Sankaralingam remembers the time when he kept busy round the year raising one crop after another on his five-acre field in Thirupazhanam, a small village in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu.

He said those were the days when he and his family donated several bags of their paddy harvest to the Apathsahayar temple in the village every season. This donation was a matter of great pride for his family.

“The festival there happens in January,” said 72-year-old Sankaralingam. “In the older times, we use to send a part of our harvest as our offering.”

This offering took place twice a year – once after the Kuruvai summer crop, which farmers in this region harvest in late July, and a second time in January, just before the harvest festival of Pongal.

Apathsahayar, the deity’s name, means “one who comes to your help in times of danger”. This year, Sankaralingam said that he felt his prayers to the deity to save him from the danger that agriculture is currently facing in the region were yet to be answered. However, unwilling to discontinue a custom, he has donated a bag of paddy to the temple this season too – only this bag was bought from the market.

For the last six years, this region of the Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu, known as the rice bowl of South India, has been devastated by water scarcity during the summer months. Its famed three-crop cycle was first reduced to two about a decade ago. Today, with hundreds of lakes and ponds going bone dry, farmers consider themselves lucky if they manage to harvest a single paddy crop. The distress has been exacerbated by the fact that Tamil Nadu is in the midst of its worst drought in 140 years.

This situation has forced farmers to blame Tamil Nadu politicians for failing to proactively take up their cause and ensure that the state gets its rightful portion of Cauvery river water, which the state shares with Karnataka.

The tussle in the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam regime following the death of party leader J Jayalalithaa in December has sent its credibility plummeting.

Crop failure

Agriculture production statistics in Tamil Nadu paint a telling picture. According to a senior agriculture official, paddy production dropped by more than 50% between 2015-’16 and 2016-’17. The official said the third estimate for 2016-’17 pegged paddy production at around 65 lakh tonnes, down from about 120 lakh tonnes the previous year.

This correlates with the crop coverage data, which fell from 12.7 lakh hectares in 2015-’16 to 7.4 lakh hectares in 2016-’17, a 41.5% decrease according to Union government statistics.

“The severe drought made it impossible for farmers to take up farming,” the official added.

Officials said there has been a significant drop in the production of other major crops as well, though data for these crops is yet to be put together at the state level. Other major crops in Tamil Nadu include maize, black gram, groundnut, sugarcane and cotton.

Crop coverage data for a week, released by the Union Agriculture Ministry on June 23, pegs the total land under paddy cultivation in Tamil Nadu at 0.697 lakh hectares, marginally higher than the five-year average of 0.55 lakh hectares for the corresponding week. The State Directorate of Agriculture has set a target of 4.85 lakh hectares coverage for the Kuruvai crop.

However, officials who spoke to said that achieving this target would primarily depend on copious amounts of rain falling in the coming weeks.

One official in Thanjavur said that farmers in the region reported sowing by the third week of May in the hope of getting water for their crops from the Mettur dam, the entry point of the Cauvery river in Tamil Nadu.

“If the Mettur dam is not opened by June 12, which is the case this year, farmers stop sowing,” he said.

Since the Mettur dam has not been opened on June 12 for six years now, only farmers who have borewells sow in May. “Others wait and watch and many give up on Kuruvai all together,” the official added.

Farming woes

In large parts of Thanjavur and Tiruvarur, the statistics reflect the ground situation. Farmer who do not own a borewell have, in most cases, skipped the summer crop.

Sekar, a farmer in Mannargudi, in Tiruvarur district, said if the situation improved in the coming weeks, farmers would opt for direct sowing rather than raising a nursery [for paddy]. But this comes at the cost of lower yields.

Groundwater salinity has become a major factor in the region. While this problem was more prevalent at the tail end of the Cauvery delta in Nagapattinam, salinity is increasingly a concern even in core delta areas of Tiruvarur as farmers, due to the lack of river water, are putting immense pressure on groundwater.

Sekar said that last year he took the help of his neighbour, who owns a borewell, to irrigate his groundnut crop during Kuruvai. But this time, the neighbour flatly refused to share water since he feared that the groundwater might run out.

“He proposed deepening the borewell to 300 feet from the current 100 feet and sharing the cost,” said Sekar. “But I was in no position to pay.” He added that the cost of doing this would have touched Rs 2 lakh.

Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam together cultivate over 5.2 lakh hectares.

There are also those who have dug borewells but are waiting for electricity connections for over five years. Saravanan, a farmer in Kandakerayam near Mannargudi, said there was a waiting list for free electricity connections. “For five years, the officials have been telling me I will get a connection soon,” he claimed “Nothing has moved.”

In the 1990s, the government issued a moratorium on electricity connections to farmers to check rampant pilferage. The farmer said this was later lifted, but by then there was a huge backlog of applications. By May 2015, there were over three lakh applications for agriculture service electricity connections pending before the state electricity board, which processes about 35,000 to 40,000 such applications a year. Agriculture officials feel that if three lakh more borewells are added, the strain on groundwater will increase manifold.

The situation has forced some to advocate taking the Kuruvai out of the farming calendar. S Ranganathan of the Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association said that the government should encourage farmers to conserve water for the Samba season in December-January, the main cultivation season for Tamil Nadu, which receives 60% of its rainfall from the October-December North East monsoon.

However, the state government is not convinced. Recently, it released a special assistance package of Rs 68 crore to help farmers plant the Kuruvai crop and has gone all out to encourage farmers to sow this season.

Weak leadership

While they welcomed such assistance from the state government, farmers claimed that their trust in the political establishment has eroded significantly as very little has been done by the government to claim Tamil Nadu’s share of the Cauvery waters.

Sami Natarajan, a farmers’ leader in Thanjavur, said that in the past, those heading the Tamil Nadu government usually started raising their voices for Cauvery water at the beginning of May. “This year, we have not seen any visible effort from the AIADMK leadership to fight for water [with Karnataka],” he alleged. “It is as though the government does not exist.”

Farmers primarily blame the internal politics of the AIADMK ­– which has been split into three groups after the death of Jayalalithaa – for the current situation. The perception on the ground is that since the AIADMK has moved closer to the Bharatiya Janata Party in the recent months, it was hesitant to put pressure on the Centre to act against Karnataka.

This apart, farmers are also miffed about lakes and ponds not being de-silted on time for the monsoon. The Opposition too raised this problem in the Assembly, with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam pressing its cadres to clear the water bodies even as it accused the government of inaction.

“It is only now in the end of June that we see some cleaning of the lakes happening,” Sekar alleged. “Whatever rain we get is going to be wasted as the lakes are unable to absorb it fully.”

This report is part of a series on why farmers are protesting across India. Read the other stories:

A collapse in the prices of soyabean led to violent protests by farmers in Madhya Pradesh.

Behind the farmer unrest in Haryana there is a history of instability in crop prices.

A farm crisis is slowly brewing in Assam – and farmers are staging protests to draw attention to it.