I lost hundreds of vegetable plants to unseasonal rain this year. 

New kinds of worms came with the rain. They attacked my vegetable plants and destroyed them. So now I mostly grow chillies as they are sturdier. Earlier, we used to grow many more vegetables: pumpkin, chilli, yam, tomato, onion, spinach, papaya and drumstick.

My name is Kali, and people around here usually refer to me as Kali paati. ‘Paati’ is the word for grandmother in Tamil. I don’t know my exact age as nobody recorded the date or time when I was born, but my husband, Raman and I are in our sixties. He works as a daily wage labourer in Malkoopu, which is seven kilometres from our home in Attadi village. We are Irulas [Scheduled Tribe] and live on the edge of a forest in the Konakarai region of Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu. The closest town is Mamaram or Kotagiri from where we can buy necessities.

My husband and I have been farming on this small piece of land since 2017. It doesn’t belong to us but the owner allowed us to clear the overgrowth and cultivate crops here. Now the land belongs to someone else, but we have never met him although we continue to farm it. Our earnings from this and my husband’s daily wages of roughly 300 rupees just about sustains us. 

Things were different two years ago when we used to sell our vegetables in the market. Once, I planted beans and harvested a bumper crop of 50 kilos that I sold in the Kotagiri market for Rs 3000 rupees. We called a tempo van and travelled to Konakarai to sell our produce in the market. 

It is very difficult to depend on agriculture nowadays. Earlier I could harvest up to 200 kilograms of vegetables through organic farming but now it has reduced to 20 kilos. People have advised me to use chemicals to improve yield, but I don’t want to do that.

Instead of using chemical fertilisers I use the ash from wood and cow dung. We get cow dung from farmers with cattle and if it is not available then one can buy it for Rs. 6,000 a tractor load from the market. My husband Raman says that if we use a large amount of cow dung and ash we can get up to 50 kilos of vegetables. 

I used to work in the field from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m but then I fell ill in 2019 and I couldn’t work in the fields. I returned to the field in 2021, but things have simply not picked up. Now we grow vegetables only for our family and Raman takes care of the work if I am unwell. But then he cannot go for his daily wage work and our income falls. 

A cement road has been laid in our village at Attadi. It is used by tempos and vans to collect agricultural produce. The vans cannot come to our house because the path through the forest to our house is too narrow for vehicles. So we have to take the vegetables in bundles on our heads through the hilly forests to reach Attadi – which is about 500 meters away. We can also walk to Mamaram and take a van from there to Kotagiri market. At our age we find it difficult to travel long distances on foot. 

My nephew Sivamani, 48, and his family live with us – his wife Rajamma and their two adult sons, Siva and Madan who do wage work. They were going to school but dropped out – Siva after Class 5 and Madan after Class 9. Sivamani’s land is next to ours and he cultivates vegetables like radish and beans and sells them in the Kotagiri market. He also goes for wage work.

I don’t know anything about climate change, but yes, the unseasonal and excessive rains have made farming difficult. 

When it begins to rain heavily, usually in the evenings, I worry about having to sow the vegetables again if the plants get destroyed. 

This story is part of a series reported by people from local and indigenous communities within the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. They are documenting the impact of climate change around them. The stories are part of a project by the Keystone Foundation with support from the Earth Journalism Network, in collaboration with PARI.

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Editor's note

Franklin Samuel has a degree in mechanical engineering. Interested in journalism, in 2022 he joined the short environmental journalism training course offered by Keystone Foundation with support from the Earth Journalism Network and People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI).

He was drawn to the story of Kali because it was related to the environment and nature. He says: “Kali paati’s story introduced me to small-scale organic farming. I feel everyone should switch to organic farming for food security and good health.”