Karnataka rural distress far from over despite rains

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Mulkatte/Bengaluru: It’s about 11am on a hot and humid Monday morning and three men in their early 50s drag a plough through a soft (and moist) Ragi field, as using cows would damage the barely few inches high crop. With a towel wrapped around their heads, these labourers are happy finally doing a job after four years due to severe drought in Karnataka.

“We need at least two to three more rains (12-15 days each spell) for any hope of a yield,” M.D.Vishkante Gowda, the director of a local cooperative society and owner of the farm, said.

After nearly four years of failed monsoons, south Karnataka has received at least 30% (other regions have deficits ranging from 15-30%) excess rainfall in the last two months, but farmers are not rejoicing in the small village of Mulkatte, Nagamangala Taluk (Mandya District)—a rain-fed region with about 750 people,120 km from Bengaluru.

At the tail end of Hemavathy river, with no link to Cauvery river and no rains from western ghats, Nagamangala Taluk is a forgotten region, though it’s part of Mandya district, the heartland of farmer movements in the state.

For the first time, the government brought in water from Hemavathy to fill up lakes, but so far it has only given hope and farmers still need money to go in for sowing.

Nagamangala does not even feature in the list of drought-prone regions.

“It’s like this. We have to be completely clean (debt free). If there is even one wound in our body, the banks refuse to give us a loan,” 63-year-old Deve Gowda, a farmer, said, mirroring the sentiment of farmers increasingly saddled with rising debt and fast eroding agricultural income.

Farmers here say that they are better off approaching private firms, money lenders or pledge their gold and land as they cannot satiate the banks’ appetite for “documents” nor understand why most of these officials cannot even communicate in the local language. Some farmers like 69-year-old Srikante Gowda do not even have a bank account.

Even the up to Rs50,000 crop and short-term farm loan waiver announced by the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in June is yet to reach farmers and the compensation in crop insurance is less than the premium amount, villagers say.

Uncertainty attached with agriculture is forcing youngsters to look for income avenues other than agriculture in nearby towns and cities—some never to return to the fields. “If we know there is loss in a business, why would we attempt it,” 31-year-old M.S.Parameshwara, who left his Mulkatte over a decade ago and now serves as a government official, said.

With land holdings of around 2-3 acres (on average), many farmers are setting up small shops, converting land into layouts or just selling them.

“I had to sell two of my four acres holdings to get my daughter married,” Haal Gaudappa, another farmer, said.

The Rs1.3 lakh per acre that he got was used for the wedding and to clear some debts. He is debt free now, but has no steady income as he cultivates only one acre of his remaining holding, that too for fodder.

Coconut, ragi and vegetables—the three crops grown here—all need investments and coconut needs at least two years to revive. The vehement promotion of ragi as an alternative (in nutrition and stabilise farmer income) to paddy and sugarcane has also fallen short of its targets—some of the challenges coming from Siddaramaiah’s flagship Anna Bhagya (free rice) scheme that proposes to replace ragi with rice. “The fair price shop is open for 2-3 days in a month. If you don’t go then, you won’t get free rice,” farmers say.

In 2014-15, the state procured around 21 lakh quintals (Rs2,100 per quintal) of ragi, but none last year due to low production, T.N. Prakash Kammaradi, a farm expert and chairman of Karnataka state agriculture price commission, said. This year, the state has proposed Rs2,300 per quintal. Farmers, however, claim they get only around Rs1,800-1,900 per quintal of ragi.

“Rs2,300 is good money. But farmers need to be patient,” Kammaradi said. But patience here is a scarce commodity as farmers’ incomes are drying up and fast.

With the rains coming at the end of kharif season and beginning of rabi season, Kammaradi said that farmers must shed their “calendar” sowing pattern and be ready for the rains, which he claims is the only way forward.

“We don’t have irrigation. No one has come to our support. All we ask is to release water to our lakes and our lives will be better than people in cities. But we don’t know if this will happen,” M.D. Kumar, another farmer who also owns a small shop, said. For now, rains have only managed to raise hopes, not the income of farmers.

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