Agri Business

Partly an Act of God, mostly a man-made disaster

Vishwanath Kulkarni Bengaluru | Updated on June 06, 2019

How the lack of rain, poor farming practices, and over-extraction of groundwater have created a drought in South Karnataka

 

“We decided to sink a new borewell after the existing one went dry in April, just to ensure that the arecanut trees on our 1.5-acre plantation survive,” says Shivu Kumar, a farmer from Somanahalli village in South Karnataka’s Tumakuru district. “The arecanut prices are good, and we didn’t want to take any risk by not having irrigation this summer.”

The family spent over ₹3 lakh to drill the new borewell. The family, many of whom also work as farm labourers to make ends meet, raised ₹70,000 by selling two quintals of arecanut and took a loan from a commission agent for the rest. It would have been cheaper to go to a bank, admitted Kumar, but he said its processes were too cumbersome.

Eventually, the drilling began... and went on endlessly. “Until a couple of years ago, there would have been water at 500-700 feet depth,” explained Kumar. Ultimately, the family was able to access groundwater at a depth well below 1,000 feet, the new norm in the region.

Kumar’s family is not alone. With the water table in Tumakuru district declining more with each year, farmers in the region have been going out of their way to ensure their arecanut plantations are well maintained — either by sinking a new borewell or by purchasing water through tankers. Surface water bodies, mainly tanks, have been dry for many months now and parched lakebeds and streams are a common sight across the region.

 

 

Three factors have played a key role in the steady decline in the region’s water table: poor rainfall, excessive groundwater extraction, and indiscriminate sand mining. South Interior Karnataka has received very little rainfall over the past few years and the little precipitation the region receives is very erratic. This has forced farmers to extract more and more groundwater for irrigation, leading to hundreds of borewells going dry or suffering a drastic fall in water yields. Indiscriminate sand mining from streambeds and tanks has led to the water flowing away and ensuring that the groundwater is not recharged.

In parts of Chikkaballapur and Kolar districts, the scene is no different as both the South-West and North-East monsoons have been a failure, forcing farmers to increase their dependence on groundwater for irrigation. It is common for drilling to take place 1,500 feet below the ground to access water in these districts.

 

Pursuing Arecanut riches

Traditionally, farmers in South Karnataka used to grow field crops such as coconut, millets, pulses and oilseeds. Today, as one travels Tumakuru district, abandoned plantations with withering arecanut trees are a common sight. They bear mute testimony to the craze for this cash crop that began a couple of decades ago, which steadily transformed the region’s landscape but at a great cost. This pursuit of arecanut riches has led to the overuse of groundwater for irrigation in Tumakuru, Chitradurga and Davangere districts.

“Arecanut prices had touched ₹75000-80,000 (a quintal) way back in 2004-05, prompting many farmers to take up this crop in these plains. The State has been turning a blind eye to the changes in the cropping pattern,” says C Yathiraj, Convenor of the School of Natural Farming in Tumakuru.

A cash crop native to the Malnad (rainy) areas of the Western Ghats, arecanut, which is used in paan masala and gutkha, has expanded its frontiers rapidly over the past two decades, with farmers even in the dry regions and plains preferring to plant it. Indeed, in Tumakuru — which accounts for 30 per cent of the acreage under coconut in Karnataka — the area under arecanut has more than doubled over the past two decades. Official data reveal that since 2009-10, over 10,600 hectares were brought under arecanut cultivation in Tumakuru, increasing the total area to 35,680 hectares, the fourth largest after Shivamogga in the Malnad region.

After being in decline for some time, arecanut prices have showed signs of a revival. The price of a quintal of the crop is currently around ₹35,000, offering farmers decent returns and making them want to grow more and more of the crop.

“Farmers are growing arecanut here as if it is Malnad,” laments Anekatte Vishwanath, President of the Karnataka Coconut Growers’ Association, alluding to the fact that arecanut is a water-intensive crop. “One can maintain 5 acres of a coconut garden using the same amount of water that is consumed to raise 1 acre of arecanut,” he explained.

“It’s not just arecanut,” adds Yathiraj, “varieties of coconut such as the dwarfs, and other horticulture crops such as mango, which need more water, are increasingly being grown in the region.”

Coconut crisis

Gavirangaiah, a 75-year-old farmer with a two-acre plantation near Kurubarahalli village in Tumakuru, with close to 200 coconut trees, points at a stream that borders his land. “It has been more than 11 years since our stream overflowed,” he says in a voice that fails to conceal his pain. His farm has a borewell funded by the State under one of its schemes. “The water level has reduced drastically, and I get water only to irrigate about four coconut palms a day. I am trying to ensure that some moisture is maintained at the root level so that the plant survives,” Gavirangiah explains.

 

Karnataka is the second largest producer of coconut after Kerala. Coconut is abundantly grown in Tumakuru, Hassan, Chitradurga, Mandya and coastal Karnataka. However, the crop has come under tremendous pressure in recent years because of drought and disease. Sparse rainfall over many years has intensified the drought conditions in the region. “The prevailing drought has impacted coconut palms in about 30 per cent of the total area of Karnataka,” said Vishwanath.

Yields have already declined due to the water stress, and some trees have been infected with diseases such as stem bleeding.

