Unseasonal rains drown Karnataka's rural economy

Unseasonal rains drown Karnataka's rural economy

Incessant rain and a couple of flash floods have caused huge loss to farmers

The rains have severely affected the arid districts of south-interior Karnataka. (In pic) A waterlogged vineyard in Chikkaballapur. The farm owner has to uproot the damaged grape vines and start from scratch. DH Photo

Already pushed to a breaking point by the Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years, Karnataka’s agrarian community had pinned its hope on a bountiful kharif harvest.

But the incessant rain and a couple of flash floods have caused huge loss to farmers who might take three to four years to recover.

The rains, which were caused by a cyclonic depression, have severely affected the arid districts of south-interior Karnataka, particularly in Kolar, Tumakuru, Ramanagara, Chikkaballapur and Bengaluru Rural. 

Labelled ‘drought-stricken’ districts for decades, this season’s rainfall has broken several records, with many people saying they had not seen such intense rain for more than 45 years.

Data from the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Cell (KSNDMC) shows the entire state received 142 mm rainfall in November, as against the 39 mm it receives on an average — nearly 263% deviation from the norm. 

Some districts have received four times the amount of rain they receive each year. 

“The unprecedented rain has submerged huge swathes of farm land with standing crops ready for harvest. Several streams and rivers that had dried out sprang to life, breaching tanks and triggering flash floods,” said Anjaneya Reddy, a farmer and activist in Chikkaballapur.

Also Read | Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai announces compensation for rain-related damages

Contrary to their usual annual prayers, the farmers are now entreating the gods to make the rain stop.

“The rain has brought us starvation. We have been sitting idle for two months without work,” said Jayamma, a labourer at a floriculture farm in Chowdenahalli of Kolar district.

Jayamma says her family of six has had to skip meals as their incomes have crashed.

“Forget us, even our farm owner has also struggled to come to terms with the severe damage,” she said.

The sudden change in the weather has equally impacted both staple and commercial crops, causing damage in hundreds of crores.

“Covid snatched away everything. While our investment (plants, soil preparation) was unaffected during the pandemic, the incessant rains have forced us to start from scratch. It may take another four to five years to recover the losses,” said S Harish of Vapasandra in Chikkaballapur, whose vineyard was submerged under four feet of water for almost a week.

“I have to uproot all the plants that I nurtured for five years. It will take at least five years for me to get the yield I was getting all these days,” Harish rued.

Across the state, grape farmers have suffered losses of Rs 2 to 3 lakh per acre; vegetable cultivators have suffered losses to the tune of Rs 1 to 2 lakh per acre. 

N Jyothi, another farmer from Chikkaballapur, says her entire crop of ragi (finger millet) has been wiped out. “Due to the initial rain, the standing crop was flattened. As the rains continued along with the cloudy conditions, the earheads began to sprout. We have lost the crop. We are hoping to at least use the straw as fodder for the livestock provided there are no further rains,” she said.

A preliminary estimate by the agriculture department has revealed that nearly 40% of the 6.88 lakh hectares of standing crop has been wiped out.

Also Read | Paying price for onslaught on nature

Alongside the damage caused by the rains, subsequent weather patterns with high levels of humidity and increased moisture in soil have destroyed the vegetable crops completely.

“The beetroot we cultivated in an acre of land has caught fungus. The tomato, chilli and cabbage crop has also been lost completely,” said Lakshmamma, a farmer in Pillagundlahalli of Sidlaghatta taluk in Chikkaballapur.

Srinivas, a farmer from nearby Nallojanahalli village, said the stagnant water caused his cauliflower crop to “blossom.”

Along with Tumakuru, Chikkaballapur is the worst-affected district, with Kolar coming third.

Farmers are also dismayed by the current compensation announced by the government. 

On an average, it costs around Rs 1.5 lakh to cultivate an acre of tomato. The government is paying out Rs 6,800 per hectare for rainfed crops and Rs 13,500 per hectare for irrigated crops.

The Kolar Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC), considered Asia’s second biggest tomato market, received just 50% of its usual supply in November.

On two days last week, when the rain had peaked, the supply had dropped to 4,000 quintals per day, as against the usual supply of 25,000 quintals per day this month. 

T S Ravikumar, secretary,  Kolar APMC said, “After reaching a high of Rs 100 per kg, tomato is now selling for Rs 50 per kg,” adding that it will take at least three months for the APMC to get back to normalcy. 

Poor maintenance of water bodies 

The unseasonal rain has also exposed the poor management of water bodies in these drought-stricken regions. The rampant encroachment and degradation of these water bodies and their feeder canals also reflects poorly on the Minor Irrigation department, the custodian of these water bodies.

“Despite being labelled as drought-stricken, the undivided Kolar district has more than 4,000 water
bodies. Had they been maintained well during the drought season, they could
have minimised the damage to a certain extent. The dried up ground cannot absorb much water, so it just runs off. But the network of these 4,000 tanks and lakes could have checked the overflow and retained half of it at least,” Anjaneya Reddy said.

The resulting neglect has seen houses and fields flooded and the erosion of precious topsoil.

“We lost an opportunity to store and percolate water. It would require years for us to get back to normal,” said K Ramu Shivanna and G Narayanaswamy, farmer leaders in Kolar. 

Kolar DC said that by July, the district administration had cleared encroachment of around 40 lakes and was about to continue the process when the rains hit. “This is a continuous process and requires a lot of convincing,” he said.

Shockingly, lakes that were repaired several times in the recent past by the Minor Irrigation department have also been breached.

“The Agrahara Anjaneya Lake near Nallojanahalli has breached five times in the last 10 years. The engineers had repaired the lake bund after spending several crores. But the lake has breached yet again. What action will the government initiate against the contractors and engineers for executing such poor work?” asked Anitha D, the farmer from Nallojanahalli Majire in Chikkaballapur district.

Manjunath’s tomato field, located just downstream of the lake, was washed away completely. 

“The flowing water was at least seven feet high. Nearly three to four feet of topsoil has been washed away. Now, it will cost several lakhs to top it up with fresh soil so I can cultivate a new crop,” he said.

Villagers alleged that Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, who visited the lake late in the evening during his rain damage survey, hardly had time to listen to the farmers.

Anitha explained, “The Deputy Commissioner who visited the lake a few days prior to the CM’s visit, had told us that she will order soil tests before taking up any repair work as the problem seems to be with the soil. But to date, no action has been taken.”

Government response 

The state government has started disbursing compensation in a few districts. “Even as the survey is on (expected to be over by November 30) the compensation is being offered simultaneously. The intention is to offer immediate help,” said Brijesh Kumar Dikshit, Commissioner of Agriculture. 

Alongside this, the Agriculture department is also coordinating with the insurance companies for prompt insurance payment for localised risks and post-harvest losses. “The payment should start next week itself,” Dikshit said. 

However, data shows that the enrollment in crop insurance schemes has always been low. This year, just 11.97 lakh hectares of agricultural crops have been insured, out of a total insurable area of 65 lakh hectares.  

Many farmers DH met during field visits said they feel blank when they think about the future. A helpline that provides relevant information and even emotional support and counselling would help them endure this crisis. 

As a preventive measure, agricultural scientists in the state are also developing and sharing suitable techniques to help farmers get through the unpredictability of the weather.

“We are working on providing seeds that can withstand drought as well as a few days of waterlogging along with techniques to modify seed dormancy,” said S Rajendra Prasad, Vice-Chancellor, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore.

(With inputs from Anitha Pailoor in Kolar)