‘Water: It’s the source of our life, and our struggles’

Dawn brought in warmth. It always did, these days. Like all summer mornings, the winds stirred the trees awake. They stood tall amidst a sea of green. In a distance, a grove of arecanut palms roared and fell silent again. Some fields strung a barren note. With every season, the tempest of maladies grew fierce while the ruins grew wider in Kurudi. “They have memories, you know. The trees. Both old and new,” murmured Arun last night at dinner. “Just like trees, some memories fade. Some remain forever,” he said earning a mirthless chuckle from his sister. “Idu bargal bhoomi, ide namma kathe,” she said shaking her head in despair.

It was 6 am. We heard someone’s slippers clattering up the stone steps. It was Arun’s sister. She walked briskly towards the kitchen. Her hair seemed dishevelled, and steps unsteady. A pot of freshly brewed filter coffee was placed on the table. Meanwhile, a few people gathered in the courtyard to fetch dried corn husks and wood for fire. Some kids broke into a run towards the fields while others attended to shrieking infants.

Far across the barren plains, where the hills unfolded amidst dead trees — in sightless air and pallid branches — soared a flock of birds towards their gilded summit. The sullen murmur of their wings cut through primrose beams in pensive grace. Creatures of the earth stood in solemn silence bearing witness to the morning skies. Muted bards of heavens, some called it…

Arun then led us to a tiny hand pump, a little away from his sister’s home. In a dimly lit alleyway, an old man hovered over logs of wood. Arranging them in order, he shoved a few wooden pellets and chips inside a makeshift furnace that heated a small water tank inside the bathroom. “Hogamma, bisi neeru ide,” he said with a warm smile.

We soon packed our bags and decided to head out early. “In a few days, the house will be swarming with guests. Relatives from neighbouring villages will arrive and partake in the celebrations,” said Arun placing his cup on the floor, “Everyone will always have something to be worried about till the wedding is over.”

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Leafless boughs swayed in the winds, as we drove away from the village, that morning. Besotted by sunflower fields in a distance, Arun pondered aloud about the possibility of change within the agrarian ethos. He spoke fondly of Subhash Palekar and his innovative methods of incorporating zero budget natural farming in drought-hit regions where the lives of farmers were fraught with misery.

“He believed that within nature’s core lies a self-developing system one that relies on the harmony of co-existence. We do not require fertilisers or pesticides in order to ‘modernise’ our agricultural techniques. Farmers were strategically compelled to be a part of an exploitative system that not only destroyed the natural ecosystem but also rendered them helpless. For instance, in order to curb farmer suicides, the government decided to sanction loans under different schemes. More loans created more debts. Many failed to realise that they were soon entrapped in a system that was never meant to address their troubles in the first place. Unfortunately, our farmers lack vision and purpose. No one wishes to try their hand at alternate methods for they fear it may not be profitable. How can we transform our lives if we are solely driven by profits?,” said Arun with a frown.

Treading on lonely glades before us were women carrying bundles of sticks. Their heads bobbled back and forth as they walked swiftly towards their homes. The air resounded in dulcet tones of their trinkets. And, in moments, they disappeared into endless fields…

We made a sharp turn towards the left as roads meandered into deserted pathways. We were to drive towards Jagallur to meet Kari Basavaiyya, a Human Rights Advocate, who has been fighting for farmer’s rights for several years. “He has borne witness to some of the most catastrophic human rights violations reported within the villages of Karnataka,” said Arun, “Such violations occur every single day. Once you meet Kari, he’ll be able to explain in great depth.”

At the next junction, Arun seemed perplexed for he couldn’t recognise the road anymore. “I am not sure if we are in the right village,” he said walking towards a tea stall. Upon inquiring with a few locals, we realised that we had to drive a few miles ahead.

