The Cost of Water: Lost Livelihoods


Standing in a field with his face covered with a cotton towel, Rafique Srimoomin looks on as the labourers drill into the ground of his friend’s freshly ploughed field, neighbouring his own farm. The drilling machine groans and creaks as it goes through a sheet of rock, throwing up plumes of thick smoke-coloured dust in the blowing wind.

The workmen, seven of them, excluding the driver and operator of the drilling machine attached to the back of the truck, are enveloped in a thick cloud of dust. As the dust from the machine swirls around the workers like a scene of some dystopian movie,their hair and faces covered with a cloth ora headgear; the workers go on adding one drill bit after another into the machine, waiting to strike water.

Each drill bit is 10 feet in length and shaped like a stainless-steel pipe. The labourers continuously clear the dust and soil dug out by the machine so that new drill bits can be added.Drilling for the past hour and a half, they have already drilled up to 80-90 feet, informs Rafique, one of the onlooking farmers standing nearby, away from the swirling dust of the drilling machine.

Rafique is one of the many farmers interested in knowing if his neighbour and friend, Santosh Hugar able to strike water in his field this time. His reason for concern? He has around five acres of land, as dry and parched as the numerous other small land holdings neighbouring Hugar’s fields.

The farmers are concerned because their farms lie at the tail end of the Indi Left Canal irrigation projects. Used to not getting water through the canals around their farms, these farmers rely on monsoon rain and whatever water they can find by drilling borewells in their fields.

Residents of Tenahalli Village, situated15 kilometres away from the Taluk Headquarters Indi in Vijayapura district in Uttar Kannada;these farmers lie on the margins of the agricultural community. With land holdings averaging two to five acres, these farmers and many others like them in the surrounding villages live a life of immense risks and no returns.

They are forced to farm lands with no hope of getting sufficient water in the canals, these farmers with an average land holding of a couple of acres, spend anywhere between Rs.25,000 to Rs. 40,000 in digging one borewell. A farmer might have one to 10 borewells in his field, depending on the size of his land holdings and the amount of money he can risk investing in a particular year. A farmer might also go for two borewells in a year, depending on the earnings of his monsoon harvest and the money he can borrow.

Even digging borewells is no guarantee that their fields will get sufficient water for the next sowing season. Most of the borewells dug by the farmers have dried up. Even the new ones do not have any water.

Thirty-year old Rafique bemoans the vicious cycle they are trapped in. Owning 20 acres of land along with his 25-year old brother Mehboob Srimoomin, he is forced to go to Satara in Maharashtra every year for five to eight months because there is nothing to do in his village. His brother stays back in the village to take care of the farm and their family.

Running a small tailor shop in these lean months,his farming becomes impossible due to unavailability of groundwater and finding a work in the village or taluk is not an option as well.

Describing his situation, Rafique blames their lack of knowledge about how to deal with the situation. He said, “We do not get water through the canals due to one reason or the other, every year. They have not released water in the past six months. We even protested a few months ago but nothing has been done. We see this happening every year. Even though the construction of irrigation canals has been completed, water is rarely released in them. Last year, water was released in the canals during the rainy season. They release water only for a couple of days during the sowing season. In the dry season, even if we save enough money to dig a borewell, we cannot be sure to strike water. I know a farmer who has two acres of land but he has more than 10 borewells. Some of them are very new. I have 20 acres of land and three borewells. Two of them dried up last summer and the third one has only one inch of water in it. I don’t know how long it will last but I hope it lasts for a few more months. Santosh is getting a new borewell dug because his family does not have water even for drinking.”

The labourers drilled till 350 ft without finding waterafter drilling all morning for five hours. The farmers congregate in the afternoon sunto discuss how to proceed. Everyone is disappointed at not striking water.

If this drilling had proved successful, their chances of finding water would have improved dramatically. A visibly disheartened Santosh walks out of the group and waves to the labourers to stop drilling.

He has decided not to dig anymore as the hopes of striking water are very slim now and he cannot afford to spend more than Rs. 30,000.

