Back to the drawing board

Dharwad Taluk

Proper rainwater harvesting systems and innovative cropping patterns could go a long way in helping farmers of Kalghatgi improve crop yields on a land they perceive to be barren

 
 
The past 3 to 4 years saw a huge transition of farmers from cultivation of water intensive crops to dry land crops in Kalghatgi taluk, Dharwad. While the dry topography suggests that the move was inevitable, the lack of planning or awareness behind it is alarming. Rainfall data show that the rainfall never went under the level required for it to be termed dry land. Also, it being the Malnad region, the groundwater quality is good. Hence good rainwater harvesting systems and water conserving cropping patterns could benefit the farmers and help them get a far better crop yield.

Rasool Mahboob, a 63 year old farmer from the Banaduru settlement near Hulakoppa village in Kalghatgi, cultivates paddy, maize and millets in his three acre farmland. Sitting inside his tiny shack by the side of a muddy road that he shares with his ailing mother, he reflects upon a time when water used to be in abundance.  A few meters behind the shack, down the slope, he directs me to his farm, which once provided good yields of paddy, looking pensive.

A large part of the farm lies barren, with traces of paddy plantation, mostly taken over by weeds. Sighing, he says, “I need every single rupee that I get from my farm to make a living. The rains have been very weak the past few years. Ponds have dried up. We have left the area that was previously under paddy, as it is not worth the effort.”

He goes on to say that the entire settlement, consisting of approximately 150 families, depends on a single bore well for both drinking water and irrigation facilities. Upset over his helplessness, he says, “I cultivate paddy and millets in the field. Due to the heat and lack of water, the paddy cultivation is completely ruined. With no rain, and a bore well most often dysfunctional, we are bereft of sufficient water supply.”

Figure 2: Rasool stands beside his weed overrun paddy cultivation

He is one of the many villagers, who believe that they will be running out of water resources soon, if the government does not step in to help them. The village does not have a proper water reservoir. The sole water tank in the village takes two to three hours to fill. This is again a problem, as the village has issues with power supply. “I do not know how we will survive if the government does not help us with our water issues. Our village has been neglected, it is the last priority on our government’s mind,” concludes Rasool.

There is no other option but to try and construct another bore well, says Malijan Kalkeri, a local contractor and part time laborer at the village. However, the cost for constructing a bore well could be anywhere between Rs. 1,00,000 to Rs. 2,00,000, which is much more than what the villagers can afford.

Many of the farmers in the village have moved to cultivating corn, soybeans and millets over paddy or cotton, which are the traditional crops of the region. Every time a crop is proven to require less water compared to the others, farmers flock to cultivate them. “We get around Rs. 3000 to Rs. 4000 for 25 kg of soybeans. It also requires less water,” says Malijan.

Crop failure has also put pressure on many farmers, who now try to migrate to different parts of the country in search of jobs. Malijan says that he has been working as a laborer across the country, to be able to look after his family. “The politicians come here in time for the elections. Since they need our votes, they will promise us better water supply and jobs. However, they disappear soon after they have won the elections with our votes.” The village has an approximate of 800 people, out of which 220 people have voting cards.

Figure 3: Malijan Kalkeri with his grandmother and daughter

Rainfall not as scarce as it appears

.The rainfall data collected over the past few years shows an uneven distribution of rainfall in Kalghatgi. Kalghatgi lies near the Malnad region, known for its abundant rainfall and great ground water quality. The erratic behavior of rainfall here is quite recent, as is the rise in temperature. The heat subsequently increases the rate of water lost through evaporation.

Figure 4: Rainfall data of the years 2010 through 2016 (Created using online chart tool website)

 However, interestingly, the rainfall is not scarce, and much higher than the levels that normally mandate the area to be a dry land. The average annual rainfall is 850 mm, which is an extremely good measure.

The main known source of groundwater in Kalghatgi is recharge by annual precipitation, or rainfall. “There are sufficient bore wells in Kalghatgi to cater to the needs of the farmers. Rainfall hasn’t ever gone below 500 mm here. Also, this being the Malnad region has ground water of good quality,” said Kantesh Agasibagila, First Division Assistant at the Kalghatgi gram panchayat. Asked about the intense heat, dried up lakes and the farmers’ complaints that there is not enough water, he replied that they have not received any complaints in the past.