Namaskara,” said Kari with a beaming smile as he climbed into the car. In conversation, Arun explained to him what we had learnt so far about the situation of farmers in Davangere. He sat in silence for a while. His eyes were filled with angst. “What do I tell you about atrocities? Where do I begin? These are individuals who don’t have any fundamental rights. They are living in a society that has destroyed all humanity within its soul. We did this to them. All of us. We stripped them of their basic human rights. Today, they are running from pillar to post in hopes that some day they too would be recognised as human beings. Some day. How many more deaths will it take to convince people that farmer issues are human rights issues? We don’t need to sub-categorise their problems. Today, farmers aren’t even aware of their rights. And, it works for us that way, doesn’t it? The more aware they become, the more difficult will it be for us to swindle them. Most of us aren’t concerned about these things. As long as it doesn’t directly affect us, we need not ponder about the welfare of farmers. These are people who were born without dignity,” he said peeling his eyes away from us, “Perhaps, they will die without dignity too…”

As the car swerved right, we heard them faintly. The plaintive chaunts of little birds. Sheathed strain of forlorn notes lost in rumbling engines. Save the stillness of our journey, that morning, nothing seemed unbroken. At least, not in plain sight. The same, however, couldn’t be said of our burdened minds…

Trails turned narrow. At times, we came across herds of buffaloes. Their heads swung in nonchalance while their languid steps forayed into distant fields. The car came to a screeching halt as we spotted men laying piles of golden grains on the road. “Togri and Raagi,” explained Arun, “This is a common practice amongst farmers in these regions. Since most of them don’t own any farming equipment or machinery that would help them reap and thresh, they rely on automobiles travelling through these roads. They also lack appropriate storage facilities. Granaries are quite a rarity in many of these villages.”

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In Hanumanthapura, the entire town flocked to its centre. Its gazebo offered respite to those seeking shelter from the heat. There were men seated in a circle. Both young and old. An old man with gold-rimmed glasses spoke of the impending elections. And, they all listened. A few frowned. Young men stood beside them feigning interest in their conversations. Many older farmers discussed politics as they held newspapers in their frail arms. As pages fluttered in the sudden winds, one could hear them all over. Words. Some broken, some coherent. Nonetheless, the villagers shared everything with each other, that day. Both news, and their sorrows. They always did…

Arun insisted that we park the car beside a tiny tea stall. Some onlookers approached us and inquired if we were here on behalf of a political party. We told them we were heading to Basavaraj’s house to understand the plight of farmers in these regions. “He is the president of the district co-operative society functioning in the village,” said Arun taking long strides.

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Clad in white lungi, a tall man walked towards us. “Aarama Iddira?” he asked. Behind him, his wife placed a few plastic chairs on the porch. Arun and Kari began conversing with them in animated gestures. “This year, we couldn’t grow any corn. The weather hasn’t been kind to us,” he explained staring at a young man gathering piles of wood in the courtyard, “It rained well five to six years ago. Ever since, the region has experienced severe drought. Farmers suffered the worst. They watched their crops die every year. People started digging borewells in their farms to procure sufficient water for irrigation. Most of them failed. Some dug more than two in hopes that they might find water someday.”

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Dodging a few thickets, his son Pawan raced towards him with towels in his hands. They turned to each other, and smiled. Amma, he shrieked at once climbing the staircase. He listened, wide-eyed and wondering. “The situation of small farmers is quite dismal,” he said wiping his forearms. “The perilous state of water management in these areas inevitably led to farms drying out,” his father explained, “This in fact encouraged migration of rural folks into cities. Many are on the verge of giving up farming. They are helpless. What else can they do? They have families to look after.”

Away from their home, just beyond the courtyard, sat a well at the centre filled with creepers of skyblue clustervine. Veiling their lavender hues with lush green vines, the flowers quivered in the summer breeze. When days lingered longer, bees and butterflies fretted over the pale blossoms. “It is dead,” said Pawan drawing a deep breath, “The well, I mean. It doesn’t have any water. Through mulching, we managed to grow flowers on its walls. Slowly, it has started showing signs of life.”

