Home/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  Why Kamaraj does not have to wake up early this year

K. Kamaraj does not have to wake up early this year.

The father of three does not have to travel the two kilometres or so to his agricultural fields, which ought to have been ready to harvest by now.

This is because Kamaraj hasn’t sown anything this year on his farms in Kariyapatti village of Tamil Nadu's Thanjavur district. Kamaraj usually sows rice, which many experts say is the only crop that will grow in the soils of the Cauvery delta region.

Ironically for a man who makes a living farming, Kamaraj is lucky to have left his land fallow. Those who have borrowed money and leased lands have seen their crop wither away. 

More than three-quarters of all water used in India is for agriculture and tapping of groundwater has happened only in some states. This means farmers rely exclusively on surface water, which leaves them vulnerable to the forces of nature. 

Tamil Nadu, which gets its water from rains brought by the north-east monsoon, is suffering from the worst monsoon in 140 years. The south-west monsoon, which makes its landfall in Kerala, rained almost 20% less than the average. 

The result: Severe drought and more time in bed for Kamaraj. For the first time in 40-odd years of farming, Kamaraj has let his fields lie idle.

The primary source

The river Cauvery, which provides sustenance and heartbreak to millions of rice farmers across the delta, is born in the hills of Karnataka.

It gets most of its water from the south-western monsoon, which drains into the Western Ghats where the river is born. In Karnataka, it is joined by seven major tributaries—six from that state and one, the Kabini, from Kerala—before heading down the hills. It then enters Mysuru, the first city of any significance on its 800km trek to the Bay of Bengal in the east.

After exiting Mysuru, the river forms the boundary for Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for 64km before entering the latter. Here, its waters are briefly impounded by the Mettur dam, before it is released into the Cauvery delta.

The delta mainly consists of four districts in Tamil Nadu: Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam. It irrigates 1.6 million acres of land in the delta, much of it given to growing rice.

The farmers of the delta region require an estimated 330 billion cubic feet of water every rice-growing year . One cubic foot holds a little more than 28 litres of water. That makes the annual requirement of the delta farmers roughly 9.3 trillion litres of water.

At home

Kamaraj, 57, has a three-room house that he shares with Karuppuchamy, his father, who is in his nineties, Menaka, his wife, and Kanmani, their second daughter. 

Kamaraj’s two other children live elsewhere. The oldest, Venmani, who may be 28 or 29 (Menaka and Kamaraj disagree on the exact figure) is a mother of two who lives with her husband in another village. The youngest, Kavimani (who might be around 22), has just moved to Dammam in Saudi Arabia, where he is looking for a job

"It is Pongal time so we are cleaning the house," Kanmani says when I visit them. This time, celebrations around the Tamil harvest festival, on 14 January, are muted. 

I am sitting in a big room that serves as a kitchen with a collection of utensils and a gas stove, a sleeping area for Karuppuchamy and also the family’s television. One small room leads to this one. To the main room’s front, another small room is tacked on, almost as an afterthought. This does not have a front door. 

At night, probably in deference to an unusual visitor in this correspondent, Menaka strings up a sheet across the front entrance. 

Against the far wall of this room, is a row of chairs. One of the chairs has a wicker basket on it, from which, every once in a while, a low growl issues. One of Kamaraj’s hens is laying and has been sequestered there.

The caste factor

Like much else in this state, caste plays an important role in agriculture as well.

Kamaraj is a Pallar, one of the Scheduled Castes. Caste dictates who gets elected (the upper castes sometimes appoint a Scheduled Caste candidate to contest elections when the village is marked for a scheduled caste candidate). It also dictates far more prosaic things, like who gets water first for the fields. 

Even if his field lies in the path of the water, Kamaraj says, he has to wait until the farmer of the upper caste fills his field and closes the dyke before he can open the dyke to his field.

Caste differences nearly got him killed once. 

It was the evening of 1 January 1991. Kamaraj says he was hacked and left for dead by a group from the Kallar caste who had to pass through his village to get to their own.

The government had apparently given some 15 acres of land as “inam" (reward) to the Pallar-Parayars, and the Kallars, Kamaraj says, resented this.

“That became a caste problem—water shouldn’t flow to the Pallar-Parayar caste," Kamaraj says. Also, if the Pallar-Parayar got their own fields, then who would have worked on the upper caste’s fields?

Kamaraj remembers a year when the crops were plentiful and he got 48 bags of rice to the acre. That was in 2003. Last year, he had sown in all of his 16 acres and got an average of 30 bags of rice an acre.

The rice sells for anywhere between Rs900 to Rs1,400 a bag, depending on the type of rice. He has saved 30 bags of rice, which is what his family lives on. His family runs though one 60kg bag a month.

His estimated expenditure is about Rs10,000 a month, of which he spends Rs3,000 on petrol for his bike to ride up to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) office, where he works part-time. All he has to buy otherwise are the vegetables, oil and other essentials. 

He usually spends about Rs18,000 an acre on labour, fertilizer and seed. He has up to 120 labourers working his fields, who migrate to towns or find other jobs when there is no work here.