“If the need is dire, we can bring in tankers. For now, there is no issue with the availability of water,” he added. Statistics show that rainfall in Kalghatgi is much better than that in many other districts.

So why is there a water problem, when rainfall levels are fairly good?

 

Precipitation vs. Evaporation

Apart from the erratic behavior of rainfall, high evaporation and limited water holding capacity of the soil constitute the principal constraint in crop production in Kalghatgi. The low moisture retention capacity of the soil causes a major part of the rain water to flow off as surface run off. After the rain stops, very little moisture is left to supplement plant growth and grain production.

Dry land areas are those where the balance of moisture is on the deficit, according to a report that was published by Dr. Kiran Yadav, who was a faculty at the G. B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology. The report states that the annual transpiration exceeds precipitation in dry land areas[i] . The moisture deficit is the difference between the rainfall and the transpiration, and tends to affect the crop production.

 

Figure 5: Areas under cotton cultivation are dwindling at a fast pace, owing to the dry soil and rising temperature

Excessive use of ground water

The dependency of the farmers on bore wells is very noticeable in Kalghatgi. Tumarikoppa, a village in Kalghatgi boasts close to 10 bore wells. The state of the farmers is still better in this village, and many of them do not complain of water shortage.

 

“I have moved to soybeans, maize and sunflower cultivation, from cotton and paddy. Rain is less, so we have selected crops that require less water. The bore wells provide for all our needs,” said Lingappa Basappa Sullar, a 47 year old farmer from Tumarikoppa. Most of the villagers expressed the same opinion, confident that bore wells are the solution to their drinking water issues.

Figure 6: Begum Jaan of Kalasanakoppa village walks a mile multiple time daily, to fetch water from the bore well built for the village

A recent report in the Hindu says that there are more than 40 lakh bore wells in the state at present[1]. With the increasing number of bore wells and increased dependence on them, the groundwater levels are also falling. Withdrawal of groundwater from depths in excess of recharge, combined with interconnection of fractures and joints at depth increases the free flow of rain and other surface water into deep underground, causing deterioration of water quality, says Mr. Mahesha, a member of the Mysore Grahakara Parishat, in the report.

So all in all, though the rainfall is good, the root of the problem lies in the fact that this water is not harvested. It is left to evaporate, from the lakes, ponds and even farms, or flow off as surface runoff, due to the poor water retention quality of the soil. Adding to it, the groundwater is also being over-exploited.

Lack of proper rainwater harvesting systems and dry land cultivation practices

There has been no large scale irrigation schemes proposed to tackle the situation in Kalghatgi, mostly because there is very little understanding of the topography, soil type or rainfall pattern. Lack of adequate surface irrigation and irregular rainfall patterns have forced the farmers in the state to increasingly depend on groundwater irrigation.

Prior to the shift to crops like maize and soybeans, the farmers of Kalghatgi were growing a crop either on rainwater in kharif or on conserved soil moisture during the winter season.

 

Efficient management of rainwater and improved cropping patterns can boost the agricultural production from dry lands, by reducing the dependence on groundwater. Water-shed approach helps optimize the use of land, crop and water, says the report written by Dr. Kiran Yadav (Yadav, 2009). The study suggests techniques such as vertical mulching and ridge-and-furrow techniques that can improve in situ moisture conservation and prevent surface run off.

Farmers still practice slash and burn in Kalghatgi, with blackened, burning, fields a common sight while travelling through the taluk. After reaping, the land is left with the agricultural refuse and set on fire, to clear up the area and prepare it for the next crop. Burning affects fertility of the soil, which takes 10 to 20 years to regain its fertility, says a report published by Agrihome, a community of agriculture experts that deal with sustainable agriculture[1]. It also affects organisms that decompose the vegetation, and affects the texture of soil, making it prone to erosion.

Figure 7: Slash and burn is still widely practiced across farms in Kalghatgi

Statistics give the following types of irrigation methodologies used in the taluk – bore wells /tube wells, tanks/ponds, canals, and other sources. So far, there have been no projects completed by or under the technical guidance of Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) in the taluk.  The major groundwater problem is inland salinity[1].

People hesitate to cultivate millets, a crop best suited for dry land areas

Following a request from the Karnataka government, the Union government had decided to celebrate the year 2018 as the national year of the millets. The Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh had also urged the United Nations (UN) to observe 2018 as ‘International Year of Millets’, as reported in the Times of India[2].

Krishna Byre Gowda, Karnataka Agriculture Minister, during a culinary symposium at the Ramaiah Institute in Bengaluru last December, said, “Millets are smart food. They are healthy and ecologically sound, as it requires 70% less water compared to crops like paddy. Except for a very limited quantity of fertilizers, we do not really need to spray anything, as they are naturally resistant to pests. They are also resilient in the face of climate change, such as decline in rain water – they are likely to be the last standing crop during droughts.”

Figure 8: Cultivation of millets garners the farmer more loss than gain

 

Figure 9: Malathi R., Agriculture Officer, Dhummawad Krishi Office

Asked about help provided to farmers to grow millets, he said, “We will provide funds to the farmers, for the processing, packing and labeling machinery they will require. We are by the side of the farmers, and will aid them in any way which we can.”

 

However, even with the government’s push to promote the growth of millets, which is a dry land crop and one of the best alternatives to water intensive crops, farmers in Kalghatgi are hesitant in growing the crop. Put short, they are unwilling to take it up as they do not make much revenue from it. It garners them more loss than gain.

“Millet cultivation is not widespread here in Kalghatgi. When they try to sell it in the markets, they get barely enough to cover up their expenses in cultivating and reaping the crop. But the middlemen make the most of it. They buy at cheap rates, sell at much higher rates – organic millets are still expensive in the market. Dry land crop or not, if it does not give the farmers any profit, why would they cultivate millets?” asks Malathi. 

 

Most people, who do grow it, grow it in small patches of land, strictly for domestic purposes. However, despite the minimal returns, many are now turning towards the cultivation of millets – even if it is for domestic purposes.

 

Possible solutions to dry land crop cultivation

Says H. Y. Asangi, Assistant Director at the Kalghatgi Horticulture department, “The rainfall has come down to around 700 mm the last three years here, not less than that. Still, we encourage the farmers to grow vegetables and other horticultural crops, keeping in mind the dry terrain. We offer around 1000 farmers’ full support through bonuses in planting chilly and vegetables. Laterite soil in Kalghatgi facilitates for a good yield of horticultural crops.” He also added that the moisture retention in the soil is much better in areas that contain a lot of trees.

The horticulture department has a fully fledged plan on providing subsidies to those who cultivate horticulture plantations such as mango. Mango and amla are crops much suited for dry land areas. Amla is also advantageous in the fact that it can be grown on slightly alkaline soil.

Healthy trees grow even without human intervention, and this is sufficient proof that fruit trees can easily grow in Kalghatgi. Could these trees possibly be the solution to the farmers’ water woes?

Mango, lime, lemon, guava, pomegranate, jamun and tamarind are suitable in areas where the rainfall is more than 600mm, writes N. N. Reddy, Central Research Institute for Dry land Agriculture, Hyderabad[5]. Fruits like custard apple, ber, lasora and jamun on the other hand, may be grown in areas where the rainfall is less than 500mm.

Kalghatgi has a sloping and undulating topography. “Bunding and tree planting are two age-old methods that help conserve soil and water in dry land areas like that of Kalghatgi,” says Dr. Prakash Bhat, who formerly worked with the BAIF Development Research Foundation (formerly registered as the Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation). From Dharwad, Dr. Bhat along with members from BAIF has worked with farmers over the years, educating them and spreading awareness regarding best suited cropping patterns.

Figure 10: Dr. Prakash Bhat, Sustainable Development expert, and former CPC at BAIF Development Research Foundation (Picture courtesy: Dr. Prakash Bhat)

 

“Soybeans and millets have been replacing rice – this is not bad, but the fact that varieties of rice are disappearing due to this is a cause for concern. Even varieties of millets are disappearing too. We have employed an integrated farming system model at Surshettikoppa in Dharwad, named the ‘Surashettikoppa model’. The same could be employed at Kalghatgi as well, as both regions have the same blistering dry landscape,” he said.

Integrated farming system involves multiple aspects, such as farming, poultry, forestry etc. Focusing on all these, and involving the farmers in each and every activity, has been the working model of BAIF in Surashettikoppa and in certain regions of Kalghatgi.

