The three acres that Jayamohan owns in Orathanadu in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu has not seen a harvest since January.

Encouraged by a bountiful north-east monsoon last November, Jayamohan anticipated a normal south-west monsoon in the middle of this year. He prepared his land in May for the kuruvai summer crop season (which is known as the kharif in other parts of the country) and made a vow to tonsure his head at the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam if he was blessed with a good harvest.

Since his land abuts a canal fed by the Cauvery river and has a comfortable slope, he was hopeful that even a small amount of water released from the Mettur dam – the river's entry point in Tamil Nadu – would be enough to save his crop if the monsoon was scanty.

But his optimism has faded. "I raised the nursery and ploughed the land, but I could not find a drop of water in June to feed the crops," he said. Along with the crop, his investments have also wilted away.

"They say the farmer feeds the nation," he said, pointing to his cracked field. "Now we don't have anything to feed ourselves. We depend on ration rice."

In the Cauvery Delta zone, which encompasses 14.7 lakh hectares of farmland across seven central districts of Tamil Nadu, fields have remained mostly uncultivated this summer. Citing a poor monsoon, Karnataka refused to release Tamil Nadu's share of water from the Cauvery.

Even though the Supreme Court on October 1 directed Karnataka to release the water, this may not help much. Tamil Nadu requires 163 thousand million cubic feet of water till May 2017 for its farming and drinking water needs, but is expected to get only 143.18 tmc ft – that too assuming the north-east monsoon is robust. The crisis has increased the debt burden on farmers and led to distress selling of cattle and land.

Rice bowl in grief

The Cauvery Delta Zone in Tamil Nadu, historically referred to as the Chola Mandalam as it was ruled by the Chola empire, is considered one of the most fertile agricultural areas in the country.

The delta zone, which forms a triangle in the central part of the state, is divided into three areas: the east, west and lower delta. The lower delta, which occupies the southern region, developed after the king Karikala Chola constructed the Grand Anicut (Kal-Anai), a water regulator, in the second century. This structure, located in Tiruchy district, is still in use.

Sixty-year-old Ramakrishnan of Parithikotai in Thanjavur reminisced about the time agriculture was carried out comfortably for at least eight months a year. “Decades earlier, if a house had a grand wedding, they would assume it was the house of a farmer,” he said.

Ramakrishnan no longer has the resources to continue farming and has leased out his land. His family of four survives on the lease amount and the share of grain the agreement brings once a year.

Since 2010, the situation of farmers in the delta has become precarious. K Kamaraj, secretary of the Tamil Nadu Farmers' Association in Thanjavur, said that at least 80% of land in the district had forgone the kuruvai crop in the last five years.

This was echoed in a report by the Supreme Court-appointed technical committee that toured the delta last week. It said the kuruvai was a lost cause in Tamil Nadu and farmers were entirely dependent on the October-January samba season. Thus, two seasons of income in a year has now been reduced to one.

“Slowly, debts are building up,” Kamaraj said.

Along with debt, farmer suicides are also on the rise. The National Crime Records Bureau’s statistics for 2014 show that 68 farmers committed suicide in the state. But Kamaraj said the number was much higher. "When a farmer commits suicide, the police mostly claim it was not due to farming distress,” he said, adding that they attribute the deaths to bizarre reasons such as stomach aches and headaches and close the cases. “This means families fail to get compensation and end up with the debt burden.”

Loss of income

Adding to the debts, cultivation costs have gone up. Pandithurai, a farmer in Kunniyur in Tiruvarur district, said the cost of paddy cultivation, on average, has touched Rs 20,000 per acre. In a good year and with timely availability of water, a farmer can expect an average yield of 30 to 35 bags of paddy per acre, each bag containing 60 kg. "If you consider the costs, a good year will fetch us Rs 7,000-Rs 10,000 profit per acre," he said. The minimum support price for a quintal (100 kg) of paddy is currently Rs 1,470.

For example, a farmer with two acres of land would end up with a kuruvai season profit of about Rs 20,000. Add the samba crop that has been cultivated consistently with the help of the north-east monsoon and his annual income would be around Rs 50,000.

"It is with this little money that we take care of the family and prepare for the next cropping season,” said Asalambal of Papanadu in Thanjavur, pictured above. The 68-year-old farmer added that one of her two sons had moved to Telangana this year to work at a construction site.

According to the state agriculture department, 92% of all agricultural land holdings in Tamil Nadu are categorised as small and medium. They measure less than five acres each.

Despite claims of mechanisation in agriculture, the Tamil Nadu government’s Economic Appraisal in 2014 showed that paddy yield is at least 2.08 tonnes lower than the potential yield per hectare in most parts of the state. Officials said small land holdings and low incomes are the main reasons for the low yield, since new scientific techniques are tough to implement.

