Cauvery turmoil: Karnataka farmers seek alternatives to water-intensive crops

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Asia and the Pacific
Focus Topic:
Agricultural Value Chains / Agri-Businesses

Paddy farmers in Mandya district shifting to horticultural and plantation crops.

Farmers in Karnataka facing a grim situation due to the rainfall deficit in monsoon 2023. With the state mandated by court to share Cauvery river water with its neighbour Tamil Nadu, farmers in districts growing water-intensive crops are now looking for alternatives as crops suffer in dry fields.

Water from canals does not reach the fields of Boray Gowda, a second generation farmer in Malavalli taluk in Mandya district. “We are stuck with growing water-intensive crops, but it does not rain enough and borewells do not yield sufficient water,” he said, showing the soil quality with his bare hands to this reporter.

Downstream of the Cauvery river, over 600,000 hectares in three districts in the river basin help cultivate sugarcane and paddy. Fields in Mandya, Srirangapatna, Maddur and Nagamangala taluks that are connected by canals fare a little better, but they still get water once every 10 days for the crops.

This is not enough, as the crops need standing water for at least a week in a fortnight, said Krishi Pandit awardee and agriculturist Syed Ghani Khan.

“Paddy farmers are now in a fix; the four reservoirs in the Cauvery basin have only 54,000 million cubic feet (TMC) of water. With Tamil Nadu demanding its share irrespective of the inflow into the four reservoirs (KRS, Harangi, Kabini and Hemavathi), our hopes are dashed,” he added.

Why is this happening in a region known for its water resources? Over 68,000 hectares of land are under paddy cultivation in Mandya district alone. The acreage has increased over the last 10 years. Farming of sugarcane, another water-intensive crop, has also grown. Furthermore, another water-intensive crop — arecanut — is rapidly expanding in many parts of the district. Over 6,000 hectares in the district are now under arecanut cultivation.

The growing acreage of these water-intensive crops, along with the rainfall deficit in the monsoon this year, has compounded the issue.

State government officials quoted India Meteorological Department statistics — the region has received 28 per cent less rain than usual. This has resulted in 30 per cent less augmentation of water while keeping two percent for evaporation and weathering effects.

The shortage has reduced the availability of water for farming, while the amount of water released to Tamil Nadu as a result of court orders has remained constant.

The problem extends beyond water sharing, said member of legislative council from Mandya district Madhu G Madegowda, son of G Madegowda, who had led many struggles for Karnataka’s share of irrigation water.

“Mandya has become a highly urban area and is well connected to Bengaluru. Most youngsters are migrating for white collar jobs and I learned from the farmer community that not even one young person has joined agriculture since the year 2000,” Gowda told this reporter.

Labour problems

Few local youths are taking up jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), according to officials in the state labour department.

“As a result of ongoing water disputes and uncertainty about agricultural yields, as well as the resulting variation in income levels, youth have shifted to white-collar jobs. Migrant labourers take most of the MGNREGS jobs,” said an official on condition of anonymity.

“Our fields are now run by hired labour from North Karnataka districts such as Bidar, Raichur, and Gulburga,” confirmed Borey Gowda, a farmer leader. “These workers are underemployed. There is burgeoning horticultural crops in their own districts, but the ground reality for employment is stark.”

Paddy farmers in Mandya are shifting to horticultural and plantation crops as a result of labour shortages, which are exacerbated by water shortages.

“We are blessed with very fertile and moist black alluvial soil that can grow just about anything. Some farmers are now contemplating replacing paddy with horticultural crops. A group of innovative farmers have already toured the Krishnagiri-Hosur area and learned about growing grapes, which are the first level of input for the high-value wine production,” D Atmananda, an advocate for Mandya’s farmers who is also a farmer.

Karnataka Rajya Raita Sangha (KRRS), which participated in the recent Karnataka bandh over the Cauvery water sharing issue, also pointed out the state’s intricate water-sharing dynamics within the broader river system in a memorandum given to the National Water Development Authority.

Karnataka assumes a pivotal role, contributing a substantial 425 TMC, accounting for 54 per cent of the total share. However, should Karnataka opt to fully give away the allocated 284.75 TMC to its neighbour, it would be left with a meagre 140.25 TMC to meet its own needs. This poses a pressing challenge: How can Karnataka reconcile the need to release 177.25 TMC at the Biligundlu Gauge point to fulfil its obligations to Tamil Nadu?

In this complex scenario, the state finds itself at a crossroads with two plausible options. It can either relinquish a significant portion of its water share or abstain from utilising the Kabini waters received from Kerala to the extent it does. Notably, neither the Kabini river nor its tributaries make any incursion into Tamil Nadu’s territory; their flow is exclusive to Karnataka.

This raises a pertinent ethical question: Is it equitable to curtail Karnataka’s substantial stake in Kabini waters to fulfil the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal’s mandate? The answer to this question remains a subject of intense debate and scrutiny.

Cauvery water sharing issue is longstanding, said L Sandesh, author of the 2003 book Cauvery Kadana on the interstate water sharing disputes between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

“Karnataka has always gotten a raw deal in the scheme of things when it comes to interstate water sharing with Tamil Nadu and it has been suffering for 200 years. But recent protests fizzle out quickly and seem only politically motivated. They erupt only after the south westerly monsoons have withdrawn,” said Sandesh.


M Raghuram
Originally published on
© M Raghuram