“There is a need to ensure that the government rejuvenates the lakes in the region by lifting Hemavathi water,” said Gavirangiah. A part of Tumakuru district is irrigated by a canal from the Hemavathi project in the neighbouring Hassan district.

For now, like Gavirangaiah, most farmers in the region are focussing on maintaining their gardens, as the process of rejuvenation or replanting is time-consuming and leads to loss of incomes. Frequent droughts are also impeding their replanting efforts. “Assuming that the rains are going to be normal this year, it would take at least 3-4 years to rejuvenate the coconut gardens,” said Vishwanath.

What went wrong

With the failure of both the South-West and North-East monsoons last year, Karnataka declared a drought in about 156 of its 176 taluks during the Rabi season last year, with about 100 taluks declared drought-hit in the Kharif season. According to the State Economic Survey for 2018-19, foodgrain production is expected to fall to around 100 lakh tonnes from 144 lakh tonnes in the previous year.

There is no official data on the number of borewells in the State. GN Srinivas Reddy, Director, Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre, estimates that no less than a tenth of the 1.5 lakh borewells in the State have gone dry this year. Another 20-30 per cent would have seen a drastic decline in yields. “We may lose another 10 per cent of the wells if this continues,” says Reddy.

 

He attributes the overextraction of groundwater to factors such as availability of free electricity, technological advancement in drilling borewells, and easy access to finance.

While there is awareness building up on rain-water harvesting, there is a need to regulate water use, says Reddy. If sustainability in water use is not ensured, there will not be any groundwater left in the next 5-10 years in many parts of the State, he warns.

“The prevailing crisis is the cumulative impact of mismanagement of natural resources, as far as agriculture is concerned,” says Yathiraj of the School of Natural Farming. “The crisis is getting worse every year. In the name of drought rehabilitation or mitigation, there are no proper measures being implemented for the long run. The political class and the administrative set-up just look at short-term measures to overcome the impact. But there is a need to look at addressing the issue of recurring drought with a long-term perspective,” he adds.

In a bid to wean farmers away from crops such as arecanut and coconut, the government should think of promoting crops such as millets in the region, says Vishwanath. “Parts of Tumakuru are already known for production of millets such as small millet and finger millet (ragi),” he points out. “The government should look at such crops in the region by setting up processing hubs.”

Coping mechanisms

“This area has been witnessing droughts for the past 4-5 years. As a result, many farmers have give up agriculture and have migrated to cities such as Bengaluru,” says Kumar Navile, an office bearer at the local coconut-producer group, Namma Tengu, in Chikkanayakana Halli taluk in Tumakuru. "The last time Navile tank (spread over 100 acres and one of the largest in the region) was full was way back in 2009. It has been dry since then," he adds.

Fortunately, the advent of garment manufacturing units in the region is helping stem the migration from these drought-affected regions. About half a dozen such units — including Shahi Exports and iTex Apparels — have set up operations in Tumakuru district, providing employment opportunities, mainly for women. According to the locals, the garment units have given jobs to about 10,000 villagers in the region.

“These garment units have, to some extent, helped contain migration from the region,” says Vishwanath. Women in villages within a radius of around 50 km come to work at these garment units, which have mainly come up on the Bengaluru-Honnavar Highway.

Meanwhile, with the lack of rains and absence of any activity on the fields during the summer, the male workforce in the region is either engaged in ensuring adequate water supply to their households or taking up other work such as peeling dried coconuts. “For every 1,000 dried nuts peeled, the men get paid ₹300. On an average, the men peel about 1,500-2,000 nuts per day," says Kumar. The biggest worry for farm labourers is the dwindling yield in coconut farms. “There is already a decline in coconut yields. We may not even have this work in the years to come if there are no good rains,” say a worried Kumar.

Mitigation measures

Meanwhile, the progress — or lack of it — of the monsoon has not provided any comfort to the people in the region. The pre-monsoon showers have largely been a failure, and the forecast of a near-normal monsoon by the Met has not lifted spirits. The travails of the drought-hit population are expected to continue for several days with the onset of the monsoon delayed by a week. But measures, both by the government and by those outside it, are being taken to mitigate the hardship.

“Rain-dependent farmers couldn’t even recover a fraction of the investments made last year. This year, we are supplying them seeds of short-duration varieties and hoping for better rains,” says Narasimha Murthy, CEO of the Mokshagundam Visveswariah Farmer Producer Company in Bagepalli.

Yathiraj of the School of Natural Farming recently held a workshop for farmers, which was addressed by the water conservationist Rajendra Singh. “It was well-attended by farmers and farmer groups. We need to see how to take this forward to take up drought-proofing measures,” says Yathiraj.

The State government recently announced a new community-driven water conservation scheme, Jalamrutha, through which about 14,000 water bodies will be rejuvenated. The scheme also aims to build around 12,000 check-dams. It also announced a decision to opt for cloud seeding early in the monsoon season.

Besides working on the temporal end, the State government is also storming heaven to ensure there is adequate rainfall this year. The Revenue Department has ordered a puja in all the temples under its control on June 8 to ensure that Karnataka has abundant precipitation this year.

This is the tenth report in our coverage of the drought across India. The previous report appeared on May 10

Published on June 05, 2019

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