Better Late than Never

Cover Story

It’s never too late to reverse wasteful water use and revive sustainable farming, says Anjana Basumatary

The never-ending patchwork of fields stretching all the way to the horizon belies the sad truth that Shiggaon taluk of Haveri district in central Karnataka is fast running out of water.

Farmers in villages including Baad, Shishuvinaala, Bankapur and Hubli have dug around 78 bore wells in the past 3 years to water their crops. They have spent over Rs.1 crore on these wells to irrigate the corn, cotton and chilly they grow. Despite drilling to over 800 ft., Shiggaon has been facing its worst water crisis in the last 4 years and has seen its agricultural output shrink.

Maruthi Talegedi, 42, says he has spent Rs. 25 lakh over the past 2 and half years drilling 18 bore wells on his 15 acres of land. “During the initial days one bore well was enough to give water for 2 acres of land,” he says, “but from the past 4-5 years we kept on drilling one well after another, as underground water used to come irregularly. And a few bore wells have stopped giving water despite of digging it up to 800 ft. below.”

Due to the reduced availability of water, Talegadi has had to reduce his scale of cultivation. His jowar crop has dropped by half, from 50 quintals to just 25 quintals now and he’s lost a substantial part of his earnings. He says for 25 quintals of jowar he earns Rs. 50,000, which is not enough to support his family over the course of the year.

Due to water depletion, he first stopped cultivating rice, as rice requires flood irrigation and the available water is not enough for its cultivation. He says he has insured his crops, but from past 2 years he has got only Rs. 4,000 as compensation from government. So, Talegadi decided that he better supplement his income and started working in the off-season as a contract labourer in Mumbai.

Talegadi’s story is repeated across the taluk. The drop in the water table has forced farmers to drill more bore wells and now, as Shiggaon drills ever deeper, it stares at the very real possibility that its aquifer could run dry.

In response, the government has asked farmers not to drill any more bore wells, says Vijay Kumar, agriculture officer of Shiggaon taluk. “Earlier, water was available at just 4-5 m (12-15 ft.) below the surface but now after digging up to 800 ft. below ground, water is rarely available for 24 hours,” he says. “Farmers have been digging bore wells one after another in the hope that water would be available but it is not. In fact, in Bankapur and Baad villages, water is not available even at 800 ft and bore wells that were dug lie abandoned. But, 15 km away from Bankapur, wells at 500 ft are yielding water, even if irregularly.”

Besides the erratic monsoon rains, there are factors which have contributed to water depletion in the region. The biggest culprit was the cultivation of rice. Because of increasingly dry conditions, the rice fields needed to be repeatedly irrigated several times. At one time, 65% of farmers to grow rice in this taluk but that has fallen to 23%, and that too only in areas that have not witnessed such a dramatic depletion of ground water.

Girish, 65, moved to Bangalore from Shiggaon to drive a lorry to earn a little extra to support his family. He says he has 3 acres of land which initially yielded 15 quintals of jowar; it’s producing just 3 quintals now. He says that he has been struggling to get compensation from the insurer for the past 3 years but has been told he’s ineligible. Apparently the cover is only for crop losses of 20 quintals and above and Girish has registered a loss of 12 quintals.

Khwaja Mainuddin, 45, says he has dug 3 bore wells on his 13 acres of land because none of them supply water 24 hours a day. “Government has instructed us not to drill any more bore wells but we have to since we need water for cultivation, and during summer it’s the only source of drinking water for Shiggaon.”  Naganur Kere lake completely dries up despite connecting the lake with the Varada river under lake-filing project initiated by B S Bommai, the member of the legislative assembly representing the area, in 2010.

He said since his land can’t produce much jowar because of the water shortage, he uses urea and di-ammonium phosphate fertilizers to increase crops yields. “However, due to over use of urea, plants grew greener and attracted more insects and the crops failed,” he says. For a loss of over 10 quintal of grain he has incurred over the past 3 years, the government has compensated him just Rs. 5,000. So, he too has left his village to work as a construction worker in Bangalore, a job that fetches him Rs. 400 a day.

While some are migrating to cities and changing their occupations, those who are staying behind in drought-prone villages are shifting to non-farm occupations. Says Mangala G, agricultural training officer, Shiggaon, “To tackle these problems on a long-term basis, the government has come up with alternate-farming practices. We recommend farmers to not continue with mono-cultural farming since it consumes lot of water and is risky. We are promoting rainwater harvesting and the agricultural department has been distributing sprinkler and drip-irrigation systems at 90% subsidy.”


To illustrate, she says that rainwater-collection ponds have been dug in the taluk, in which the runoff is collected. This allows water to percolate to the water table below. Similar measures across the taluk, including the construction of small check dams on all stream beds, afforestation of slopes along river courses and increased green cover will all contribute to regenerating the aquifer and raising the water table. “It’s a series of small steps over time that will reverse the depletion of water reserves in Shiggaon and other water-scarce regions in the state,” she says. That could help also reverse the out-migration of farmers from the area and lay the foundation for a more sustainable agriculture.

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