The paddy compulsion
On October 3, more than 5,000 farmers tried to lay a siege on the Krishna Raja Sagar dam in drought-hit Mandya district of Karnataka. The dam is the site from where 9,000 cusecs (255 cubic metre per second or cumecs) of Cauvery water is being released every day to Tamil Nadu under Supreme Court orders. The farmers are angry because Karnataka is diverting water to the neighbouring state for its crops, while its own land remains parched. The diversion began on September 29, when about 75 per cent of paddy sowing was completed in Mandya. Between September 29 and October 8, the water level in the reservoir in Mandya fell from 33 metres to 32 metres.
Mandya is one of the five districts in Karnataka hit by drought. The plight of the farmers in the other four districts, including Mysore, Hassan, Chamrajnagar and Ramanagara, is no different. Failed monsoons have affected 25 of the 30 districts in the state.
The genesis of the Cauvery conflict lies in two agreements—one signed in 1892 and another in 1924—between the erstwhile Madras Presidency and the princely state of Mysore. The Madras Presidency was given more water for being a part of the British empire. After Independence, Karnataka contended that it was not getting its due share of water from the river.
In 2007, the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal ordered Karnataka to ensure release of 192 thousand million cubic feet or TMC (1 TMC=28.3 billion litres) water annually at the interstate border in a normal year. In the event of distress caused by scanty rainfall in consecutive years, the tribunal said that Cauvery River Authority (CRA), headed by the prime minister, would work out a formula to share the burden of distress among the states. The matter is in the Supreme Court.
Fearing that the drought might affect the standing paddy crop in Tamil Nadu, the state approached the court in August seeking more water supply from Karnataka. On September 28, besides ordering release of 9,000 cusecs everyday till October 15, the court asked the Cauvery monitoring committee , a recommendatory body of CRA, to conduct field inspections in the two states to decide the amount of water Karnataka should release to Tamil Nadu after October 15.
What hurts most
Paddy is the principal crop of the Cauvery delta region in both the states. The water-intensive crop is grown in two seasons—kharif and rabi in Karnataka, while farmers in Tamil Nadu reap three harvests—kuruvai (June-September), thaladi (October to December) and samba (August- January). Of these, Kuruvai is the most promising rice growing season with abundant sunshine and clear sky, resulting in higher yield. “This first rice crop has been impossible to grow this year because of the late release of Cauvery water,” says an agricultural expert from Annamalai University in Coimbatore, who wishes to remain anonymous.
The agro-climatic condition of the delta region in Tamil Nadu supports rice-based cropping system followed by a relay crop of black gram or green gram in the post-monsoon season (January-March). Traditionally, two cycles of rice contribute to the major share of production in wetlands of Tamil Nadu. But late release of Cauvery water has restricted the farmers to a single season of rice cultivation. “This single crop coincides with the northeast monsoon that extends from October to December, wherein the heavy rainfall results in flash floods that damage crops,” the expert says. He adds that the soil in the delta region is largely clayey, permitting lesser downward movement of water. “The distribution of rainfall is such that heavy downpour during rice growing seasons leaves no scope for water to drain into the sea because of tidal incursions, resulting in water stagnation in fields.”
Despite economic returns being marginal, the farmers are compelled to grow rice because of the soil and climatic conditions, he adds. But there is not enough water to grow paddy, says the expert. The southwest monsoon offers 250-300 mm of rain which is highly inadequate for the Kuruvai rice crop (it requires about 1,200 mm of water). These conditions render alternative crops in the Cauvery delta untenable.
However, an agricultural officer from Karnataka says paddy is a profitable crop for farmers of the southern region. Karnataka has 1.5 million hectares (ha) under paddy. “At this point when 75 per cent is under cultivation we have to think about our own farmers. We can’t just take away water from them for someone’s profit,” he says, on condition of anonymity. Rice crops on 7,153 ha have been lost in Mandya, leading to losses of Rs 268 crore. Farmers in the delta region of Tamil Nadu earn around Rs 10,000 per hectare from paddy, while they earn Rs 20,000 per hectare from pulses. The Karnataka government is trying to make farmers shift from paddy to sorghum, pulses, millets and other crops that require less water, the officer says. The Karnataka agricultural department is distributing pamphlets requesting farmers to stay away from paddy. “The state of Tamil Nadu should also make similar efforts,” says the officer. At present, the area under other crops is increasing in Karnataka and it may solve problems for farmers in the state, says Hemant Kumar of Bharathiya Kisan Utkarsha Samithi in Dharwad.
The expert from the Annamalai University says that apart from climatic and soil conditions there is another challenge farmers will have to face in case of water shortage. Rice transplantation, where the seed is sown in one place and the seedlings are transplanted to another after they have grown, requires water. If farmers do not transplant rice and instead opt for direct seeding, it would lead to invasion of weedy rice, a wild relative of rice that does not bear grains. This weed has caused problems in South-East Asian rice-growing countries like Thailand and Vietnam. At present, there is no such threat in India, except for a few instances in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu. Farmers cannot get rid of this weed with weedicides because both weedy rice and cultivated rice belong to same species and weedicides will have same effect on both. What’s more, one cannot differentiate between the weed and the rice plant in its early growing stage, making it impossible to weed them manually.
Kumar says there is an urgent need for CRA and the tribunal to consult agricultural experts and farmers and recommend crop pattern, cropping area and crop alternatives. Besides irrigation, drinking water is also a concern. The drinking water requirement from Cauvery in both the states is 19 TMC, he says. “The most important thing which farmers from both the states need to learn is judicious use of water and this can be done only by educating them,” adds Kumar.”
With inputs from Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava, Bengaluru