“The purchasing power has definitely come down,” says Umesh Kusugal, deputy commissioner of Hassan district. The alarming thing is that Hassan is relatively better off, even prosperous, compared to many of Karnataka’s districts because it gets some rain, being a ‘semi-Malnad’ region and the river Hemavathy courses through its undulating southern plains before joining the Cauvery. It’s also a tourism hub, home to the 12th century Hoysala architectural marvels at Belur and Halebid, and an entry point to coffee country of Chikmagalur. But two consecutive years of drought seem to have taken a toll.
Only a quarter of the normal agricultural yield (potato, maize and ginger are the large crops here, besides the coffee and coconut plantations) was available this year and incomes have suffered, says Kusugal, adding that Rs 51 crore has already been released towards drought relief. There was rain between July and August but it fizzled out just when the crops were maturing. As elsewhere in Karnataka, banks have been asked not to press farmers for dues because of the grim situation. “Last year was the worst year in terms of drought. Farmers were pledging their gold for loans to grow their potato and ginger,” says Keshave Gowda, a school teacher in Naganahalli village, around 30 km south of Hassan city.
To make matters worse, a recurring potato blight had wiped out crops in many parts of the district. “Normally, you would get 8-10 quintals an acre. If you manage five quintals now, that is considered great,” says Keshave. Five years ago, one could make a tidy profit growing potato. “You could easily make a profit of Rs 25,000 per acre then. Now, people are incurring losses of Rs 25,000,” says Range Gowda. Last season, the only ones who made any kind of money were a few vegetable farmers who managed to sell their produce when the prices were favourable.
Worse, NREGA hasn’t been working that well. “There has never been a more useful scheme than NREGA,” says farmer N.B. Range Gowda, ruing the fact that the programme has slackened of late. He reckons it’s partly because the daily wage of Rs 204 isn’t attractive these days. Farm hands earn Rs 300-350 a day and many youngsters prefer to seek work in town, mostly at garment factories. Gowda should know: in 2008, he was a member of the village panchayat which approved the repair job of a weir that had a breach, spending Rs 6 lakh, nearly half of which went towards wages. Naganahalli’s tank was among the early NREGA success stories in Karnataka.
However, in Hassan city, which has a population of around 1.8 lakh, the retailers aren’t complaining. That’s probably because rural folk don’t form the bulk of their business. The city has a sizable salaried class, and there has also been income from real estate transactions in recent years. In Channarayapatna, a town with a population of 40,440 located 37 km away, a two-wheeler dealer smiles when asked if demand has been hit. He reels out examples of how new showrooms have been opening up in neighbouring small towns. “Yelli, duddu illa antha heli (tell me, who doesn’t have money)?” But then he does agree that people aren’t spending as impulsively as they would have a year ago.
By Ajay Sukumaran in Hassan, Karnataka