A foot of drilling costs anywhere between Rs. 80 and Rs. 120 and till now Santosh has dug 12 borewells in his four acres of farm land.He will pay Rs. 30,000 to the contractor for the machine and the labourers in a few days. Explaining his compulsion to go to Maharashtra in search of a job, he said, “I have not decided what I will do. I was hoping that I would reach water while digging. Now I will have to leave my family and go to Satarato find a job. I might come back before it starts raining next year. I have to pay my loans as they have not been waived off.”

Santosh is not the only one mulling going to the industrial towns in Maharashtra like Satara and Pune in search of employment to sustain their families back home. There are countless others like him who leave their families behind year after year to work in factories in the neighbouring state. Village accountant of a nearby village namedTamba, SS Biradar, said that this is a common practice among farmers in this region.

He said, “The farmers are only able to grow one crop per year as there is an acute shortage of water for farming in the surrounding villages. Most farmers in the region do not grow the Kharif crop as the water dries up by then. The canals constructed to provide water to these fields are not of much help either.”

Farmers living around the tail end of the Indi Branch Canal point out that they are the ones who suffer the most due to water not being released regularly in the canals. While the previous Water Resources Minister had promised to release water on a regular basis, the condition remains the same, Mahtab Mullah, a farmer in Tamba village said.

Talking to the farmers, one gathers that there are various reasons for water not reaching their fields on time or at all. They point to the repeated increase in the height of the Almatti and Narayanpur Dams of the Upper Krishna Project.

Envisioned as a project to provide water to the drought-prone districts of Bagalkot, Bijapur, Gulbarga and Raichur; work to construct the Narayanpur and Almatti dams started in 1963. With numerous delays due to various obstacles in the implementation, the project dragged on for40-50 years and finally witnessing inauguration in 2005.

According to a progress report available on the website of the implementing authority, Karnataka Bhagya Jala Nigam Limited (KBJNL), the estimated cost of the project for Stage one, as cleared by the Planning Commission, increased from Rs. 58.20 crores in 1963 (to irrigate 5.99 lakh acres by utilising 103 TMC of water) to Rs. 1214.97 crores in 1990 (to irrigate 10.50 lakh acres by utilising 119 TMC of water).

The estimated cost of the Stage-II multi-purpose project, as cleared by the Planning Commission, in the year 2000, was Rs. 2358.86 crores (Irrigation component) to irrigate 1.97 lakh ha (4.87 lakh acres) by utilising 54 TMC of water.

Thus, the Irrigation potential contemplated under both Stage-I and Stage-II is 6.22 lakh ha (15.37 lakh acres) by utilising 173 TMC of water under Scheme-A.

The Upper Krishna Project was planned to be executed in three stages with the project report finalised in 1976. As per the 1976 progress report of the project, the crest level for the first stage of the Alamatti Dam was 502.064 m and second stage was 514.256 m with the Full Reservoir Level (FRL) being 512.064 m and 524.256 m, respectively.

After the recommendations of an expert panel were adopted in 1978, the crest level was decided at 500m for the first stage and 512 for the second stage and FRL remained same.

The crest levels for both the stages were reduced in 1985 to 509.016 m, while the FRL remained the same.

To be constructed with the financial support of the World Bank, in the first phase, the construction of Almattiand the downstream Narayanpur Dam was taken up, along with construction of Narayanpur Left Canal from 35.50 Km to 78 Km. The construction up to 35 Km was completed without support from the World Bank. Phase one also included the construction of 18 distributaries under the Sahahapur Branch Canal of the Narayanpur Left Bank Canal, creating irrigation potential of 79,629 hectares of land.

The phase two of stage one proposed raising the crest of Almatti dam to a Reservoir Level of 512.20 Metres for providing irrigation to an extent of 0.16 lakh hectre along with the construction of part of the Indi Branch Canal and partial distribution system under Mudbal Branch Canal to provide irrigation to an extent of 1.70 lakh hectre.