The previous night, his dinner was dosa and accompaniments, which he ate while answering my questions about his acreage and farming patiently. In the background, the dosas made a low hiss every time the batter was poured onto the pan.

Menaka, who is making the dosas, interrupts him twice—once, when he says that his first-born is 29 and she thinks Venmani is 26 or 28. They gently bicker but neither presses the point. Again when Kamaraj says he usually wakes up early to visit his fields to supervise the work the farmhands were doing. Menaka makes a short, sharp dismissive sound in the background.

The house is the only place where Kamaraj is without a red shawl on his right shoulder. The previous evening, we rode to his fields, slipping and skidding on loose sand when the road through the village of Kariyapatti gave out to a dirt track, with the shawl fluttering in my face but miraculously staying on his shoulder.

When we stopped by the roadside, a woman walking along tells us that she had borrowed Rs30,000 to be able to sow rice and now the crop was gone. 

Season of failures

The story repeats itself, year after year. The problem is farmer indebtedness, and a year of no rains and no river water merely exacerbated the problem.

Many farmers borrow to buy seed and fertilizer and to pay their farmhands. An acre of paddy costs Kamaraj about Rs18,000.

S. Dhanapalan of the Kaveri Vivasayigal Paadhugappu Sangam (a group representing farmers of the delta) said it cost nearly Rs25,000 an acre in Nagapattinam.

A story about rice farmers in the Cauvery Delta would be incomplete without a visit to Nagapattinam.

It is a district of 1.6 million people, more than three-quarters of whom live in villages. It is about 89% Hindu. The district, bound by the Bay of Bengal to the east, suffered badly in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

It is part of the old delta, irrigated by lagoons leading off the river, which meets the seas much further north. 

Nagapattinam stands first in terms of farmer deaths, either by suicide or despair, on seeing their crops destroyed by lack of water. The National Human Rights Commission has, in a notice to the Tamil Nadu state government, said that media reports indicate 106 farmers have either killed themselves or died due to shock in the past few months.

The revenue collector for Nagapattinam district declined comment saying they were in the process of preparing a report for the government.

A visitor to Nagapattinam is greeted by endless vistas of cropped land in varying shades of brown. In Thanjavur, the monotony of drying crop is broken every once in a while by a bright green field where the rice crop is being fed water from a tubewell. Not in Nagapattinam though.

Here, the plants are usually a few inches high and gently roasting in the sun.

Dhanapalan guides me to the house of Kaliyaperumal, 67, who collapsed in his field (earlier this month) when taking stock of the damage wrought by the unrelenting sun. Local villagers attribute his death to the strain and worry induced by the fact that his crop had failed and how was he going to repay his debtors. 

S. Janakarajan, president of South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Studies, or Saciwaters, says the lack of water is just one of the many problems faced by farmers in the Nagapattinam region of the old delta. This includes pollution (several dyeing and bleaching businesses and more than 50 towns dumping their sewage along the tributaries in Tamil Nadu or the river itself) and mining for sand. 

Cauvery is a sick basin, he says. “A sick, sick delta and in the drought situation, the sickness has become accentuated."

More than a third of the population of the four districts are landless farmers, according to him. “In a small, marginal farmer’s economy, they heavily depend upon private finances. Not only for agriculture, always."

So “the debt trap" affected farmers of the region where more than a third were landless. “You take a loan in order to repay a loan."

Why sow when you can’t reap?

Arjunan, 65, a farmer in Vallam in Thanjavur district, said that in his area, people had been farming for at least 200-300 years, ever since a canal brought Cauvery water here. 

If 75 people normally sow rice, only 25 have not sown this season for various reasons. Arjunan has sown too—20 acres under rice, all of it gone to waste.

“With the water required for one acre of rice crop, I can water five acres of groundnuts. There is a good market for groundnuts, right now. Forty kilos sell for not less than Rs2,000," he says. “I can get 30 bags of groundnuts to the acre. That is Rs60,000. Rice grown in one acre would sell for only Rs30,000."

This too comes with its set of problems—Arjunan saw insects in his groundnut plants. “It has been eight days since I sprayed (insecticide). I saw insects. So, I have to buy the insecticide and spray tomorrow."

Getting water is hard; demonetization has only made it harder for farmers like him to pay agricultural labour, which is why most people have been put off farming. “Even those people going for coolie work (daily wage labourers) can have peace in their lives," Arjunan complains.

So, why does he still farm? Arjunan says it’s because his land is valuable. “When there is nobody, what if the land is stolen and resold?"

Kamaraj has a far more prosaic reason for not sowing any crops this year, though. Somebody stole the pump set and tubes of his borewell, that he might have used to cultivate on at least some of his land.

The samba crop may have dried on the stalk. His own fields may be lying fallow. But Kamaraj wears his crisp white shirt and white dhoti and places his red shawl on his right shoulder.

He is the district president of the Thanjavur office of the CPI (M). It is a part-time worker’s post and he draws no salary from the party.

He has to go to his “katchi office" or party office. Today is “vasuli" day, when he will go with others to shops and collect money for the party.

Dharani Thangavelu contributed to this story.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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Updated: 27 Jan 2017, 10:30 PM IST
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