Sixty eight-year-old Dhondiram Tukaram Sutar, a farmer and social worker from Pandegaon village in northern Karnataka’s Athani taluka, has 2.5 acres of farmland on which he grows jowar every year. Jowar is a dry-land crop that can be grown in the rabi or winter cropping season as well as the kharif or monsoon season. But Sutar’s entire crop failed last year due to scanty rainfall and he has been unable to sow another crop since.

Athani taluka, which is a part of Belagavi district, is facing acute drought. From October 1, 2018, to December 31, 2018, the taluka recorded 40.38 mm of rainfall against the average of 135.7 mm. Belagavi district, meanwhile, received 50.6 mm of rain – much lower than the season average of 152.5 mm, according to data collected by the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre, an autonomous body affiliated with the revenue department of the Karnataka government.

Athani has had scanty rains, inadequate to sustain agriculture, for more than a decade. Now, most farmers in the region rear cattle for an alternative source of income. Sutar has three cows and five goats. He sells milk for Rs 30 per litre. He also breeds goats for meat and sells two every six months. A kid goat fetches between Rs 4,000 to Rs 7,000, whereas a doe or a buck sells for Rs 10,000.

But now, there is not enough water in the area to manage cattle. Adding to their woes, most farmers in the taluka who have had crop failures have been unable to avail of insurance payouts under the central government’s crop insurance scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana.

Dry spell across districts

As IndiaSpend reported on September 28, Karnataka has declared 23 of its 30 districts drought-hit. At least 16 of these are perpetually drought-prone, according to an analysis by the Central Research Institute of Dryland Agriculture. These districts also feature among the 24 districts in the country that are known to be disposed to drought, Karnataka revenue minister RV Deshpande told the legislative assembly in December 2018.

Belagavi is identified as a permanently drought-hit region, The Hindu reported on December 19.

Due to prolonged drought, borewells, which are a primary source of water in the villages of Athani taluka of Belagavi district of northern Karnataka, have dried up. Credit: S Shankar/IndiaSpend
Due to prolonged drought, borewells, which are a primary source of water in the villages of Athani taluka of Belagavi district of northern Karnataka, have dried up. Credit: S Shankar/IndiaSpend

At least seven districts in Karnataka are marked under “scanty category”. These are regions where the departure from average rainfall is between -99% and -60%, based on the pre-monsoon rainfall data from March 1 to May 31 collated by the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre.

Data for the period between March 1 to May 31. Source: Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre
Data for the period between March 1 to May 31. Source: Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre

Belagavi is one of the six districts recording rainfall of 31 mm, a departure of -68%. In Athani, the pre-monsoon rainfall was 36 mm, the departure from average rainfall, -52%. The situation is graver in the neighbouring talukas such as Chikkodi which received 18 mm rainfall, with a departure -80%, Raybag which received 28 mm rainfall, with a departure -63% and Gokak which received 16 mm rainfall, with a departure -85%.

Source: Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre
Source: Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre

Athani has received only 34 days of rain on average every year – the lowest among the 10 talukas in Belagavi district , as per data collected by the Belagavi district statistical office between 1951 and 2000. This rainfall is concentrated in June, July and August.

The 10 rain gauges in the taluka show that the drought situation has been worsening with each passing year. “Because there is no water, farmers are forced to sell their cattle,” said Sutar.

Rainfall in the northern Karnataka district also varies from year to year, according to H Venkatesh, an agrometeorologist working on an All India Coordinated Research Project, under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. While there might be good rainfall in June in one year, monsoons might start late in July the next, he said.

“It rains regularly in October during the harvest season for short-term crops,” said Venkatesh. “We provide short-term and medium-term rain forecast. The extended long-term forecast is in an experimental stage. These predictions reach farmers through the Havaamaana Krishi mobile application.”

The Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre has a 24x7, three-line help-desk called the Varuna Mitra, which provides weather-related information to farmers across Karnataka. “In 2018, we received about 15,25,000 calls out of which 52,471 calls were from farmers in Belagavi,” said GS Shrinivas Reddy, the centre’s director. The Indian Meteorological Department provides district-wise weather forecast while the centre gives village-level weather information to farmers.

