Karnataka’s heat and drought wilt vegetable cultivation

The villages of Hoskote, Kolar, and Chickballapur have traditionally ensured a good supply of vegetables to Bengaluru, but the drought has shrunk the size of cultivation, and standing crops are withering. The Hindu visited the vegetable growing areas to understand the ground realities

March 29, 2024 07:00 am | Updated 11:44 am IST

Owing to the scarcity of water, tomato crops have perished in some areas in Kolar district.

Owing to the scarcity of water, tomato crops have perished in some areas in Kolar district. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

Patches of green followed by patches of brown dominate the scene through the villages of Hoskote taluk, a major horticultural crop supplier to Bengaluru, situated roughly 35 kilometres from the city centre. Cabbage, tomato, sunflower, marigold, and maize are among the crops grown in the fields adjacent to the highway, but on a scorching March morning, half the fields are dry and barren.

While drought has hit the drinking water supply to Bengaluru, the dry season affecting the horticulture belt around the city has burnt a hole in the pockets of consumers in the last year as prices of vegetables soar, with withering crops and the resultant supply crunch. 

The Hindu visited this belt — Hoskote in Bengaluru Rural district, a couple of taluks in Kolar and Chikkaballapur districts — to find out how badly agriculture is affected and whether what Bengalureans are shelling out for their vegetables is reaching the farmers who are struggling to keep their crops alive.

Farmers Krishnamurthy and his wife Varalakshmi speak on the water crisis in Chickballapur district.

Farmers Krishnamurthy and his wife Varalakshmi speak on the water crisis in Chickballapur district. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

Failed borewells

The locals say Nandagudi and Sulibele hoblis in Hoskote are the most water-deprived regions in the taluk. The nearby lake, which, when filled up, provides irrigation, has now completely dried up. Their only other source of water is the borewells. But with the monsoons failing in 2023 and most borewells going dry, many farmers sank more borewells in their fields, only to find no water.

B.N. Anand is one such farmer. “I got two borewells — going down 1,150 feet and another 1,200 feet — dug up in my field this time. Both of them failed, and after having spent ₹7 lakh on borewells and motors, I could not get even one extra drop of water,” Anand lamented. Apart from some patches of maize and banana, his vast field of over 10 acres barely had any signs of greenery. He said cultivation had dropped by about 50% in Hoskote. 

“Across Hoskote, lakes have dried up, and borewells are failing. We are major producers of vegetables, flowers, and, most prominently, ginger. In a good season, the farmers around here cultivate ginger on at least 40-50 acres. This time, the crop is spread over hardly 25 acres. This is the same case with all other crops,” Anand explained. 

While water tankers have become part of everyday conversation in Bengaluru, some farmers are also spending a small fortune on them to save their standing crops. Venu B.C. has cultivated green grapes on two acres in Sulibele hobli. After his borewells failed, he is getting four tanker loads every day.

“Usually, in summer, I get around 15 tonnes in yield and during the rainy season, I get around 25 tonnes. This time, I will be lucky if I get around 10 tonnes. If I do not get water tankers, then I will lose even that. I pay ₹550 for one water tanker, and I need four of them in a day. The fruits will not ripen or get their colour without water. The bunches will also be loose (fewer grapes in the bunch) without enough water,” Venu said. 

Most farmers across the belt have farm ponds (open sumps) in their fields where they collect whatever water they can get from their borewells or the rains. Water comes into some borewells only once in two or three days, and the farmers store water at such times. This is the only water source for Ramakrishna, a farmer in Sidlaghatta taluk in Chikkaballapur district. In his 20 acres of land, he has cultivated tomatoes in just ten guntas (40 guntas make an acre). 

“I have so many wells in my field that are all dried up. We used to get water at just 50-60 feet in those wells. My cultivation has gone down year after year as the water availability kept getting worse. For now, with the water I have stored in the sump, I am growing some vegetables and feeding my animals, but if this situation continues, then next year, I will have nothing,” he said. Farmers in Chikkaballapur grow tomatoes, beans, carrots, green leafy vegetables, and mulberry for sericulture.

The drying up of borewells has resulted in the loss of crops in Yannur near Shidlaghatta in Chickballapur district.

The drying up of borewells has resulted in the loss of crops in Yannur near Shidlaghatta in Chickballapur district. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

The valley dilemma 

In contrast to the situation at Hoskote, the lakes in Kolar district, which has a history of being prone to drought, are filled with water, thanks to the Koramangala-Challaghatta Valley (K.C. Valley) project. Under this first-of-its-kind project, the sewage water from Bengaluru is treated in two stages and pumped to tanks in Kolar.

Several farmers here, who supply water to Bengaluru and Chennai, are vehemently opposed to using this treated water to fill their lakes. They believe that it drastically reduces the quality of the groundwater directly while also indirectly affecting their crops and inflicting diseases.