It was in 2009 when Hanumanthapura received ample rainfall. That year, farms flourished and farmers had a great produce. However, since then harvest season has spelled doom for farmers in Davangere. “It rained for about ten days towards the end of monsoons last year. Those who managed to store some water and salvage their crops survived. But many didn’t. There isn’t a drop of water left in the tiniest well here. There is none in the ground too. Some say we might be cursed. Perhaps, we are. There are more than 500 borewells in our village. On an average, they have to be dug up to 600 feet. In some farms, they couldn’t find water even at 1,000 feet. At least 300 borewells fail every year. Our coconut trees have wilted away. Our Adike thota is struggling to survive. Farmers have migrated to bigger cities in search of menial jobs that fetches them Rs 150 to Rs 200 day,” said Basavaraj staring intently at the fields in a distance.

Here, all farmers are in debt. On an average, they owe Rs 300,000 to 500,000 to commercial banks or private money lenders. Like Shiriganahalli, one can find defaulters at every street. No one has had a successful produce in five years. In order to avail crop loans offered at zero percent interest by the district co-operative society, one must have cleared all debts with them prior to their application. Therefore, many villagers borrow from private money lenders in order to pay off their current debts. “Only then will they be allowed to renew their loans. Unfortunately, it is a vicious cycle. Every year, farmers struggle to clear their debts only to accumulate more. We are setting a very dangerous precedent for our agro-community,” explained Basavaraj.

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The co-operative society has a turnover of Rs 1 crore per year that handles operations pertaining to crop loans for six villages in all. A farmer can avail upto Rs 100,000 based on the size of his farm and crop produce. “Despite their struggles, some farmers have managed to grow banana, onion and corn this year,” he explained.

A young boy flung himself into a plastic chair behind him. He sat there motionless. His olive-stained shirt shone in the sun. He broke into a nervous staccato laugh as he spotted his brother running towards him. Beside them, a farmer held a sickle in his arms and limped his way into farmlands beyond the street. There were many that joined him in moments. At the stillest hours, one could hear them. Relentless sighs and grunts coming from distant fields…

“If the Upper Bhadra Major Irrigation Project was implemented a decade ago, these districts wouldn’t have been the state they are in today. Some of these regions have been subjected to extreme aridity over the two last decades. However, there were several environmental concerns that could not be ignored. Forest lands were in jeopardy and some even claimed that the initiative is completely unscientific. Destruction in any form is unacceptable. There’s no doubt about that. Ultimately, it is the poor who pay a heavy price,” said Arun after much deliberation, “The truth is water politics have seldom addressed crippling shortages in rural areas.”

A brainchild of S Nijalingappa in 1969, the project aimed to supply water to several drought-prone districts including Chitradurga, Hosadurga, Challikere and Jagallur. A few reports even suggested that the project — estimated at Rs 12,340 crore — irrigate 2.25 lakh hectares approximately through micro-irrigation in two stages.

Basavaraj rose from his seat and stepped into the courtyard. “If there’s rain, there’s crop,” he muttered wiping his forehead, “Most of the villagers residing here belong to lower middle class families and live below poverty line. Our problems begin and end with water. It is the source of our life, and our struggles…”

Their words conveyed no hope one moment, and were filled with resolve in another. A strange sense of grief came over us, that day. For, we had been here before. It was all too familiar. They spoke of uncertainty and indifference like countless others before them. And, we listened…

(to be continued…)

Project ‘Rest of My family‘  is an attempt to connect back, re-discover our relationship with and understand our responsibility towards the larger family that we are a part of — the rest of our human family. Hence, it is titled Rest Of My Family.

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help…. As a part of the first leg of the project, we have now embarked on a one-year drive (#DriveForChange) through rural India. Find more about the campaign here: http://igg.me/at/restofmyfamily/x/539502

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