Sugarcane fields sap the life of Krishna

137 dams dot the basin, but 4 riparian states along Krishna wage internecine wars to appropriate every drop, for water is priceless here

Published: 23rd August 2016 04:56 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th October 2016 02:40 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

VIJAYAPURA/ALMATTI : Almatti is one of the 137 dams built in the Krishna basin in Karnataka. And it is at full capacity right now. But all those dams on the Krishna are not sufficient to meet the irrigation needs of farmers.

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Not in Karnataka, or in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh or Telangana, the four riparian states that have been waging internecine battles for the Krishna for decades. Right along the course of the river, farmers have switched to water-intensive crops such as sugarcane and paddy. As a result, there is overexploitation and dependence on the Krishna river and farmers have taken to drawing water illegally from the canals. “Whether we have water to the brim in the Almatti or whether there is a trickle, there are always pumpsets drawing water illegally,” says an irrigation official. Last year, Karnataka saw a spate of farmer suicides, a multitude of them in the Krishna basin. The rains never came, there was no water in the canals and crops died. Debts spiraled and many farmers took the noose.

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It is a calming sight to look over the expanse of water gently lapping against the rim of the Almatti reservoir. It is the biggest dam on the Krishna. This year, the rains haven’t been great here in northern Karnataka, but the catchments up in Maharasthra have been better blessed, and therefore Almatti is at capacity, 123.08 tmc ft, the only dam in on the Krishna to be full this year.

Sugarcane country

Krishna River04.jpgSouthern Maharashtra and northern Karnataka are sugarcane country. One can travel miles and miles through Satara, Sangli, Karad and Kupwad without seeing a crop other than sugarcane. Yields here are among the highest in the country, with plantations in Sangli producing up to 150 tonnes of cane per acre. As we move into Karnataka, there are punctuations of paddy among the sugarcane and a few commas of maize, toor dal, onions and vegetables. Sugarcane and paddy are water-intensive crops and suck up the lion’s share of the Krishna’s waters. Drip irrigation is not common.

“Sugarcane and paddy are commercial crops that the farmers will not give up easily. Sugarcane has a fixed price and fetches good returns to farmers. So why will they give it up,” asks Basavaraj Kumbar.

Pitching for smart irrigation

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He is an advocate for responsible agriculture. Hailing from the village of Nidagundi, 2 km from the Almatti dam, he has for years been lobbying the government to convince farmers to switch to smart irrigation. “When they (the Water Resources Department) calculate the release of water and how many hectares it will irrigate, they do not take into consideration the illegal pumps,” he argues. “If water is supplied to 500 acres, then just one sugarcane plantation in the area is capable of drawing all of the water.”

Kumbar demands a network of canals that will fill local ponds when the dam is full. But convincing farmers to be responsible with water is difficult. Kumbar has won the support of local religious leaders to preach wise irrigation practices, and massive subsidies are being offered to anyone setting up drip irrigation systems. It can cost up to Rs 40,000 per acre to set up in a sugarcane field.

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Usual story. The scenario this year is marginally better with the Almatti full, but in the Raichur belt, where fields are wetted by the Tungabhadra, the Krishna’s largest tributary, farmers are still apprehensive. This is an area straddling Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra, which receive water from Rajolibanda Diversion Scheme, a chimerical project with the dam in one state, the canals in another and fields in yet another. The waters of RDS are a bone of contention between people of different states, between people of different villages, some using dynamite to blow holes into the canal bund and some throwing stones to deter the theft.

Wars then, disputes now

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This conflict in microcosm is reminiscent of historic battles of many kingdoms, chiefly Vijayanagar and the Bahmanis, who fought bitter battles over the rich Raichur doab. Today there are no wars, but sharp internecine interstate disputes.

“Are you from the Water Resources Department?” sunflower farmer Thimmaiah Bajantri asks us. He and his neighbour Mahantesh own around four acres of land each here and plant cotton, sunflower and maize. They are dependent on rainfall and irrigation from the left bank canal of the RDS. Having already sown during a good spell of rain three weeks ago, they are now worried. The rains have stopped and the channel is dry, dotted with muddy puddles here and there. Borewells are not feasible here, because of the high salinity of the water they cough up.

“I don’t think there is going to be any water from the canal this year too. If it doesn’t rain, we are doomed,” Mahantesh says. Even if there is water in the canals, by the time it reaches his farm, it is but a trickle.

“Who will listen to us? We are not important people,” Mahantesh shrugs. “We are not like Andhra farmers. They are ready to kill and be killed to get their work done. We are not like that. We just work in our fields and go home. We do not get involved at all.” Mahantesh talks about the violent agitations that have taken place at RDS over water sharing in the last three decades. There have been attempts by farmers on the Telangana side to breach the sluice walls with explosives.

There’s disagreement even on the name of the place. It is situated next to Rajalabanda village in Raichur district, but on the Telangana side, it is referred to as Rajolibanda. Even in the mid-monsoon this year, the RDS site is eerie. The riverbed is a cracked-up droughtscape, the canals are dry, the reservoir is filled with silt, at some places almost as high as the wall of the anicut. “What is there to fight for now? There has been no water for two years,” says Ellaiah, a paddy grower from Rajalabanda, who reckons his paddy paddy crop will go bust if there’s no rain in the next three weeks.

Dry bed, a gold mine

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The dry river bed is an opportunity for contractors to mine the sand. On the other side, truck are being filled with sand dredged from the river bed. It’s a lucrative business which feeds into the housing industry in Bengaluru. A fleet of trucks, all bearing no registration plates, rumble onto the roads, carrying the stolen sand of the Krishna.

As he passes Ellaiah, the driver of one of the truck leans out of the window and complains that the quality of sand is poor.

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