All the work of Stage I of the Upper Krishna Project was to be completed as part of the phase three of the project implementation.

The Stage II of the UKP envisioned the raising of Full Reservoir Level of Almatti Dam to 524.26 Metre to provide irrigation to an additional extent of 1.972 lakh hectare.

A news report published inDeccan Herald on July 25 2018 stated, ‘With the state government failing to utilize the water by raising the Almatti dam height, farmer leaders claim that more than 100 tmc water remained unutilized this monsoon as around 1.50 lakh cusecs water is being released to Andhra Pradesh. The government had taken up a mega rehabilitation project involving shifting of hundreds of villages when Almatti dam was built in 2005. But, people in these rehabilitation centres are still reeling because of lack of basic amenities. Therefore, the farmer leaders are demanding that the government conduct an assessment of the likely social impact due to increase of the dam height.’

An article published in The Hindu on May 21, 2000 talks about the delays faced in implementing the project. Laying out the increase in estimated cost of the project due to delays and changes in the plan for the dams and canals, the article said, “The State … has not completed work sanctioned as part of Phase II of Stage I of the project. The work has been going on since 1989, and unless it is completed, Karnataka will not be able to make much progress in its efforts to utilise water impounded in the Almatti Dam.”

It added, “Work, which was to have been completed by December 1996, had not been done even by March 1999. Work on canals and distributaries is yet to be completed. The delay has affected creation of irrigation potential. Although a capacity to irrigate 1.18 lakh hectares was created, the actual area irrigated was only 48,583 hectares.”

Stages I and II of the Upper Krishna Project were completed only in July 2001 when it was declared that water at Almatti Dam had reached full reservoir level of 519.6 metres.TheAlmatti and the Narayanpur dams were ready with a storage capacity of 44.79 TMC.

While the farmers suffer, officials are tight-lipped about the state of affairs. Although, a Superintendent Engineer of KBJNL posted in Rampur Division of the India Branch Canal and Indi Lift Canal Project refused to comment for this report, his junior, Assistant Engineer SN Hiremani, talked to NewsNet.

Explaining that KBJNL has plans to develop the catchment area of the canal, the official said, “The Catchment Area Development Authority is already operating. It has to overcome many challenges to bring the farmers onboard for the creation of co-operatives for owners of 500 hectares of land. Once that process is complete, wastage of water can be minimised. Once farmers start cooperating and sharing water, water can flow to the end of canals.”

“Along with cooperating with the farmers to bring them on one platform, the Authority will provide assistance in setting up drip irrigation in farms, provide assistance to farmers in terms of farming methods and innovative solutions to traditional cropping patterns.”

Chairman of Divecha Centre for Climate Change, IISc, Dr. J Srinivasan – an expert on climate change – talking about the impact of insufficient rainfall, inefficient irrigation and inadequate groundwater, said: “While a lot of research has been done on the causes of drought in the North Karnataka region, not enough attention has been paid to mitigate a disaster in making. North Karnataka has been traditionally, one of the driest parts of India. People don’t realise that parts of Karnataka are as dry as Gujarat. There are papers now coming out, showing that North Karnataka is slowly getting drier. The farmers’ problemsare a little more complicated to solve.”

“The government needs to play an active role. It needs to reach out to farmers and help them with innovative farming methods. They also need to make the system of canals work before implementing ambitious projects. The Alamatti dam has already been delayed for far too long.”While the project was envisioned to provide water for irrigation to large parts of the Indi Taluk, it has failed to deliver water on a regular basis. Repeated droughts in the region has starved the farmers of a steady means of livelihood.

Vijaypura is one of the 16 districts which have been identified the most drought prone districts in the country. Taluks in the district like Indi, Sindagi, and Vijayapura have been identified as affected by drought since 2015.

Talking to scientists of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) –Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) working out of their office in Indi Taluk, throws more light on how the situation has deteriorated over the years due to government’s apathy, insufficient resources in terms of rainfall and faulty planning.

