A decade of drought: Kolar farmers reap bitter harvest

With the village seeing 10 consecutive years of drought (except for 2017), as the villagers migrate to Bengaluru and turn cabbies and guards.
Parched landscape like this has become a common sight in Kolar district due to scarcity of rainfall in the past 10 years| Vinod Kumar T
Parched landscape like this has become a common sight in Kolar district due to scarcity of rainfall in the past 10 years| Vinod Kumar T

KOLAR: Bengaluru’s fruit and vegetable basket has literally turned dry. Bogged down by consecutive drought years, farmers and horticulturists in Kolar district, just about 70 km from the state capital, are increasingly looking at other means of livelihood in cities to survive.

Kolar was the biggest vegetable-growing region in Karnataka—the market leader in mango and tomato production. But no more. The farmers here were traditionally dependent on two sources to irrigation their land — rainfall and borewells. With little or no rains over the past 10 years, and borewells drying up fast, farmland owners are now being forced to work as daily-wage labourers.

Agricultural crops, like ragi too was grown in about 45,000 hectares and groundnut in 10,000 hectares in the district. The annual ragi yield, which was around 30 quintals per hectare, has now come down to 18 quintals and groundnut from 10 quintals to barely four quintals per hectare. In some pockets, the crop loss has been complete.

Experts attribute the untimely rains and drought to climate change patterns. “Normally, we should get early showers in April or May, which is a good period for sowing preparations. Sowing done in July-August. But with no pre-monsoon showers and timely monsoon, farmers are unable to sow, so there is no yield,’’ HK Shivakumar, Joint Director (Agriculture), at Kolar pointed out.

Horticulture crops, especially mango, are also severely affected. Karnataka produces 10-12 lakh tons of mangoes annually, of which seven lakh tons used to come from Kolar alone. This year, the yield is expected to drop to 1.5 lakh tons. There was flowering in January, but with no moisture content in the soil, the flowers withered.

Kolar District Mango Cultivators’ Association president Chinnappa Reddy said that in his native Neelaturu village in Srinivasapura taluk, about 150 of the 450 residents have moved to Bengaluru. The villagers own mango groves but have migrated to Bengaluru where they are working as cab drivers, construction workers, hotel cleaners and even security guards for salaries as low as Rs 10,000 per month as they cannot sustain farming.

There is also a noticeable dip in the quality of life over the past decade. From being able to afford pucca houses, power connections and even relative luxuries like fans and televisions, many are now reduced to scrambling for every last drop of water.

Seegenahalli village in Mulbagal taluk, located closer to Andhra Pradesh, has around 250 houses and 800 voters. “In our house, we could afford electrical goods like fan and TV, but could not get enough water for ourselves,” says 23-year-old Arjun. Married just last year, Arjun lived with his wife, father and aunt in the pucca house.  But with no rain, not enough water and no fodder for their cattle, their lives have turned upside down. They get drinking water once in two days for about half-an-hour which is supplied by the local panchayat.

Arjun has now moved into a thatched hut with mud flooring, located in a corner of their land outside the village as the neighbouring farm has a working borewell and he can even get some work. He goes home once a day to charge his phone.

“When there is rain, we grow vegetables and ragi. Now, I work for farmers who have working borewells and help them in harvesting vegetables. My brother works as a loader and we get paid Rs 200 each daily,” says 17-year-old Bhagya, another resident of Seegenahalli. Most of this money is spent buying fodder to keep their cattle alive.

The village has 250 houses and gets water for just half an hour once in two days when they can fill four pots. This water is used for cooking and drinking. A muddy common well in the village, which is almost dry, serves as the local source to wash utensils and clothes. Talk around the public area inevitably revolves around the upcoming elections and how the village has been let down by successive elected representatives. “All politicians come seeking votes and promising to end the water crisis. Five years later, they come again with the same assurances. We do not want any schemes or any loan waiver, just that give us water,” an irate Srinivasa Gowda from Nagashetty halli in KGF taluk said.

Farming has all but come to a standstill here with only a few venturing to grow greens with whatever water they have access to. These are sold at Rs 1,200 for 20 bundles. “We water the crops once in three days, unlike vegetables which need watering daily. Drip irrigation helps us save water,” said Shankarappa, another villager. Those who have taken fish rearing are also in deep trouble. 

The condition of the soil, predominantly red, with less nitrogen content, can be fixed using neem-coated urea, but there seems to be no solution to the water shortage. In 2016, the state government initiated the Koramangala-Challagahtta Valley (KC Valley) project to supply treated water to 121 tanks in Kolar district. In 2018, Narasapura and Vallabi lakes were filled, but the water was stopped after some locals approached court.  With no rain, farmers are hoping the treated water will bring some relief.

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