Seventy-year-old Pandurang Mane, a farmer from Shirur village in Athani, grows maize and bajra on 2.5 acres of land. Mane has not had a good harvest in the last two years due to insufficient rainfall. “The seeds that I had sown last year did not even sprout,” he said. Mane’s annual income from farming is around Rs 20,000. He gets by on Rs 5,000-Rs 6,000, which includes the money that his children send him. “With each passing year, my income is decreasing drastically,” he said. “At my age, I cannot even get a job as a farmhand.”

Digging for water

Almost 600,000 people in Athani depend on groundwater for all their needs, from drinking to farming. But groundwater has been depleted to the extent that borewells have run dry too. There are a few open wells of about 120 feet depth, but to strike water, the well must go 700 feet to 800 feet deeper. To do this, permission has to be taken from panchayats.

Source: District Statistical Office, Belagavi
Source: District Statistical Office, Belagavi

“Borewells are not serving their purpose anymore,” said AV Manjunath, assistant professor and an expert on agricultural water management at the Institute for Social and Economic Change. “Moreover, the quality of borewell water is also poor due to high fluoride [content].”

The levels of fluoride and nitrate in the water are beyond healthy limits, according to a report on a water management plan for Athani taluka published by the Central Ground Water Board in March 2017.

Further, dams in areas such as Kolar and Chikkaballapur have also dried up.

Border villages

Nearly 88.6% of Karnataka is drought-hit – which is to say 156 of the state’s 176 talukas. A joint survey to estimate the loss endured in the rabi season was to be conducted by the state and central governments. However, villagers said, the teams had not yet visited all the villages, particularly those that border Maharashtra. Although some primary facilities such as fodder banks and tanker water supply have been initiated, their availability is limited, according to the Belagavi district administration’s survey reports, which IndiaSpend has reviewed.

Without drinking water, fodder for cattle, water for irrigation and a source of livelihood, even jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme have been scarce. Villagers living close to the state border are migrating to villages such as Kavathe-Mahankal, Dhulgaon, Salgare and Mahalunge in Sangli district of Maharashtra. The fields in the neighbouring state are well-irrigated, so it is easy to find work, villagers told IndiaSpend.

Compensation for crop failure

'The seeds that I had sown last year did not even sprout,' says 70-year-old Pandurang Mane (left) from drought-hit Athani taluka. Credit: S Shankar/IndiaSpend
'The seeds that I had sown last year did not even sprout,' says 70-year-old Pandurang Mane (left) from drought-hit Athani taluka. Credit: S Shankar/IndiaSpend

Water-intensive sugarcane is a major commercial crop in Athani. In a self-destructive pattern well-known throughout arid Karnataka, farmers continue to cultivate sugarcane for its potentially lucrative returns. This makes the Karnataka the country’s third-largest sugarcane producer and accounts for 16% of India’s sugar production. Currently, the crop is cultivated only in areas situated near the banks of the Krishna river.

Several dryland crops, such as cotton, maize, jowar, bajra, ragi, wheat and Bengal gram, are being grown in areas that do not have easy access to water. Villages such as Ainapur, Shirhatti, Saptasagar, Shankaratti, Darur and Satti, which are close to the Krishna river and are conducive to growing water-intensive crops. These villages are thriving, as compared to villages such as Jambagi, Ajur, Madabhavi, Pandegaon, Malabad, Shirur, Anantapur and Shivnoor that are situated far away from the river and receive scanty rainfall.

Total crop loss in Athani due to lack of water during the 2018 rabi season is 34,604 hectares of the 1,60,774-hectare sown area. Some 23,375 farmers were to receive compensation of Rs 2,353.08 lakh combined, under the National Disaster Response Fund and State Disaster Response Fund, based on a survey report by the central team. However, the funds for this have not yet been released.

The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna crop insurance scheme witnessed the highest number of enrollments in Belgaum district. In 2016 alone, 140,089 farmers enrolled for the rabi season and 31,538 for the kharif season. This number fell in 2017 with only 1,910 farmers enrolling for the rabi season and 151 farmers in the kharif season because of good rainfall during that period.