The scientists point out that in many places where the farmers block the canals to divert water to their fields illegally, the soil has become more saline along with losing its fertility over the years. They point out the various ways in which farmers can adopt modern farming practices to grow crops suitable to the region’s climate and low water availability.

Heena MS, a horticulturist working with the ICAR-KVK, said that the region is famous for its grapes and lemon. The climate is also suitable for growing other horticulture crops like Dragon fruit, Apple Ber (Indian Jujube or Chinese Date), pomegranates etc.

She points out that due to the dry climate and low water content in the soil, berry fruits like grapes and pomegranate have more sugar content but not many farmers are keen on growing them. She explains that the farmers are hesitant to change their cropping patterns and take risks with a new crop.

She said, “Farmers are hesitant to take up modern practices. We advise most of the farmers who come to us asking how they can farm profitably. It depends on them to take it up. We have two farmers who left their corporate jobs and come back to start farming. Their venture has started showing results now.”

Heena’s colleague, Sadiya Anjum, a plant pathologist, points out that growing traditional crops and traditional farming practices have made the farmers in the region more vulnerable and dependent on the scarce water resources. Practices like continuing with furrow irrigation, over-use of water, dependency on rain all compound to make farming un-profitable in the region.

She points out the practices which can be adopted in the region to make farming more profitable. Adopting drip irrigation, growing horticulture crops according to the climactic condition and soil analysis before growing cash crops as immediate measures can greatly reduce the risks faced by the farmers.

Savita B, a soil scientist working at the KVK, points to other challenges faced by the farmers in the region. She said, “The farmers have to battle with the elements in their fields but they face bigger challenges outside the fields, too. The whole market is dominated by middlemen. The prices are fixed by them too. They pay a paltry sum to the farmers and take the produce to bigger markets, earning handsomely by selling the produce to traders in Sholapur and other bigger markets. The farmers do not grade their produce and none of their produce is exported. Even though the grapes and lemon from the region are famous across the country and outside it, it’s a shame that they are not exported.”

The sentiments are echoed by engineer-turned-farmer Anil Mohare. A native of Indi, Mohare worked for Airbus in France and Germany for 10 years. He gave up his job in 2012 and came back to Indi with a plan to farm in his native place. A meticulous person, he maintains records of all his incomes and expenditures on his phone along with closely collaborating for advice and support from the KVK to make his plan a success.

Mohare bought 10 acres of land when he returned from Germany and he grows grapes on three acres to turn them into raisins.On the rest, he grows toordal, ground nut, and wheat. He also grows jawar and bajra on some of his fields. Confessing that he is expecting a turnover of Rs. 20 Lakh this year, Mohare sounds confident when he explains the measures which he has adopted to turn his venture profitable.

He said, “I travel to many places in neighbouring Maharashtra where a lot of grapes are grown for the explicit purpose of export. I go there and try to learn the best practices farmers there have adopted. I have implemented drip irrigation in my fields which drastically reduces the amount of water needed for farming. Adopting these measures and growing the correct crops have been critical.”

Chidambar Kulkarni, another engineer who left his job in Pune to farm on his ancestral land, has a similar story to tell. His family owns 150 acres of land but his father’s generation did not farm. While some of the land was given to neighbouring farmers to cultivate, most of it was left uncultivated and encroached upon by animals and squatters.

Since returning, he has cleared his land holdings and now farms on a 25-acre tract of land. Discussing the challenges he faced in getting water through the canals to his fields, Chidambar said, “I grow cashew, sugarcane, silkworms, red gram andwheat among other crops, as advised by the KVK in Indi. When I started out, I experimented a lot. I am still experimenting with the crops I can grow. However,one thing is clear. A lot of work has to be done to make farming profitable in the region. One of the pressing needs of the time is finding a holistic solution to the water problem. We are working towards forming a co-operative of farmers so that we can pressurise the administration to release water on time and distribute the water coming through the canals in a fair and equitable manner.We have an opportunity to improve production drastically. If we are successful in forming a co-operative of farmers, we might be able to lure big corporate farming contracts to farm with us.”


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