In a place where nature provides, mankind deprives

The water of India's Cauvery River is critical to the farmers of Tamil Nadu. But this year, politics bottled it up.

Drive through this corner of southern India, and you'll see the occasional lush green rice paddy, but mostly it's field after field of thorns.

Once one of the major rice-growing regions of India, the fields of Tamil Nadu have not gone dry because of Mother Nature, although there has been a drought this year. Tamil Nadu is dry because of man. Specifically, one man.

In early September, S.M. Krishna, the chief minister of the neighboring state of Karnataka disobeyed a treaty that obliged him to release waters from the Cauvery River – a river so vast it has been nicknamed the Ganges of the South – to the farmers of Tamil Nadu.

On Sunday, Mr. Krishna changed his mind, after facing sanctions from the Indian Supreme Court.

But for farm laborers like Navaneetham, the Cauvery waters are coming too late.

"There used to be work for 400 people in our village, but now nobody is planting, so only 14 of us can find work," says Navaneetham, who like many ethnic Tamils has just one name. "Some of us forgo food. Instead of two meals a day, we just eat one meal. And without work, we may have to have even less."

The farmers of Tamil Nadu are not India's most desperate farmers, of course. In the drought-prone northwestern state of Rajasthan, for instance, dozens of farmers and their families have literally starved to death in the past month after a three-year-long drought.

But the tragedy of the Cauvery River dispute is that it is entirely manmade.

Farmers from Karnataka say their state contributes 70 percent of the Cauvery's water, but receives only 20 percent for its own use.

Farmers from Tamil Nadu say they shouldn't be punished for success. It was Tamils who harnessed the flood waters of the Cauvery and turned a flood-prone region into one of the most fertile regions of India.

With emotional arguments on both sides, and few political leaders willing to bridge the gap, this weekend's court decision may be only a temporary solution. Unless political leaders of both states can reach a satisfactory agreement on how to share the river, the man-made droughts of Tamil Nadu may become a yearly affair.

"Honestly, this is not a water dispute, it is a huge human problem," says Ranganathan, president of the Tamil Nadu Cauvery Delta Farmers Welfare Association in Thanjavur. "It has to do with the sustenance and livelihood of millions of people who depend on agriculture."

Like many Tamil farmers, Mr. Ranganathan argues that they deserve to receive the lion's share of the Cauvery waters, because it was Tamil engineers who developed the river in the first place.

By taming the Cauvery with massive stone dams and flood regulators as early as the 8th century A.D., Tamil engineers and farmers turned a flood-prone area into one of the best-watered regions in India. The Tamil rice-farming population soared.

But modern Karnataka farmers, who began planting massive tea and sugarcane plantations in the 19th century, argue that Tamil Nadu takes more than its fair share. They point to a 1926 treaty between the two regions, signed by their then-hereditary rulers, under which Tamil Nadu receives 60 percent of the river waters for irrigation.

Tamil farmers have the law and the Indian Supreme Court on their side. In 1990, the court ruled that Karnataka must release the Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu according to the treaty.

But successive Karnataka leaders have dithered, seeking a separate political agreement with Tamil leaders. It was only after the threat of severe sanctions that Karnataka's chief minister was forced to open the state's reservoirs this past weekend.

Mr. Krishna's turnaround has elicited a barrage of protest from Karnataka's powerful farming lobby. Major opposition parties called for statewide strikes, calling Krishna's decision a "betrayal." India's Central Reserve Police Force has been called in to protect the state's reservoirs, after some farmers threatened to drown themselves in the river or toss themselves off the dams in protest.

But here in the rice-growing Thanjavur region, the Cauvery waters will make only a marginal difference for this year's crop. With the waters delayed, local farmers have decided to plant only 100 of those 1,000 acres.

This means there is work for only 20 people. Rather than see other villagers starve, the 20 laborers have decided to share the labor and split their wages. Men now earn about 7 rupees a day. Women earn less, about 4 rupees; enough for a cup of tea, nothing more.

Out in a field near the village of Mudalsethi, three laborers – all of them named Rajandran – say they and their families will all go hungry this year.

"We've lost 90 percent of our work," says the shortest of the three Rajandrans. "Having lost our jobs, we go hungry with just one meal a day, and that is only rice gruel."

"We cannot even leave here," says the second Rajandran, who is tall and lean. "Our families are here, our children are in schools, our homes are here. And we don't know how to do anything else. Just rice farming."

The third Rajandran remains silent, then speaks. "We can only die," he says. "Until then, we are praying for rain."

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