Not even eight water pumps valued $10 million, which were installed in the low-lying farming community of Plum Mitan to prevent flood waters from entering farmers' lands, could save thousands of dollars in crops from being destroyed. Last weekend, following two heavy downpours, farmers in the sleepy village suffered losses to the tune of $400,000 in fully-grown watermelons and short-term crops.
This was the result of the failure of two pump operators to switch on the pumps, which were specifically installed to draw floodwaters from the farmers' land. On Tuesday, scores of farmers converged to vent their feelings and chastised Minister of Food Production Vasant Bharath for ignoring their plight.
The farmers claim they have been battling with this problem for three years, without a solution in sight. Farmer Sash Kistow said the PNM had done more for agriculture than the People's Partnership (PP) Government. "This Government just ent care. Is years we facing this problem and no one has lifted a finger to help. Yet they talking about a national food production action plan. They can't be serious."
Kistow said the PNM were more open to discussions and their needs. Similar sentiments were expressed by other farmers, who said they felt neglected and disrespected under this administration. Kistow said after injecting more than $10,000 into an acre of watermelon, he was now empty-handed and felt hopeless and helpless.
"I ent make as much as a cent. All my blood, sweat and tears gone down the drain. I have no money to start afresh," Kistow complained. Bharath, the farmers said, has never visited the area since being appointed minister. "A lot of us gave up on rice cultivation, which was a dying industry in Plum Mitan, and went into watermelon production to survive. This is our bread and butter," said Kumar Saroop.
Saroop said the farmers' disenchantment was growing daily.
Known as the Plum Mitan watermelon king, Kurt Seedanee said he was at his wits' end, having incurred thousands of dollars in losses in the blink of an eye. In addition to losing his entire crop, Seedanee said he also owed money to several chemical shops. "I don't know how I will honour my bills."
Seedanee, who sells wholesale at the Norris Deonarine Market in Macoya, is one of 60 farmers who cultivate 500 hectares from Blocks One to Four in the lagoon. The farmers, who cultivate watermelons on a wide scale, were granted 99 and 25-year leases by the ministry to occupy the lands.
Besides planting watermelons in the dry season, they grow short-term crops to feed the nation. Seedanee felt the farmers should be allowed to operate the pumps, rather than depend on the operators, who are not reliable when a crisis occurs. Under the PNM, Vishnu Boodram said six pumps valued at $8 million were purchased for the flood-prone lands. The pumps were installed at two stations, while two mobile pumps were bought at $1 million each.
Amrish Ramroop said after a sudden downpour last Saturday, water started to gush into narrow channels dug around their farms. Ramroop said he pleaded with the operator to switch on the pumps and open the sluice gates to take the water out. "But he just stood there laughing." In an effort to save their crops, the farmers, armed with shovels, dug a hole in one of the channels to divert the water.
But, Ramroop said, it was no use. In a matter of minutes, he said water started to back up in Block One, rising as much as three feet. Blocks Two, Three and Four, lying on higher ground, were also affected. Two days later, Ramroop said, the rains came and the same thing happened again.
"We were flooded out again because the pump operator was nowhere to be found. "It was a double whammy for us. We didn't get time to recover from the first blow when another struck us." The farmers of Block One estimate their losses at $400,000 and counting.
"Some of us still in a daze because we have nothing to fall back on. We don't know how to move forward," chipped in Vishuanath Boodram. An acre of land produces approximately 30,000 pounds of watermelon. Although the matter was reported to the ministry's El Reposo office in Sangre Grande and farmers filed compensation claims, field officers have yet to visit the affected farms to assess the losses.
Disrespected and ignored
Anganie Ramroop pointed to six acres of rotted watermelons valued at $60,000 lying on the saturated ground. "When we started voicing our displeasure, we were branded mischief-makers by people in the agriculture sector. They don't want us to say what going on. We have reached a boiling point. Everywhere we turn is a stumbling block."
Outraged by the turn of events, Khamraj George said he was ready to throw in the towel. "What's the sense continuing? You only spinning top in mud. Farmers have been disrespected and ignored for too long."
Bharath: Pump problem resolved
Bharath said last Sunday he received a call from Cumuto/Manzanilla MP Collin Partap to say the operators had refused to switch on the pumps. In order for the pumps to be turned on, Bharath said, the operators would first contact a ministry official in Princes Town who would give a directive. "Clearly it appeared that that arrangement had broken down."
Bharath said that system of communication had existed at the ministry for many years, and was not practical. "We have to change that." Bharath said he got involved and spoke to the operator himself, telling him to turn the pump on. "Tell me, which minister would have taken the time to call a pump operator on a Sunday morning to tell him to switch on the pump? Which one?"
On Monday, Bharath said, he instructed Robert Salandy, director of Lands and Water, to resolve the problem. On Wednesday, Salandy met with 80 farmers and it was agreed that a resident of Plum Mitan and Ministry of Food Production employee, Kelly Doodnath, will be responsible for telling the pump operators when to turn on and off the pumps.
"In addition to that, we have embarked on a training programme for several of the farmers, so in the event that Doodnath is not available, these farmers can operate the pump themselves. This will serve as a backup plan." Bharath said the work at his ministry has been so demanding that he cannot meet every farmer.
"If there is an issue in a particular area and I am alerted, I would go. I could only do what I can do. I have two hands, two legs, and I try as best as I possibly can." Bharath said the PP had done a lot for agriculture, which was neglected under the PNM. On May 9, Bharath said, he would visit Plum Mitan with Partap.
"This date was set way before this happened." Bharath said if the farmers have put in claims, they will be compensated. If the field officers have failed to visit the affected farmers, Bharath said, that matter will be dealt with.