Most farmers have simply left their fields fallow, turning to wage labour to sustain their families instead.

As rivers and borewells run dry farmers in south Karnataka desperately pray for rainsFields left fallow due to failed rains.
news Drought Sunday, May 21, 2017 - 15:38

By Jayalakshmi K

It was noon and the sun bore fiercely down on the land. Bylanmaya, frail-looking and in his 70s, was taking his cows to graze in the dried-up water tank, now overridden with shrubs and bushes. The two acres of land he owns at Kollur have simply been left uncultivated due to poor rains.

Byregowda, from the same village in Dodballapur district, was picking coconuts dropped by monkeys on his two acres of land. The trees border his fallow land, again left uncultivated after failed rains.

Nanjegowda of neighbouring Tapsihalli had to sell off two of his cows as he cannot afford the high-priced fodder. He depends on wage labour for a livelihood.

Westward towards Magadi taluk, Lakshminarayana who depends solely on the rains for his ragi crop is now working on his friend's farm for an income. He too waits for the rains.

At Kunigal taluk, Kempiah and Lankappa, brothers in their 70s, at Singonahalli have given up on growing the yearly ragi and horesgram. The Mangala river waters have not reached the area for some time now.

Even wealthy farmers like Gurulinganna of Amanaghatta village of Gubbi taluk are waiting for the rains, with the main water source, the Hemavathi river, drying up and not reaching their land anymore.

Everywhere we went in the rural hinterland around Bengaluru city there were clear signs of despair, with all eyes looking skyward. This was especially so with small farmers, who cannot afford to keep digging borewells, an expensive business costing anywhere from Rs 2-6 lakh for the entire process and equipment.

With last year's ragi crop having failed or yielded low returns because the rains proved elusive during the crucial budding period of the millet crop, many farmers have preferred to leave their rainfed lands uncultivated. Some now rely entirely on their cattle for a livelihood but even that is becoming difficult. The failure of the ragi crop has also meant a dearth of fodder (the leftover stalks of the crop). A truckload of fodder that used to cost around Rs 5,000 is now priced as steeply as Rs 40,000-50,000.

In Gubbi taluk of Tumkur district, once replenished by the Hemavathi, the biggest tributary of the Cauvery, the land looks parched. At Amanaghatta, lake beds look like ravines with tractors from nearby farms carrying away the rich silt. Coconut and arecanut farms in the village looked visibly stressed; the dry fronds tell a truly worrying tale.

Dried-up lake bed in Gubbi taluk.

Coconut farms suffer the effects of drought in Singonahalli

This is the situation in the rural districts bordering Bangalore. Further north, from Madhugiri to the Andhra border, it is worse. Locals believe the land will burn soon thanks to the drought – the worst they say since the 1960s.

Drought declaration

An overwhelming majority of taluks spread over 26 districts in Karnataka have been declared drought-affected. “The declaration is based on rainfall in the months of June, July, August and Sept as well as the extent of cultivated area, the vegetation map (NDVI) and the moisture adequacy index," said  Shivaramu HS, Professor and Head, Agro-Meteorology Section, UAS, Bangalore.

The worst affected areas are Chitradurga, Tumkur, Bellary, Bijapur, Chamrajnagar, Mysore, Gadag, Haveri and Davanagere with rainfall deficits of 30% to 50%.

With ragi production hit, costs of the millet have gone up to Rs 3000 a quintal from Rs 1000 six years ago. It has also affected cattle fodder rates as the dried ragi stalks are what usually ends up as cattle feed. As to coconut production, which has also taken a hit, prices could rise steeply next year according to the farmers.

Everywhere the youth have left the lands and villages in the hands of elders, moving to the nearest city in search of employment. This inevitably turns out to be in garment and textile factories, which send trucks to pick and drop the workers daily.

But amidst all the desperation, rays of hope and defiance against the hard times could also be seen. Some like Umesha of Adakemaranahalli village in Magadi taluk, have begun rationing out their ragi cultivation (growing it on one acre instead of the usual five acres), the staple diet in most parts of the state. Luckily, for Umesha and some others, the stocks from previous years have come to their rescue, as ragi is a millet that can be stored for long periods of time.

Precision agriculture

Dry rivers and poor rains have also meant that farmers in the region are looking at dry borewells, with the water table having fallen from 100ft a few years ago to about 1,000 feet or deeper currently.

However, rather than give up, some like Umesha have decided to rely on more water-conserving techniques. He has opted to grow mulberry on an acre of his land, and two small patches for tomatoes and fodder grass. Turning to precision agriculture out of sheer necessity, Umesha is constantly on the watch for signs of wilting, even as he waters his crops on alternate days and keeps pushing the ceiling further.

Drip irrigation in mulberry cultivation

Similarly, for Jagdish Chandra and his brothers at Melkote village near Chikballapur, the current drought has been a time of experimentation on their 18 acres of land. With knowledge gained from an education in the city, the brothers have been cultivating double beans on their land.Water plays truant, even with borewells, forcing them to harvest rainwater in every way possible. The brothers have dug a wide pit lined with plastic sheets for collecting and storing rainwater and borewell water, and have also dug deep trenches across the land so that excess rainwater can seep properly into the ground.  

"It's a matter of luck too," noted Jagdish, pointing to his neighbour whose cucumber crop has wilted from the sun and lack of water.

Gurulinganna has resorted to mulching using available biomass on his coconut farm, while others like his friend Murthy have been rationing water to the crops. "For arecanut we are advised to use ten litres for one tree, but we have found that five litres is sufficient," says Murthy.

Gurulinganna has also put in place a rainwater harvesting unit for domestic needs. Water from the 2015 rains has served them till now.

Long-delayed compensation

The State Government estimated the crop loss during the present kharif season at Rs 17,193 crore and sought Rs 4,702 crore in assistance from the Centre. However, based on the advice of the high-level panel, the Centre has released just Rs 1235.2 crore, after adjusting Rs 96.92 crore with the state. So far the government claims to have disbursed Rs 671 crore directly to farmers' bank accounts linked to Aadhar.

However, on the ground there are many last mile connectivity issues. Portals and e-services have still to catch up with a majority of the farmers. Nanjegowda says that 100 of the 200 families in his village have been paid at the rate of Rs 2000 for an acre, but the rest, like him, are still to get money. "We have just been running from pillar to post and each time they ask us for a new account, this time it is a 'Modi' bank account. How many bank accounts to open?" 

Even the milk they sell fetches only Rs 24 for a litre, pointed out Mune Gowda of Melkote, while the same milk ends up being sold in the city at Rs 38 a litre.

 "Nobody cares for the farmer. We cannot even go on a strike. We simply suffer," went the lament everywhere.

(Courtesy for all images: SH Gopal Krishna)

(This is Part 1 of a two-part series on drought in south Karnataka. For a detailed analysis of the causes of and solutions for drought in the region, see Part 2 here.) 

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