How to restrict crops to geographically sustainable areas: The case of arecanut in Tumkur

Young arecanut trees grown in drylands of Tumkur region (Gubbi Taluk, Hodalur Village) Pic Credit: Chandana Eswar
Young arecanut trees grown in drylands of Tumkur region (Gubbi Taluk, Hodalur Village) Pic Credit: Chandana Eswar

Arecanut is generally grown in the Malnad area of Karnataka, which receives high rainfall. However, it is also grown in dry land areas of Tumkur district, also in Karnataka, using groundwater. Arecanut cultivation area doubled from 5851 hectares in 1990-91 (Kumar 2003) to 12,628 hectares in 2001-02 (DES GoI); and nearly doubled to 22,058 hectares in 2008-09 (DES GoI). This increase in area under areanut cultivation is mainly due the water transfers since the late 1990s, from the Hemavati River in Hassan, 240 kilometres. The scanty rain in Tumkur along with the river water sustains the groundwater levels for cultivation.

But groundwater levels have depleted over the years, from around 400 feet to 700 feet in 2012, dipping further to 1000 feet in 2015 creating a drought like situation today. Though farmers have dug multiple bore wells post 2015, they are now too impoverished to drill anymore. Moreover, arecanut, unlike other crops such as paddy or sugarcane, is a plantation crop, and even one drought year (i.e. without irrigation), endangers the crop. Farmers would have initially nurtured the crop for close to 5 years before it starts to yield. Hence when the crop starts to fail, farmers resort to desperate measures such as irrigating with tanker water, as in the case of Davanagere.

Farmers are now still hoping against hope in Tumkur, that Hemavati water will fill their lakes and recharge the groundwater. Also, channelising Hemavati water to these dry lands has always been a political issue, as seen in the recent 2019 elections ("Lok Sabha elections: Deve Gowda" 2019), where promises were made to supply water. 

In this context, what could be the possible measures of protecting groundwater? Recommendations have been made to restrict water guzzling crops such as paddy and sugarcane to geographically sustainable areas, by providing an income support to less water intensive crops. On these lines, it may be argued that arecanut can be restricted to the Malnad region by providing income support to those growing ragi or pulses. Moreover, this income support needs to be comparable with what an irrigated cash crop will fetch; such that farmers will opt for a high risk (labour and rain) and low income crop such as ragi, when compared to a relatively low risk and high income crop like coconut/arecanut. Which means going against market economics!

Nevertheless, in addition to incentivising dry land crops (which requires crop monitoring), other measures that needs to be considered are for instance, making groundwater regulations effective to prevent indiscriminate drilling of borewells, and subsidising electricity and water in only water abundant areas. By the time such measures are taken, arecanut trees would have wilted, after having provided a short spurt to the incomes of a few farmers and exploiting groundwater reserves.

Depleted ground water levels have also resulted in shortage of drinking water. Thus, this has not only deprived the future generation of water, a concern raised by Gulati as well, but is affecting the current generation too! It is time that the government goes beyond the politicisation of water transfers, and puts in place measures that ensure sustainable use of water and secure livelihoods of farmers engaged in dry land agriculture as well as irrigated farming. 

The author, Meghana Eswar is a PhD student at TISS Mumbai, and is examining peri urban growth in Bangalore. This article is based on the author's on-ground observations of arecanut cultivation in Tumkur. She is from the farming community in Hodalur village, Tumkur, Karnataka.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.