The crisis of the last five years has also affected landless farm hands, who constitute 40% of the population in the Cauvery delta, according to government data. With an entire farming season wiped out, these workers are forced to bank on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which pays them less than what they would get working the fields. A labourer makes Rs 203 a day under the government’s job scheme, whereas crop planting would fetch him Rs 600 and harvesting Rs 500 per acre – along with tea and biscuits twice a day.

Some misconceptions

When the Cauvery water dispute reached the Supreme Court this year, one of the arguments made by Karnataka to deny water to Tamil Nadu was the availability of groundwater on the other side. Its lawyers contended that Tamil Nadu could compensate the loss of Cauvery water with groundwater, which was apparently available in plenty.

But this argument completely missed some realities. Since a majority of land holdings are small, not many farmers in the Cauvery delta have borewell sets. The landscape, with crisscrossing water channels and lakes, makes it difficult for electricity connections to reach all the fields.

Francis, a farmer, said not all in the Cauvery delta region could afford a borewell to use groundwater.

"Most small farmers borrow water from those who have pump sets," said M Francis of Maraneri in Boodalur. This arrangement comes at a heavy price for the small farmer.

Either they pay Rs 100 for every hour of use or, in case the entire cultivation is dependent on the borewell, its owner insists on six bags of paddy per acre from the produce. ”This is uneconomical for us," said Francis. "This is why many would rather not cultivate.”

Besides, the power supply is erratic. While thousands of farmers get free electricity, the duration of supply determines whether the owner of a pump set can share it with those who do not have one. "If the power supply in a day is only for a few hours, no farmer will share it," Francis said.

Even with the government offering subsidies, most small farmers cannot afford borewells. Installing one costs around Rs 1 lakh. The annual income of these farmers is half that amount. "Even if we take loans and install one, there is no guarantee we will get good water as salinity is a big problem," Francis pointed out. The cost of a borewell goes up with its depth.

Location, too, is an important factor. Take the case of the coastal district of Nagapattinam, at the eastern end of the Cauvery delta. Even when it gets water from Karnataka, there is no guarantee the water will reach this district at the tail end of the delta and at the right time.

The location of the individual landholding is also crucial. While those on the banks of lakes and channels benefit from even small releases of water from the Mettur dam, lands further away and with an elevation bear the brunt of drought.

Distress selling

All of these factors contribute to the debt burden on farmers, who are left with no choice but to sell their lands. As one drives through Thanjavur and Tiruvarur districts, it is easy to spot real estate plots that were once fields.

"Land along the highways is the most susceptible," said farm leader Kamaraj.

Real estate players have done their bit to take advantage of the poor farmers. Aware that the Kuruvai crop is bound to fail without Cauvery water from Karnataka, brokers target farmers during this season.

"In their desperation, farmers take loans from these sharks," said Kamaraj. As the debt mounts, the farmer is put under pressure to pay back the loan. At some point, he is made an offer: he is asked to give up his land and paid cash for it, minus the debt amount. Many farmers succumb to these tactics despite knowing that land use rules guard agricultural fields and they cannot be sold easily. "The real estate people will ensure there is no farming for a few seasons and get the land category changed," Kamaraj claimed.

In recent months, farmers have also begun selling cattle to take care of immediate expenses. In this context, the government’s free cow and goat scheme launched in 2011 has turned out to be a saviour.

"The free rice scheme and the free goat scheme are keeping us alive," said Velayudham in Arasur in Nagapattinam.

Praying for rain

Officials in the agriculture department fear a drop in food production this year. Between 2011 and 2013, when Tamil Nadu faced similar problems over Cauvery water, production dropped 45% from 101.5 lakh tonnes per year to 56.06 lakh tonnes.

Despite the discouraging circumstances, farmers in the Cauvery delta are fighting to cultivate their samba crops. Most of them have skipped the process of raising a nursery and have directly sown seeds in the fields so the crop can be cut in time. The 3,000 cusecs of water being released from Karnataka since October 10 following the Supreme Court's directives has made them hopeful.

According to the report of the Supreme Court-appointed technical committee, crops, in the initial stages, would need at least 20 wettings till January to survive.

Farmers have gone in for a mix of medium and long-duration paddy varieties, which have a cultivation period of between 120 and 180 days.

A good north-east monsoon is essential if the crops are to have any chance of surviving.

However, the north-east monsoon has been anything but consistent in the last few years. By its very nature, it is erratic – spells of heavy rain for a few days with long periods of lull in between. In 2014, 17 of the 32 districts in Tamil Nadu recorded deficient rainfall.

The season also brings with it the danger of cyclonic storms, with the sea-facing eastern delta susceptible to damage.

"It is depressing that despite sitting in a place where the mighty Cauvery flows, we have become prisoners of the rain," Velayudham said, as he returned to his tractor to plough his field.

In the face of all this uncertainty, the farmers are hoping at least the government will come to their rescue by increasing the minimum support price for paddy to at least Rs 1,800 a quintal.