Last year, 1,849 farmers from Athani enrolled for crop insurance during the rabi season and 8,547 during the kharif season. However, farmers have been paid compensation only for the period until 2016. Farmers who faced crop failure in 2017 and 2018 are yet to be compensated because the central government has not yet released funds, district collector SB Bommanhalli told IndiaSpend.

No fodder for cattle

In Khilegaon village, there are no fields for the cattle to graze. “We are entirely dependent on fodder banks to raise our cattle,” said 55-year-old Annappa Nimbal, a farmer in Khilegaon. Mane, who owns four cows, nodded in agreement. The fodder bank in Shirur village, which opened on February 2, caters to Shirur, Sambaragi and Pandegaon villages. More fodder banks have opened in Mole, Khilegaon and Ajur panchayats.

With no rains and limited or no stock in fodder banks, farmers of Athani taluka either send the cattle to their relatives in neighbouring Maharashtra or let the cattle wander in search of whatever greenery is available. Credit: S Shankar/IndiaSpend
With no rains and limited or no stock in fodder banks, farmers of Athani taluka either send the cattle to their relatives in neighbouring Maharashtra or let the cattle wander in search of whatever greenery is available. Credit: S Shankar/IndiaSpend

To avail of fodder, the farmers have to provide Aadhaar cards and record the purchase in a book, endorsed by the accountant. Veterinary officers provide officials with a list of farmers in each village and the number of cattle they own. “This ensures the provision of real-time requirement of fodder and prevents misuse of fodder funds,” said 35-year-old MB Patil, who is the talathi or village accountant at the revenue department in Shirur talathi office.

In Shirur village alone there are 2,200 cattle. About 180 farmers avail the services of the fodder bank regularly. Each animal is given 15 kg of fodder at a price of Rs 1 per kg for wet feed and Rs 2 per kg for dry feed. However, for a healthy cow to provide enough milk, it needs at least 20 kg-25 kg of fodder per day, said the villagers. Sometimes, the farmers send the cattle to their relatives’ places in Maharashtra where there is enough water and fodder.

Sugarcane bagasse from the sugar mills is the primary source of fodder and 1,5­18 tonnes of the material was brought to fodder banks. However, when the mills close during the summer, there is a shortage of feed.

Earlier, farmers could deposit their cattle in goshalas or cow shelters that were run by a task force comprising panchayat development officials and revenue officials. These were replaced with fodder banks five years ago. “It should be brought back,” said Sutar.

Farmers have to walk for 3 km to 4 km to the nearest fodder bank. “As the drought situation continues to worsen, more fodder banks will be opened in Sambaragi and other villages,” said Patil, the talathi.

Job loss

“Although we have agricultural land, we are unable to till it,” said a farmer in Khilegaon named Nimbal. “We are also not getting any jobs under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme,” he said. “We are living a dire life.” With no options left, villagers migrate to neighbouring Maharashtra in search of work in farmlands and construction sites. Mane from Shirur has two sons who along with their wives, do odd jobs in Miraj and Sangli in Maharashtra. “They come to the village once a month,” Mane said.

Source: Athani taluka panchayat office
Source: Athani taluka panchayat office

Gram panchayats have stopped undertaking new jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme and the percentage of jobs completed under the scheme has decreased over the years. Officials claim there is no budget allocation for new development work. In Athani, the number of job cards issued is 3,226 with 1,403 registered active workers, according to the scheme’s website. However, the number of registered active workers is only 281 in the current year.

Shivaji Kaganikar, 55, an activist from Belagavi. Credit: S Shankar/IndiaSpend
Shivaji Kaganikar, 55, an activist from Belagavi. Credit: S Shankar/IndiaSpend

The rural employment scheme is an important lifeline for people in rural areas since the scheme assures 150 days of guaranteed employment in a year, in drought-affected areas. “The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme is the only programme which will help poor people in the drought-ridden areas get two square meals a day,” said 55-year old Shivaji Kaganikar, an activist with the NGO Janajagaran and a member of the Bhrashtachar Nirmulan Samiti, an anti-corruption NGO, in Belagavi.

