Bevu bella is the traditional way to usher in Ugadi, the new year, in Karnataka. It’s a simple recipe: bevu (neem) mixed with bella (jaggery). And, it holds a profound symbolism: the bitter-sweet cycle of life.
“This year, there’s only the bitter,” says Kurbur Shantakumar of the Karnataka Sugarcane Growers Association, as he describes what has been a harsh drought across the state when the festival passed by in end-March. “Tanks have dried up and cattle have no fodder. Farmers are selling off their cattle.”
The farmlands of Karnataka—a Deccan state that is typically one of the biggest beneficiaries of monsoons in India—have been reeling under consecutive drought situations for the past several years. During the kharif season in 2016-17, as many as 139 taluks (out of the state’s 177) were declared drought-hit. That number rose to 160 in the rabi season. The 2016-17 foodgrain production is expected to decline to 91.54 lakh tonnes vis-à-vis 96.44 lakh tonnes in 2015-16, according to the state’s economic survey. Karnataka had sought Rs 4,702 crore towards kharif crop losses from the Centre, which, in January, approved Rs 1,782 crore, much to the state’s disappointment.
Middle-aged Shantakumar hasn’t seen such a severe situation in 40 years. “There are around 25 lakh borewells in Karnataka. Out of that, at least 10 lakh have dried up,” he says. The state’s sugarcane crop has declined by nearly half, he says. “In 2015-16, we had crushed 3.90 crore tonnes of cane. But in 2016-17, we have crushed only 2.05 crore tonnes. That will drop further by 10 per cent in the coming year.” While crop insurance schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) have been implemented, he reckons the reach has been limited owing to a lack of awareness among farmers.
Estimates by the government indicate that 10.5 lakh farmers cultivating 13.05 lakh hectares were enrolled under Karnataka Raitha Surakshna-PMFBY and the Weather-based Crop Insurance Scheme during the kharif season in 2016-17. The schemes enrolled 11.74 lakh farmers covering 16.74 lakh hectares in the rabi season.
The southwest monsoon in Karnataka was lower by 18 per cent in 2016 (the deficiency was as high as 29 per cent and 21 per cent in the Malnad and coastal regions respectively). The northeast monsoon (November-December brought 54 millimetres of rain as against the normal 188 mm, an alarming deficit of 71 per cent.
As much as 66 per cent of the cultivated area in Karnataka is rain-fed, making it one of the largest arid regions after Rajasthan. Poor rains in successive years have left even well-irrigated districts, like Mandya in southern Karnataka, struggling. K. Boraiah, 67, a farmer leader from Mandya, recounts how his generation grew up seeing bountiful water from the Krishnaraja Sagar reservoir along the Cauvery that flows through the district. The live storage stood at 5.53 TMC at the end of March compared to 7.88 TMC around the same time last year (the reservoir’s live storage capacity is 45 TMC). “In all these years, I’ve never seen the reservoir in this state,” says Boraiah. “There used to be few borewells in our region. Now, we hear that in some villages there are about 50-60 borewells. And, there’s no water in them,” he says.
By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore