The current Cauvery water-sharing crisis between Karnataka and Tamil didn’t happen because of just one weak monsoon. Even in a normal year, the 740 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft) available in the 81,500 sq km Cauvery basin doesn’t meet the agricultural, industrial and urban demands of either state. In deficit years like this one, where the southwest monsoon has failed both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, there’s even less water to share.
Farmers in both states have already lost crops on the field and seen their yields diminish, and it’s perhaps the very choice of crops they’re growing and that the public insists on eating that has contributed to the crisis.
Karnataka’s most widely cultivated crops are sugarcane and paddy; in Tamil Nadu, it is paddy. Both crops require large quantity of water to grow: according to the Water Footprint Network , it takes 3,400 litres of water to produce 1 kg of rice, and 1,500 litres to produce 1 kg of sugar, on average. In the Indian context, most estimates run higher: up to 5,000 litres for rice and 2,500 litres for sugar .
How then, can one of the most water-intensive agricultural cropping patterns be justified in this region?
A team of experts led by the Central Water Commission has just surveyed the Cauvery command area. Their directive was to inspect storage levels, look at the state of standing crops across the basin, and convey these “ground realities” to the Supreme Court. Before this supervisory committee was formed, Karnataka was ordered to release first 15,000 cusecs, then 12,000, then 6,000, and most recently, 2,000 cusecs a day to Tamil Nadu. In all, the apex court issued six interim orders in six weeks, none of which have calmed rising tensions between the two states.
“What is the basis of all these interim orders? This is not a sabzi mandi to bargain in this ad hoc way — chalo, you want 20,000, they are ready to give 10, now take 15,” says Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).
Thakkar is skeptical that a long-term, sustainable solution can be arrived at this way. In arriving at a decision measured in cusecs, the Supreme Court, the Centre, or the states involved will not address the fact that the cropping pattern in the Cauvery basin has become unsustainable.
At the policy level, what is grown in the basin area has never come under dispute. “A sustainable solution has to come through participatory governance, not top-down orders. Water is essentially a local issue and that’s where it has to be managed first,” said Thakkar.
Rohini Nilekani, founder of Arghyam, agrees. But instead of local-level governance, the management of water is becoming increasingly centralised. “We’re talking about linking rivers , rather than using local water first, including waste water. About more dams even though our dams have under-performed constantly and rarely served the tail-enders,” she says.
Nilekani’s organisation has supported several participatory groundwater management projects across the country, and she’s of the opinion that putting good science and data in the hands of communities leads to better demand management and more sustainable use of the resource. “This kind of approach will be key to fostering cooperation rather than competition,” she said.
But cooperation in the Cauvery basin would need stakeholders to take a long step back to consider the water crisis in its entirety. And it might mean looking beyond sugarcane and paddy, on both sides of the border.
Is there a plan B?
Seventy percent of Karnataka’s freshwater is utilised to produce rice, says Dr P Mahadevu, a senior scientist at the government agricultural college in Mandya. A third of the total area under paddy — roughly 4 lakh hectares — is dependent on Cauvery water.
The state is also the third-largest producer of sugarcane in the country, with cultivation spread across around 4 lakh hectares . Mandya, a district so heavily cropped with sugarcane that it’s known as the state’s sugar bowl, is nearly right in the centre of the Cauvery basin.
For the kind of agriculture currently practiced in the region, the soil in the basin is less than ideal. Nearly entirely porous sandy loam, its water holding capacity is less than the Krishna and Tungabhadra basins. This makes flood irrigation less effective and results in more frequent irrigation by the farmers, said Dr Mahadevu.
But it wasn’t always this way. Nearly two-thirds of Karnataka’s geographical area exists in arid to semi-arid conditions, and in terms of drought-prone area, the state is second only to Rajasthan . Traditionally, farmers practiced rain-fed agriculture, growing millets like ragi and jowar, oilseeds such as sesame and groundnut, and pulses such as black gram. In the 1920s and 30s, as dams blocked the river’s flow to increase its irrigation potential, this began to change.
The Mettur Dam, constructed in 1934, resulted in an intensification of traditional paddy cultivation in Tamil Nadu. And in Karnataka, after the Krishna Raja Sagar dam was constructed 10 years prior, many dryland farmers downstream of the dam gave up millet cultivation in favour of sugarcane and paddy. According to a study published in 2010 by the Research Journal of Agricultural Sciences, from 1966 to 2006, around 44 per cent of millet cultivation area in Karnataka was lost to other crops.
“It’s not just in the Cauvery. It is almost always the case across the country that when you have dams farmers shift from semi-arid crops to irrigation-heavy cash crops,” said SANDRP’s Thakkar. The crisis we see today is not a result of one failed monsoon, but a consequence of decades of intensified agriculture with no real basin management in place.
Even as demand for water continues to increase on both sides of the border, supply is likely to diminish. The Cauvery, like all rivers in South India, is entirely monsoon-dependent. Dr SK Sarkar, the Director of Water Resources at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), said that frequent drought and patterns of erratic rainfall are to be expected under conditions of climate change, so it’s important for stakeholders to realise that this is a crisis that will recur, and most likely, worsen. Climate scientists have estimated that by 2030, India will be a water-scarce country .
A 2015 study conducted by the Indian Institute of Science found that water yield in the Cauvery river basin is decreasing every year, even faster than the rate of declining rainfall in the region. “Water supply is finite but the demands are more,” said Sarkar. “Where will the water come from?”
