In search of livelihood

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

Lakhs of people have lost their means of livelihood in one of the worst years of drought in Karnataka. Entire families are migrating to the cities and the government's drought relief programme is marked only by tall claims.

in Koppal

KARNATAKA'S Economic Survey 2002 says that the government, as part of its drought relief programme, completed 73,000 schemes, generating work to the extent of 4,177 crore man-days in the drought affected areas of the State last year. This tall claim, as the government departments concerned know only too well, cannot conceal the corruption and fraud that has taken place in the name of drought relief. Lakhs of people have lost their employment and livelihoods in one of the worst droughts that the State has seen. Given the poor rainfall in 2002-2003, the Department of Agriculture has asked farmers not to plant a summer crop this year even in the irrigated areas. Small farmers and agricultural labourers, therefore, have no work in the villages. Agricultural operations have practically stopped, and there is no gainful employment available from government-initiated relief programmes. There has been a wholesale migration of people in search of work to distant towns, even from those areas that do not traditionally see such migration.

Koppal district, along with the adjacent districts of Bellary and Raichur, forms the heartland of drought in Karnataka. Although the intended beneficiaries are aware that they have been cheated by people who are entrusted with the task of providing relief, there is little that they can do. Hundreds of drought relief "works" remain incomplete. A large tank with a few furrows dug in its dried-up centre becomes a "deepened tank" in the official records; a dirt track on which some mud is carelessly shovelled becomes a "newly constructed road"; a small length of tank bund when shoddily reinforced with stone and mud becomes a "strengthened tank bund". The examples are endless.

In Ramdurga village of Gangavati taluk, the work of deepening a tank was contracted out by the district administration for Rs.3 lakhs as part of the relief programme for employment generation. The contractor employed 150 village residents, both men and women, for just eight days. The official wage rate is Rs.46 a person, of which half is paid in kind, as rice. "It is 20 days since the work was over, and we still have not got our share of rice," said Yellappa Ramdurga, a resident. The village lies at the base of an outcrop of rocky hills, which makes it a furnace in the summer months. In the official records the 5 km dirt road from the main road to the village is a "metalled" road. The residents must walk this hot and dusty track to get to the nearest bus stop. Children must trudge this distance to catch a bus to school, as the village school offers education only up to Class IV.

Not far from Ramdurga is Hogalubande village. Here the work of strengthening a tank bund and deepening a small tank was contracted out for Rs.1 lakh. "The work lasted just two weeks and only Rs.80,000 was used," G. Nagaraj, taluk coordinator for the Krantha Krishi Cooliekkara Sangha (agricultural workers' union), said. "The contractor told us that the rest of the money had to be given as a bribe to political bosses!" he said. The work would have remained half-finished if the Sangha had not intervened and directly contracted with the district administration to finish it. The Sangha has asked for a further Rs.3 lakhs to extend the bund by another 1 km and to build a road. "We can give 200 people work for another one month at a rice-and-cash wage of the value of Rs.46 a day," said Nagaraj.

The village residents are happy as there is both transparency and accountability when the Sangha contracts for such work directly. But the Sangha is a small force in the area and its ability to intervene in relief programmes is restricted to a few pockets in the region. Sangha activists took this correspondent to Rampura Kere, a huge tank in the same gram panchayat that is now dry. As part of a drought relief scheme, silt was removed from the tank bed to cover the dirt track leading from the main Gangavati road to the tank. "This is sticky black soil. Once the rain comes this so-called road will be unusable for either pedestrians or bullock-carts!" K. Balappa, another activist of the Sangha, said.

Therefore, relief schemes have not made a dent on the most common phenomenon associated with drought, namely the migration of entire families in search of work to the big cities during the dry months each year. But the new feature of the 2002-03 drought is the migration of agricultural labourers and small peasants even from irrigated areas that traditionally attract labour from the drought-hit areas in the dry months.

The belt in Gangavati taluk irrigated by the Tungabhadra canal system contrasts strikingly with the dry belt of the taluk, where even those landowners holding 150 acres (about 60 hectares) have been known to migrate in search of work. The irrigated area of Gangavati is a rich and productive agricultural area that yields three crops a year: the kharif, the rabi and a summer crop. Of the total cultivated area in the taluk of 75,531 ha, roughly two-thirds of the total, or 48, 679 ha, is irrigated. The rest of the cropped area is rain-fed. In the kharif season of 2002, out of a targeted area of 62,700 ha, 54,988 ha was cultivated, and on more than half this area paddy was grown. In the rabi season the target of 17,500 ha was achieved. The area grows a third, summer crop irrigated by the Tungabhadra system. For the first time since the dam was built, water has not been released from it, and the region is struggling to cope with the drought. "Water in the canals is usually released from December to March, but this year the dam authorities informed us that water would not be released," V. Thimmappa, a school-teacher from Gangavati, said. "Water was released in March and April for a week's duration to provide drinking water to Raichur town, that is all."

Agricultural labourers and small farmers from the Gangavati irrigated belt are migrating for the first time in search of work. Because this is not traditionally a drought-affected area, the government schemes are not implemented here. From the 70 Dalit agricultural labour households in the Galemma camp of Batranchinal village, several residents have left in search of work. Thimmappa and three members of his family went to Hyderabad, for the first time. Yemanappa, another agricultural labourer-resident, went with his wife and brother to Gulbarga district for a month in January for harvesting work. "Even our children must work. Most of us don't send them to school," he said.

The agrarian prosperity of the region and the high value of land here have contributed to a growing concentration of land holdings among rich farmers. There have been instances of wholesale encroachment of government land by landlords. The Prantha Raitha Sangha, after a prolonged and violent agitation between 1989 and 1996, was able to force the government to allot government land that had been encroached by landlords, to landless Dalits. The Dalits of Batranchinal village were given small plots for homesteads in Galemma camp, and some of them were also allotted small plots of irrigated land. But the huge backlash by the landlords of the area against the Raitha Sangha ensured that the gains of the struggle were limited. There are still many landless Dalits who were allotted small plots by the government and who have possession certificates in their names, but whose lands are still occupied by landlords. Maariamma, an agricultural labourer who was earlier a Devadasi, showed this correspondent a possession document in her name for 20 guntas of irrigated land. She has not got actual possession and her land is still occupied by the landlord who encroached it. Danappa is another Dalit labourer who has a possession certificate for one acre but whose land has been occupied by a landlord.

Drought has intensified rural indebtedness, particularly for the small and middle farmer. In the irrigated belt, where the stakes in agriculture are high, indebtedness involving usurious rates of interest payable to the landlord or moneylender is widespread. According to activists of the Raitha Sangha, there is a brisk transfer of land from indebted small farmers to landlords and moneylenders in the region. In Signal village, for example, B. Olakadai Gangappa, who owns two acres of irrigated land, owes the moneylender Rs.3.5 lakhs. Out of five acres he owned, he has already had to part with three acres to the landlord in repayment. Irupanna, a farmer owning three acres, has a debt of Rs.1.5 lakhs.

"Three-fourths of the village is in debt," said B. Yemmanurappa. "We must borrow even for our daily expenses. There is no getting out of debt, even if the drought situation improves. We are all finished and can never repay unless we give up our land," he said. Ameena Bi, taluk vice-president of the Cooliekkara Sangha, said that this year 200 people from the village had migrated for work, most of them for the first time. "It has been a very difficult time for the poor" she said.

So goes Karnataka's tale of woes in one of its worst years of drought.

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