Frontline Volume 18 - Issue 17, Aug. 18 - 31, 2001
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU


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THE STATES

Karnataka's agony

Karnataka is in the grip of the worst drought in 15 years. A large number of agricultural workers and their families have been migrating to Maharashtra looking for means of sustenance.

PARVATHI MENON
in northern Karnataka

TWENTY-THREE of the 28 districts in Karnataka are facing drought conditions of varying degrees of intensity. With more than 146 of the 175 taluks recording deficient rainfall as of July 29, this year's drought, according to the State government's Drought Monitoring Cell, is the worst in the last 15 years (1985 and 1992 recorded deficient rainfall). The failure of the monsoon has affected agricultural production, rural employment, fodder availability and drinking water availability in villages and towns. The State government has mobilised funds for drought relief operations from its own resources, even as it has been pressing the Centre for assistance.

VINOD DESAI
An agricultural labourer and his wife on their way from their home in Bijapur district in search of work, and fodder for their cattle.

The prolonged dry spell was broken by a few days of rainfall in late July in the northern and interior districts, where drought conditions had become particularly acute. But the respite was brief, and the showers, though fairly heavy in districts such as Bijapur, Gulbarga and Raichur, gave little more than an illusion of relief to agriculture and those dependent on it. The rain was too little and it came too late. By the time three survey teams from the Central government visited many of the drought-affected districts in July, the drought had inflicted irreversible damage.

It was not merely the shortfall in rainfall in the first two months of the monsoon season - from June 1 to July 29 - that has been a matter of concern. Taluks numbering 118 have recorded continuous dry spells that lasted more than four weeks. During this period, the reservoir levels in all the major dams of the State - Linganamakki, Supra, Krishnarajasagar, Tungabhadra, Kabini and others - were lower than the average levels at the same time over the last 10 years. The reduction in the levels range between 11.53 per cent and 37.43 per cent.

Kharif sowing has been affected in most regions. According to estimates provided by the State government to the Central team, only about 31 per cent of the 69 lakh hectares targeted for kharif sowing this year, which comes to 21.61 lakh ha, was covered by July end. In some districts there has been virtually no kharif sowing. For example, in Bijapur district, the percentage of area sown to the area targeted for sowing is just 0.7, while it is 3.86 per cent in Raichur district, 1.65 in Bangalore Rural, 3.81 in Kolar and 3.97 in Mandya.

Such calamities highlight two aspects of the State's economy which official policy over the years has failed to change. The first is the dependence of most of the State's agriculture on rainfall. Rain-fed cultivation continues to be the back-bone of agriculture. The State has the second largest arid zone in the country, next only to Rajasthan. Although the annual average rainfall in the State is 1,139 mm, the 11 districts of the interior north receive just 600 mm. Karnataka also has a relatively small area of land under assured irrigation. Out of a total cultivable area of 121.09 lakh ha, only 25.48 lakh ha, or roughly 21 per cent, comes under assured irrigation. The second aspect is uneven regional development, which has been part of the State's development experience since its formation. Successive State governments have acknowledged the problem but have not addressed it. Bijapur, Raichur, Gulbarga, Bellary, Koppal and the other districts that comprise north Karnataka constitute a large zone of economic and social under-development. This area trails behind the rest of the State in respect of all major economic and human development indicators. Natural crises such as drought only accentuate the hardship and scarcities that this region and its people face even in non-crisis years. Thus a State that has won international accolades for being a forerunner of the infotech revolution has a huge area of under-development in its own backyard.

In Bijapur, for example, for a large number of agricultural families migration has become an escape route from the hardship imposed by this year's drought. Migration is a normal practice in Bijapur during the off-season months, and the flow of landless labourer families in search of work is usually to towns in Maharashtra such as Nashik and Pune. The reverse flow begins in May, in time for sowing operations for the kharif crop that begin in May-June. A farmer who owns about 3 ha of land in Shivanagi village in Bijapur taluk, B.G. Hanami, said that 500 families had left the village in search of work. "There has been virtually no kharif sowing in our village," he said. "For agricultural workers, there is neither work, nor water to drink. Another thousand people will leave soon."

Shivanagi could be any village in Bijapur taluk. A brief burst of rain during the last two days of July had moistened the dark soil. But the fields lay barren, except for the occasional green patch that a local irrigation source had created. With little work in the villages, groups of men, young and old, throng the tea shops, or gather around the road culverts of the villages, chatting. "In normal years my family of six goes to Pune for six months," said Chidananda Harijan. "We do road and building construction work and earn Rs.90 for a husband-wife couple. We will leave soon, as there is no work or drinking water here. We have to walk one kilometre to get drinking water." The scarcity of fodder has led to an increase in instances of cattle sales. "I sold a cow I had bought at Rs.5,000, for just Rs. 800," said Hanumantha Rai. "Last year fodder cost Rs. 150 a cart load. It is Rs. 600 this year." Rai owns a little more than a hectare of land and he is planning to leave for Nashik. Bijapur district faces a severe fodder shortage. According to the district administration, the price of fodder shot up by a factor of five in the last 10 days of July. The administration therefore banned the transport of fodder to Maharashtra.

VINOD DESAI
Famished cattle feeding on seedlings in the absence of grass. After a long dry spell the drought-prone northern Karnataka received moderate rainfall in the first week of July, but the respite was brief.

The precariousness of rain-dependent agriculture is nowhere more evident than in Bijapur. Sowing either did not happen or was delayed owing to the delay in the onset of monsoon, and in many areas cultivation had to be abandoned owing to extended dry spells. This has led to widespread unemployment, which in turn has intensified migration from the district. The absence of green pastures had put pressure on existing stocks of fodder, pushing up fodder prices, and increasing instances of distress cattle sale. Banks have stopped lending, and private moneylenders have stepped in. They charge usurious rates.

In Devarahipargi village of Sindgi taluk, a group of women who had gathered around a small shop run by two women of the village spoke about the burden that this year's drought had brought to their already difficult lives. "We will soon go to Maharashtra, but even there we are not getting work these days," Fatima, a mother of four, said. "Government help, did you say? We don't see a shadow of the government in our village," she declared. "The difference this year from the last year is that there has been no work," said Dilshan, a young mother, who has been travelling seasonally to Maharashtra for as long as she can remember. "Fodder used to cost Rs. 175 a cart, and it now costs between Rs.800 and Rs.1,000. Now that the banks will not lend anymore, we are dependent on moneylenders for everything. It is a difficult life for the poor."

The State government has asked for a Central grant of Rs.904 crores for drought relief. Chief Minister S.M. Krishna led an all-party delegation of Members of Parliament and legislators from Karnataka to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and pressed for an early grant of the relief. The Prime Minister assured the delegation that it would release Rs.29.36 crores, the second instalment of its share from the Calamity Relief Fund. He also promised to release one lakh tonnes of foodgrain free of cost to the State to be utilised for "Food for Work" programmes.

In the districts, however, the wait is for rain. After all, the sowing time for the rabi crop is round the corner.


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