From changes in crop patterns to drought-resistant crop varieties to scientific and technological land management, a lot needs to be done.

No use blaming failed monsoons drought-hit farming in Karnataka needs comprehensive solutionsSH Gopal Krishna
news Drought Sunday, May 21, 2017 - 15:54

By Jayalakshmi K

(This is Part 2 of a two-part series on drought in south Karnataka. Read Part 1 here.)

The land is parched and cracked. And the sun beats down unrelenting, with no signs yet of the monsoon. For Karnataka, this has been one of the worst summers in decades. Not only has it faced drought for four consecutive years, but the drought this year is estimated to be the worst in the last 42 years.  

The government and the state’s farmers point to failed monsoons as the cause for the crippling drought. Yet experts observe that if Karnataka has some of the most arid regions in the country, next only to the Thar in Rajasthan, and recurring droughts despite being blessed with so many rivers and the ecological bounty of the Western Ghats, failed monsoons are an inadequate explanation.

One of the primary problems agricultural scientists point out is the major shift in cropping patterns in the state. Thanks to major and minor irrigations projects by governments, and the rapid spread of borewells, more and more farmers in the dryland belts have moved away from cultivation of millets and crops that require less water to water intensive crops like paddy and sugarcane.

While paddy and sugarcane cultivation have grown by 20% and 586% in the last four decades, jowar, ragi and bajra cultivation have dropped by 53%, 35% and 52% respectively. Minor millets have lost out 90%. Traditionally grown since thousands of years in the dry belt, millets like kodo and barnyard millet require a mere 300 mm rainfall and give a considerable yield even in poor quality soils.      

Farmers like Gurulinganna and his friends in Gubbi Taluk point out that this was inevitable considering the better yields and higher prices that cash crops fetch. "Yes, that is partly true. We are also human and want to see how much more we can make. We have aspirations too," they say.

Water-intensive crops have pushed resources to the limits, leading to surface water bodies like lakes drying up. (SH Gopal Krishna)

However, the limits of resources in the south Karnataka region are being felt. At Chikaballapur and its surrounding areas, the Jakkalamadagu reservoir was the saving grace for farmers for many years. But now the water levels have started to dip, says Mune Gowda, who grows vegetables on his two acre land fed by drip irrigation from his single borewell. The same region used to be dotted with water-intensive sugarcane crops two decades ago. Today, Gowda says his yield of beans is a quarter of the normal, with flowers dropping off from the heat.

Eucalyptus spread

And then there are the slowly spreading stretches of eucalyptus plantations. Farmers like Somanna who have left their lands uncultivated thanks to poor rains, now depend on these plantations. Actively promoted by the government as a lucrative cash crop requiring little work from the farmer, eucalyptus has proved particularly tempting in many parts of south Karnataka.

However, this species is known to guzzle up precious groundwater and prevent the growth of any other kind of flora in the vicinity. A study by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) had concluded that besides low rainfall in the catchment area of Arkavathi river, the eucalyptus plantations that have mushroomed around are responsible for the drought conditions. This eucalyptus culture is beginning to spread dangerously to other regions too.

 Another major problem in Karnataka, says watershed and farming expert LC Nagaraj, has been the consistent failure of watershed and forest policies.

"The interim report of the Planning Commission headed by Dr Hanumantha Rao had asked the government to appraise the watershed works on a regular basis but this has been missing. Many watershed works planned by the Union Government to restore the eroded marginal lands in the ridge areas of watersheds and to accommodate required biodiversity have failed,” he explains.

Added to this is the rapidly falling forest cover in the state. "The forest policy calls for a minimum of 33% of forest cover for a sustained hydrological cycle. But according to satellite surveys available, the forest cover has shrunk to 23.5% and only 8% of regenerative forest is left,” he says.

Importantly, he adds, even existing agricultural land is being affected because of a failure to upgrade cultivation methods. “Though there were attempts by few universities of agriculture sciences, the puddling and water logging methodology in rice cultivation still persists. Almost 80 % of the land under continuous irrigation is sick and the crop yield is on decline year by year."

Disconnect between farmers and agricultural scientists?

Farmers for their part complain that agricultural scientists sit in their high seats and dole out periodic judgements, but do not provide sufficient on-ground information to help them. At Gubbi, the farmers are as worried about the drought as they are about the bud rot and stem bleeding ailing the coconut trees. "They do not give us a solution but simply sit in their seats and dish out some information," was the common refrain. "In fact, we have become scientists," said members of a farmers' group in Tippur, Gubbi.

However, Prof HS Shivaramu of the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bengaluru argues that there are plenty of ways for farmers to receive the information they require. "Farmers should register to agromet advisories given by AMFU of agricultural universities, in association with IMD, through the mkisan portal and KSNDMC (varuna mitra 24x7). Through the mKisan web portal, we offer twice a week weather-based advice on their mobile. If scientists from the district's Krishi Vigyan Kendra do not come, the farmers should be advised to go get the information," says Shivaramu.

Drought-resistant rice

Agricultural scientists have not been idling. At the UAS, Bangalore a team headed by MS Sheshashayee, Professor of Crop Physiology, worked with the Genetic and Plant Breeding division led by Dr Rajanna in Mandya, to develop a drought-resistant variety of rice. Called Daksha, this variety uses 50% less water than the commonly used varieties, and produces a considerable yield.

However, Daksha has faced resistance from farmers, given its slightly lower yield. Initially the farmers saw it as a ploy to deny them their share of river waters. But slowly, some have been convinced to give the variety a try.

The last kharif season saw farmers in the Nagamandala, Mandya and KRpet taluks sow the rice and reap 16-18 quintals an acre compared to 25 quintals for the flood irrigated varieties."Yes the yield is less but when you look at the water saved, this one is the best bet. It is easier to grow than the nursery method and only requires some weed management and aerial supply of nutrients," says Rajanna.

MS Sheshashayee (middle) receives his award from the Indian Science Academy

Sheshashayee, who won the Indian Science Academy award for 'best teacher' for work on Daksha, believes that these crops are the need of the hour and not water-intensive ones. Two-thirds of the water used in agriculture today in India is taken up by rice alone. With up to 5000 litres of water needed to produce one kilogram of rice, several hundred trillion litres of water are needed for the annual crop, he points out.

Besides scientific management of land, some technological initiatives could also play a significant role in proper water management in agriculture. Gopal Krishna, an engineer with the MNC Maxim Integrated’s India subsidiary, is working on one such initiative in collaboration with UAS Bengaluru.

For example, a precision sensor for water use detects moisture near the roots of crops and releases water accurately according to what is needed. Currently in the pilot phase of testing, the sensor could make a much-needed difference to agricultural practice in water scarce areas.

Talking about it with farmers in Gubbi, Gopal was besieged to start a pilot in their village too. We want solutions, not subsidies, was the farmers’ demand.

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