“Bunds/embankments and grass prevent surface runoff, thereby preventing soil erosion. These bunks could be made of sandbags, which are then placed across rivulets. The water thus retained, could be diverted to plantations or farm ponds. Farm ponds are extremely beneficial, as they store water during occasional rains, which can be used during the dry spells.”

Figure 11: Tree roots help bind the soil, and retain soil moisture

Trees should be grown to bind the soil, and not for timber. Mango and Sapota plantations, in several parts of Kalghatgi, can be expanded. The tree roots bind the soil, fix nitrogen and absorb moisture, preventing surface runoff and soil erosion. The shade provided by the trees also prevents excessive water loss.

While keeping the farming practice sustainable, it is equally important that the welfare of the farmer is looked after. For this, Dr. Prakash suggested the method of reducing external input, thereby reducing the cost of production. Asked about government support for the farmers, Dr. Prakash opined that government schemes are not easily available to the farmers. Several subsidies that are allocated for the farmers are often denied, with officials at the agriculture department saying that the subsidies are not granted.

Pre-emptive water and soil conservation key to successful crop yields

Malathi R, agriculture officer at Dhumawad, says “Due to the dry topography, many people employ the drip and sprinkler techniques to water their crops. We also try to give incentives to farmers to do the same.”

Drip irrigation, done in few locations in Kalghatgi, could be extended to more areas. This preserves water, as water is made to drip slowly to the plant roots in small measures. Integrated farming systems that employ groundwater irrigation could be of greater help to Kalghatgi, as it lies close to the Malnad region with good groundwater quality.

 

Also, currently, as pressure is more on groundwater for meeting all water requirements in Kalghatgi, it is the right time to explore techniques that facilitate ground water recharge. This could be done through construction of recharge pits or shafts, and surface flooding of water in excavated basins.

Figure 12: Integrated farming practices go a long way in preserving soil fertility

There have been isolated cases of people having established groundwater recharging systems in Kalghatgi. Nagappa Shivappa Metri and Holyappa Talvar have benefitted from the Society for Rural Development Services’ (SRDS) bore well recharge technique. A primary percolation pit enables them to directly recharge the underground aquifers and water tables with clean water in Belavantra, Kalghatgi.

If a land as dry as Israel can successfully grow varieties of crops with its brackish water and intense heat, and export half its produce, there is no reason why Kalghatgi cannot strive to do the same.  Governments on their part have failed to address the issue of poor management of the taluk’s water resources, or to quell the misconception among the farmers of there being inadequate water.

The lackluster attitude of the government towards empowering the farmers with knowledge that could help them revive their farms is the bane of India’s agricultural sector. The erratic rainfall patterns and the rise in temperature are warning signals of an impending crisis, especially in the age of global warming. If a blind eye is turned towards these signals, it could very well lead to the desertification of land, wherein the soil loses its moisture and vegetation.

 

The Surashettikoppa model successfully engaged the people and helped them gain awareness on sustainable farming practices. With such educational programs, farmers can revive the fertility of the soil on their own. However, even with such commendable examples, the government departments have substantially failed to employ such techniques in Kalghatgi taluk. This shows that it has, perhaps, failed to learn anything from BAIF. With the worsening state of the taluk’s soil and water resources, it is no longer prudent to just wait.


[1] (Hydrogeologists’ warning on groundwater goes unheeded in Karnataka, 2017)

(2017). Hydrogeologists’ warning on groundwater goes unheeded in Karnataka. The Hindu.

[2] (Okese, 2018)

Okese, K. A. (2018). Slash and Burn: Its Negative Effects on Agriculture and Enviroment. Agrihome expressions.

[3] (Central Ground Water Board)

Central Ground Water Board, M. o. Ground water year book of Karnataka state 2015-2016.

[4]Mohan, V. (2017). India urges UN to declare 2018 as ‘International Year of Millets’. The Times of India.

[5] (Reddy)

Reddy, N. N. Horticulture Based Land Use Options for Resource Conservation, Market Needs and Mitigation of Climate Change. Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, Hyderabad .

[i] Kiran Yadav.

Yadav, K. (2009). Recent Advances in Dryland Agriculture. Agropedia.

 

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