Drowning Farms - Modern Farmer

Drowning Farms

A flooded dam means washed-away farmland for a Southern Indian village.

Appearances, however, can be deceptive.

Submerged in the water, which is essentially the flooded Krishna river, are mango, guava and pomegranate orchards. Entire towns are underwater. It is August, the tail-end of monsoon, and the river is at its fullest. In just a few short months, the water will recede, exposing waterlogged farmland where maize, millets, cotton, oilseeds, and sugarcane were once cultivated.

The flood is the backwater of the one of the biggest dams in Indian history ”“ the Upper Krishna Project in Karnataka State. Although its foundation was laid in 1964, the dam wasn’t actually built until 2002. The reason for the construction delay was a water dispute among three states ”“ Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh ”“ through which the 900-mile-long Krishna flows.

Close to half a million people are being forced to leave their homes and settle elsewhere. It is a complicated and emotional time, exacerbated by a poorly-organized rehabilitation program.

As a child, I remember my grandfather discussing the dam ”“ how we should be prepared for the day our house and land would be submerged. Yet, nothing happened for almost 40 years while an entire generation spent its time wondering when the dam would be built, if at all.

Every evening, people gather outside their homes, on the fringes of their drowned farmlands, reminiscing about the past: the dense cucumbers they grew, the luscious mangoes, the tender riverbank pumpkin.

“It was like a sword hanging over our heads,” says Srinivas Chabbi, a resident of Bagalkot ”“ the area’s biggest town ”“ which is partly submerged.

Rehabilitating any society is challenging but this area, with its traditional, agriculture-based economy and centuries-old social, economic and cultural networks, is particularly complex. Yet, the government paid scant attention towards rehabilitation and most people were left to relocate themselves and find alternative work.

“People were compensated for property expected to submerge,” says Chabbi, a member of the Bagalkot Town Development Authority, who has been fighting for people’s rights. “But no attention was given to rehabilitating livelihoods.”

The roughly 1,700 foot-tall dam submerged 176 villages and towns, some partially. My village, 45 miles upstream from the dam, should have drowned but didn’t, though its farmlands are mostly underwater. Other villages face the same fate: people continue living in them, reluctant to leave their homes, surrounded by flooded farmlands they cannot cultivate.

The reprieve is a short one as the government plans on raising the dam by about 20 feet, to its originally planned height. When that happens, my village will surely drown.

A total of 175,000 acres of land will flood when the dam’s height is raised. The stored water, over 175 thousand million cubic feet, will irrigate 1.5 million acres of arid land to the north, reviving its agricultural economy.

It is still a hard sell for those about to lose everything: land, property, long farming traditions, longer social connections.

The Krishna, in these parts, flows through fertile, black volcanic soil. My family has lived here for centuries; 18 generations have farmed the land, growing cotton, sugarcane and oilseeds. Even before the 1960s’ Green Revolution improved India’s crop yields, this region had a surplus of agricultural produce. Cotton was the major commercial crop for over a century, a high revenue-earner for farmers and a source of employment in ginning mills and cotton presses.

Flooded farmland.
Flooded farmland.
A view of the backwaters from Gopal's family home.
A view of the backwaters from Gopal's family home.
A 250-year-old stone well Gopal's family property is also flooded with backwater.
A 250-year-old stone well Gopal's family property is also flooded with backwater.

The coming of electricity and a new irrigation project in the 1960s reduced dependence on rain-fed crops and cotton was replaced by water-loving sugarcane, which takes over a year to mature. The sugar industry grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s despite the threat of submergence. People believed the dam was a myth and continued investing in their farmlands to improve sugarcane yields. Now, sugar is the only industry here: private factories and farmer-run cooperatives manufacturing sugar and a traditional, iron-rich sweetener called jaggery.

The axe fell in the 1990s when the government began the dam’s construction in earnest. Compensation money was paid for property expected to be submerged and that’s when the trouble began. Some farmers made unwise investments in businesses that failed. Some spent money on things they had only dreamed of: cars, televisions and vacations. The ones who wanted to buy land to farm couldn’t; there was no land to buy. As for the blacksmiths, the small vendors and merchants, there were no alternative livelihoods. The wealthy succeeded in rehabilitating themselves. The poor were lost.

“Any development calls for trauma,” says Shivayogi Kalasad, recently appointed Commissioner, Resettlement and Rehabilitation. “We want relocation to be peaceful. We want to improve the lives of the displaced.”

Sentiment and the fact that it is not yet drowned make my family members reluctant to leave their home. The water table has risen because of the stored water: it seeps into the porous stone floors, making them sticky. It rises up the two-foot thick walls leaving damp patches. It is hot and humid, but there is often no electricity to run the fans because of badly-maintained power lines. The government has stopped spending money on maintaining an area doomed to flood.

Others in the village stay on as they have nowhere to go. The government has yet to allocate a new site for the village. Most of the 136 newly-built villages are vacant because of lack of infrastructure and employment opportunities.

Every evening, in my village, people gather outside their intact homes, on the fringes of their drowned farmlands, reminiscing about the past: the dense cucumbers they grew, the luscious mangoes, the tender riverbank pumpkin. It will never be the same.

Meanwhile, mud walls chip, crack. There is a sad beauty in the air. Now it is only a matter of when the dam’s height will be raised, submerging the villages that have so far escaped, forcing people to move.

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