“We do not want this sewage water from Bengaluru unless the government undertakes tertiary treatment of the water,” says Ramu Kalvamanjali, a member of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha’s (KRRS) Kolar wing. He also says that despite the government’s claims that the project helps recharge groundwater, even the borewells situated next to the project’s path have failed in the district. 

A similar project called the Hebbala-Nagavara Valley (H.N. Valley) project is being used to fill tanks in Chickballapur. Even there, farmers claim the sewage water is one reason for a drop in their yield. They also alleged that treated water in such quantities has become a breeding ground for pests that are highly resistant to insecticides and pesticides.

“My flowers and vegetables are infested with highly resistant fungus, thrips and mites. Previously, we could control it with pesticides and insecticides. After this project started, they are proving to be of no use,” claims Srinivas N., a farmer from Ajjavara in Chickballapur.

The Horticulture Department officials say that these claims are not verified. “We have told them strictly that the treated water should not be used for agriculture. The Minor Irrigation Department regularly tests all the groundwater samples for contamination, and if anything is found, they will take steps accordingly,” a senior official from the Horticulture Department said.

A ‘krishi honda (pond) at Bhuvanahalli near Hoskote, which farmers have set up to collect water from borewells and ponds and pump to agricultural fields. But it’s dry because of water scarcity.

A ‘krishi honda (pond) at Bhuvanahalli near Hoskote, which farmers have set up to collect water from borewells and ponds and pump to agricultural fields. But it’s dry because of water scarcity. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

Other factors for supply crunch  

A little away from Sidlaghatta, in a field of marigolds and some green leafy vegetables, Krishnamurthy and Varalakshmi, a farmer couple in their 50s, were waiting for the clock to strike 3 p.m. to turn on the drip irrigation system for their crops. “We are managing with whatever water we have. All around us, there is a water problem. One in 20 borewells works here. But our life must go on,” they say in a slightly optimistic tone. 

They point out that moisture stress is the main reason why the output in many fields has dropped this year. “There is absolutely no moisture left in the soil. With this heat (maximum temperature has hovered between 33 - 35 degrees Celsius in the last week), it is difficult for flowers to bloom or to turn into vegetables. Most flowers wither in this heat. Hence, vegetable production has gone down this year, including in my own field,” Krishnamurthy explains. 

Among all the water troubles is also the problem of power. “Due to weather conditions, the ground needs double the amount of water than usual this year. While borewells are failing, on the other hand there is no constant supply of electricity to pump even the available water,” Srinivas adds.

Money matters 

In Bengaluru, in the last couple of weeks, the price of one kilo of beans has touched ₹100-120 per kg in retail markets. Carrots are selling at ₹60-80 per kg, capsicum ₹70-100 per kg, and brinjals are selling at ₹30-40 per kg. There has been an almost two-fold jump in the prices of these vegetables since the beginning of this year. 

But none of this is reaching their pockets, say farmers. They say that only the middlemen are making money, and their fortunes have not changed with the prices going up. “To grow beans on an acre, a farmer needs at least ₹25,000. For tomatoes, he needs ₹4 lakh per acre, ₹2.5 lakh per acre for potatoes, ₹20,000 for cabbage and ₹50,000 to ₹60,000 for an acre of capsicum. Even when the vegetables are selling at their best prices, there is a good chance that the farmers here would not even have broken even here with these costs,” said Narayanaswamy G., general secretary, Kolar, KRRS.

As for Bengaluru, if there is no good rain this year, the availability and affordability of vegetables, fruits, and flowers will be a nightmare, farmers warn. Many of them have predicted that cultivation of horticultural crops might entirely stop in the belt, except for their household purposes, without rain. Even the traders in the markets maintain that if there are no signs of rain in the next two weeks, then prices of vegetables will shoot up further.  

The dryed-up T. Agrahara Lake at Bhuvanahalli near Hoskote.

The dryed-up T. Agrahara Lake at Bhuvanahalli near Hoskote. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

Focus on drought resistant crops

The Horticulture Department is urging farmers to choose drought-resistant crops actively. “When there is no rain, there is not much we can do. We are always telling farmers to choose resistant varieties and practice microirrigation. The amount of water that is used in one month for flood irrigation can be used for one year through drip irrigation,” says Ramesh D.S., director of the Horticulture Department.

Consumers at the other end of the chain feel helpless. “Whom do we blame in a situation like this? If the supply is affected at the source level, then it is difficult for the prices of vegetables to remain stable in the market. Like we reduced the use of tomatoes when it reached its all-time high prices, we should probably think of reducing the consumption of all vegetables in the coming days and buy other sources of nutrition like meat,” said Sharada S.K., a homemaker from South Bengaluru.  

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