This reality is already driving some change in cropping patterns. Kurubur Shanthakumar, president of the Karnataka Sugarcane Growers’ Association, and member of the Cauvery Kutumba, a collective of affected farmers from both states, said that many sugarcane farmers in the area have already shifted to banana, sunflower or cotton. (It’s likely, though, that this as much a consequence of pricing disputes with the government as it is a response to water scarcity.)
Dr Mahadevu is trying to reintroduce less water-intensive crops in the Cauvery command area. Currently, he is promoting pulses as an intercrop: they require less water, maintain soil fertility, and are indigenous to the region. There is also a lot of opportunity for farmers to supply fruits and vegetables to neighbouring cities like Bangalore, he said, which could generate more income for them than rice does.
Dr Mahadevu said his institution is also trying to improve the efficiency of existing paddy and sugarcane growing practices. Drip irrigation and sprinkler systems can save 30-40 per cent of water used, he said. The hurdle, though, is in financing these systems of irrigation. In Tamil Nadu the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP ), an international effort which produces regional climate impact projections and crop models, has suggested ways to cultivate paddy that will be more climate- and resource-friendly. They’ve recommended direct sowing of rice; System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a cultivation practice that saves water because it doesn’t require flooding; and short-duration varieties (that are ready for harvest in 90-120 days, and so require less water) as an adaptation strategy to counter delayed monsoons or delays in water release.
Yet millets, the traditional crops of the area, are not being considered as part of a long-term solution.
Will there be a millet revival?
Millets are the perfect fit for soil and weather conditions in the region. They are rain-fed, they conserve soil fertility, and they save energy and water . Jowar, bajra and ragi require 25% less rainfall than sugarcane, and 30% less rainfall than rice. They’re also remarkably drought-resistant. “In the soil in the command area, paddy cannot tolerate a 15-day interval before water is released, but ragi easily can,” said Dr Mahadevu.
Yet farmers in the Cauvery command area are unlikely to trade their cash crops for these dryland staples. Although the availability of adequate water exactly when farmers need it is becoming increasingly uncertain, for commercial crops like sugarcane and paddy at least returns are guaranteed, and the procurement systems are well established. For millets, pulses and oilseeds, the situation is very different.
TERI’s Dr Sarkar explained: “The government doesn’t encourage water-saving crops in areas that are water deficient. Unless we harmonise water policies, agricultural policies, health policies and power policies, we are not sending a clear signal to farmers.”
Shanthakumar, whose collective of sugarcane farmers across Karnataka is also experiencing distress, put it another way: “Farmers are not interested in millets because they are just not viable. If they get a good price, why won’t they grow? But the yield is low, the MSP [Minimum Support Price] is very low, there is very less profit. What is the use?”
At the state level, Karnataka has at least assured extra incentives to millet farmers in the form of bonus prices on top of the mandated MSP, and it is one of the few states to procure millets for the public distribution system. But despite the increased MSP for millets, most feel it is not enough. “Procurement prices are kept so low to check inflation and interest rates so the economy grows, but at what cost? At huge cost to the farmers,” said Dr Mahadevu.
Tamil Nadu does not fare any better. The state has not implemented the Food Security Act, which encouraged the inclusion of coarse , nutrition-rich cereals in the food basket. So there is no impetus to include millets in the public distribution system. That means the price in the open market is low, and it’s subject to a lot of variation.
Sheelu Francis, founder of the Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective, works with more than 1,00,000 women in rural areas to promote natural, climate change-resilient farming and food security. Still, she says, farmers in the delta region of the Cauvery are reluctant to sow millets. “Why will farmers shift from paddy? The government is procuring it at a good MSP, they get loans without interest for many months, they get subsidised inputs and many other benefits,” she said. Neither the Centre’s “more crop per drop” scheme nor its millet mission, which offers a subsidy of Rs 3,000 per hectare for major millets (like jowar, ragi and bajra) and Rs 2,000 per hectare for minor millets (like samai or varagu), subject to a maximum area of 2 hectares, has helped.
Making millets cool
Farmers may remain unconvinced about the feasibility of growing millets, but cities like Bangalore and Chennai are experiencing a millet revival of sorts. There is growing awareness that major and minor millets are far more nutritious than rice and maize. For instance, ragi contains 30 times more calcium, 18 times more fibre, and five times more iron than rice.
And it isn’t just the health-conscious who are seeking out ragi; it’s achieved a new kind of cool beyond the traditional ragi mudde and jolada roti. In September, the Jaivik Krishik Society hosted a Millet Mela at Cubbon Park, to promote products such as millet pasta and millet cakes. Upscale restaurants like Olive Beach, where a meal for two can set you back a few thousand rupees, have started to put millets on the menu. Girish Nayak, the pastry chef at Olive Beach, has been using ragi in everything from cookies and tarts to ice cream and pancakes.
Food choices can be a catalyst for change, said Nilekani. In urban circles, there is already enough knowledge about the health impacts of too much white rice, white sugar, and maida, she said. “Food trends adopted by the elite tend to be adopted across society, even if it takes time.”Just last month, Karnataka’s agriculture minister Krishna Byre Gowda noted that there is increased awareness and demand for millets.
Even if people are turning to millets out of concern for their health rather than the environment, there is cause to be hopeful. But without the policy support farmers need, it remains to be seen whether growing consumer demand alone can drive a more sustainable cropping pattern in the Cauvery basin.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media )