing rice nursery in November 2020, because the north east monsoon didn’t arrive on time. In early & mid January, heavy rains were unleashed across Tamil Nadu by a delayed monsoon system. A lot of farmers who had lost hope earlier got dejected because the ponds became full.
During harvest, rice productivity took a massive hit in the neighbouring farms in February and March because of the excessive winds and rains. The crop output was less than 50% than usual harvest and farmers faced huge losses.
We had planted a longer duration rice variety which was going to mature in mid-April. There were heavy unseasonal winds in March because of which our crop didn’t remain standing. This made it easy for birds to feast on the crop. Despite our dogs’, Suli’s and Pani’s best efforts, peacocks had a week long party when the rice started maturing. The fact that a lot of farmers hadn’t planted paddy made the massive birds flock to our plots, which were the only ones. The harvest also got delayed on account of unseasonal rains. We have captured parts of the harvest journey in our Instagram page.
We had tried out a less water intensive form of cultivation called SRI (System of Rice Intensification) with a native variety called Kichli Samba. We had cultivated azolla in the flooded fields to improve nitrogen availability to the rice plants. The ladies who came to help us with the transplanting were very apprehensive about our experiments. To Noushy and my beginner eyes, the crop was looking very healthy for the first 4.5 months out of the 5.5 months. Even the ladies praised the health of our crop. But we got extremely disappointed at the output. While we were expecting 500 kilos of paddy, we managed less than 200 kilos. We were originally planning to mill some of the paddy and sell the rice to generate some revenue to recover the cost of ploughing, transplanting, weeding & harvesting. But those plans went for a toss!
In the first week of May, we were planning to sow pulse crops. But that too got delayed because the soil was not dry enough for even minimum ploughing. While we eventually ploughed last week, the rains that Cyclone Yaas brought has ensured that we can’t do field preparations such as creating bunds conveniently.
Cyclogenesis has been above normal in both the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal in the last 4 years. It is a sign that the Indian Ocean is getting warmer year by year. It is a clear effect of anthropogenic carbon emissions. Climate change is rearing its ugly head little by little in all aspects of our life. Its impact on India’s food production is becoming more and more obvious. Yet, we, as individuals and as a society, either continue to be in denial or are taking global warming/ heating too lightly to make changes in our lifestyles. These frequent back to back cyclones are a warning for Indian citizens to act swiftly. If any one of you had a doubt that we will be facing the wrath of climate changes in our lifetime, you can lay that to rest.
Lets see what the future beholds for us – Will the global civilization survive this challenge or perish? What do you think? Write to us in comments below. Lets start a conversation!