However, some villagers IndiaSpend spoke to said jobs are not given until rural women fight for it in large numbers. Wages are not paid on time and corruption is rampant, they said. In some areas, people create fake job cards and bank accounts, said Kaganikar. There is a need for greater transparency and awareness about the programme.

The zila panchayat, meanwhile, should undertake bund construction works under the rural employment scheme for rainwater collection in drought-affected regions, which will also create job opportunities, he said.

Flawed water schemes

A queue at a water tanker in Mole village of Athani taluka in northern Karnataka. Credit: S Shankar/IndiaSpend
A queue at a water tanker in Mole village of Athani taluka in northern Karnataka. Credit: S Shankar/IndiaSpend

Forty-five-year-old Savitri Rokade, a homemaker from Ugar Khurd town in Athani recently led an all-women protest march against the shortage of drinking water. She blamed politicians for the water problem: “This has been going on for a few years and the authorities have not been able to find a permanent solution to resolve this issue,” she said. “Rich people can buy a pot of water for Rs 20. How can the poor quench their thirst and tend to their cattle? Authorities should provide enough water tankers to villages until the water scarcity ends.”

The state government’s Multi-Village Water Scheme, which supplies river water to villages, brings drinking water to Athani villages from the Krishna river. However, when the river dries up in the summer, the scheme becomes dysfunctional and Athani and Kagwad talukas suffer the most. This design flaw exists in various water schemes, Krishna Byre Gowda, the Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Minister, was reported to have acknowledged at a press conference on May 18. He said that around 75 water schemes have stopped functioning due to lack of water and the absence of a back-up plan.

Making the situation worse, the Maharashtra government has not released water from the Koyna dam to drought-hit villages in North Karnataka as it had done in previous years.

Water levels in Karnataka’s 13 reservoirs are down to 13.38% of their overall storage capacity, as per the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre.

A Basaveshwara-Kempwad lift irrigation project in public-private partnership mode aims to irrigate about 27,462 hectares in Athani at a cost of Rs 1,363 crore. It will lift water from the left bank of the Krishna to cater to about 20 villages. However, the project will take at least three and a half years to become functional, M Shrinivas, an official associated with the project, told IndiaSpend.

In the last five years, the centre has cut 64% of the funds to Karnataka under the National Rural Drinking Water Project. The Centre’s contribution in 2018-’19 has fallen to Rs 312.33 crore from Rs 868.76 crore in 2013-’14, the Deccan Herald reported in February.

With Athani experiencing persistent drought for the last 14 years, the embankments made to prevent runoff and store rainwater, called bunds, and lakes have gone dry. The government is desilting some of the lakes but is yet to install the pipeline that would carry water from the Krishna to the lakes during the monsoon.

Government water tankers are supposed to supply at least 40 litres of water per person every day. However, the villagers claim that they get only 15-20 litres or two to three pots every day – not enough for bathing, washing or watering the fields, so they end up using drinking water for these activities.

Drought protection

Successful dryland agricultural practices can help conserve moisture in the soil, which can last to some extent during dry spells. “To increase productivity or to get a good yield, even during drought, the farmers should plough vertically at low-lying land so that the rainwater gets harvested in the fields during monsoon, which helps to maintain soil moisture,” said Surakod VS, senior scientist of agronomy at All India Coordinated Research Project.

In the rabi season, farmers should cultivate land in small square patterns while sowing seeds, which helps retain water and maintain soil moisture, Surakod said, adding that the farmers in Hanawad village in Vijayapura near Athani have been getting good yield by practising this method even during drought.

Micro-irrigation techniques, such as drip irrigation and sprinklers, can facilitate feasible agriculture in drylands. “People think that if surface water is readily available through canals, why should they opt for drip irrigation,” said Manjunath. “However, people living away from canals always get less water. If farmers living upstream used drip irrigation, those living downstream would not experience severe water stress.”

Traditional and easy techniques such as mulching can also help retain soil moisture and conserve water. Bunding is another technique to store rainwater and prevent run-off. Aggressive investments in soil and water conservation programmes are a must to mitigate Karnataka’s drought situation.

Shankar is a Belagavi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend.