Mission Impossible: A village in Kolar, Karnataka, stricken by drought for years, waits for rain

Once, Kolar was known for a network of lakes and a bountiful, if seasonal, river. The Palar originates in Nandi Hills in Kolar and flows through Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. It is now a memory in the district, its bed indistinguishable from the foliage all around.

Written by Amrita Dutta | Published:July 9, 2017 2:00 am
Kolar is waiting for rain. In this semi-arid region, about 70-odd km from Bangalore, wells have run dry for over a decade now. (Source: Bangalore News Photos)

The land is tilled and ready — the red earth stirred up from its sleep, and combed into neat, undulating rows. Byra Reddy, a 45-year-old farmer in Byapanahalli village in Sugutur Hubli, Kolar district, Karnataka, looks up at the grey sky on a June afternoon, as if seeking a sign. All that is needed, before he can scatter the ragi seeds into the welcoming soil, is rain.

Kolar is waiting for rain. In this semi-arid region, about 70-odd km from Bangalore, wells have run dry for over a decade now. Borewells now plump depths unheard of before, but mostly come up with air. Last year saw the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu face one of their worst droughts. While showers this May brought some welcome relief, the monsoon weakened in south-interior Karnataka last month, including Kolar.

Once known for its gold mines, Kolar now is a story of dire and chronic water scarcity. “We have had less than normal rain for many years now,” says joint director of the district agriculture department, Shivakumar. “Last year, 90 per cent of the crops sown in Kolar failed. The seeds did not even germinate,” says agriculture officer Sunil N. This year, the area under groundnut and red gram cultivation has declined because of the shortfall in rains, according to Shivakumar.

As farming grows into mission impossible, the young are opting out of the precarious life. (Source: Bangalore News Photos)

Like many farmers in Kolar, Reddy is also in debt. A loan of Rs 3 lakh taken 10 years ago has now bloated to Rs 10 lakh. “If the rain fails this year too, we only have the cows to depend on,” says Reddy. Nearly every household in Kolar owns two or more cows, and income from selling milk is the buffer that keeps them away from financial devastation.

Once, Kolar was known for a network of lakes and a bountiful, if seasonal, river. The Palar originates in Nandi Hills in Kolar and flows through Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. It is now a memory in the district, its bed indistinguishable from the foliage all around. Along with the river and the lakes, the open wells also dried up. “Over the years, as farmers began growing vegetables and flowers that fetch a higher price in the nearby Bangalore market, groundwater was extracted without a thought,” says Sunil N. Asia’s second-largest tomato market is in Kolar and the water-intensive vegetable is a popular crop here. K Sampath Kumar, 53, has two borewells to service his eight acres of land where he grows capsicum and tomato — both crops that need a lot of water. “What if the borewells run dry? I will dig another,” he says.

Farmers pause to think, when asked about the last time they saw the skies burst open with heavy rain. “It must be 15 years ago. It rained for about 10-12 hours,” says Anjuna Reddy, an 81-year-old farmer of Thotli village, who also remembers a time when one would have to dig 10 feet for water to gush out. Now, with the groundwater table plummeting to unsustainable levels, borewells have gone down to 1,600 or 1800 feet, only to yield an inch or so of water, if at all. “That is the only source of water that remains for farmers,” says Shivakumar. And it is running out.

“Twenty-five years ago, perhaps. That was the last time I saw the well brimming with water,” says Reddy, pointing to a stone structure in his field, with steps leading down to the empty pit. His only hope is an artificial pond created under the state government scheme, Krushi Bhagya, to harvest the meagre rain that falls through the year. The bottom of the pond, called the Krushi Honda, is lined with a tarpaulin sheet — such is the acute scarcity of water that Kolar cannot afford to lose rain even to recharge its groundwater table. The water collected is then used to water the fields through drip or sprinkler irrigation. About 7,000 such ponds have been dug in Kolar, according to the government.

As farming grows into mission impossible, the young are opting out of the precarious life. “Only people in their 40s or 50s remain on the fields,” says Sivappa, secretary of the Hasiru Sene, an association of farmers. “In the cities, they work as guards or garden workers,” he says.

“I want my son to finish his ITI diploma and work in the Volvo factory in nearby Narasapura,” says Reddy, as he stands near the stagnant but life-giving waters of his Krushi Honda pond. In a nearby, more affluent neighbour’s field, water gushes forth — as a borewell struck in the depths of Kolar’s soil draws out the last of its sustenance. The clouds have gathered over the fields again, but no one is betting on the sweet smell of rain.

Cloudy with a chance of rain: Byra Reddy needs rain to sow ragi on his plot in Byapanahalli village.

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