Ground Report: Ambitious irrigation project turns fountain of woes for Kolar farmers

Farmers claimed the water from the KC irrigation project has been adversely affecting the quality and quantity of crops.

ByMahesh M Goudar

Published Apr 21, 2024 | 2:00 PMUpdatedApr 21, 2024 | 2:00 PM

Kolar Ground Report

Two Friesian Holsteins behind Vimalamma focused on the little fodder she had given them.

The fresh and green Guinea grass she had procured for the cows contrasted with the vegetation around. The hedge running along the path bore more ripened leaves than the dull green dust-coated ones on the top.

In the oppressive heat of Kolar’s Chikkanahalli, where the earth cracked under the unforgiving sun, Vimalamma and her son Manoj Kumar, grappled with the stark reality of drought.

Karnataka Kolar 2024 Lok Sabha Polls Congress JD(S) KC Valley

Farmer Vimalamma. (South First)

The absence of water has left their three acres —  once fertile with promise — barren, desolate, and robbed of vitality.

Vimalamma, determined to weather the storm of adversity, articulated the daily struggle with poignant clarity.

“We are unable to grow anything because of drought. There is not enough water even for the cattle. We are maintaining the cattle by feeding them only half the usual fodder and water.”

The anguish in her voice resonated with the desperation of a denied livelihood — by forces beyond their control.

Vimalamma’s son Manoj Kumar’s words echoed her sentiments. Their plight in the days of drought has been exacerbated by the absence of any government aid. “We couldn’t get any benefits since our land is under litigation,” he said.

Life beyond public gaze

Frustrated by the government’s policies, Kumar threw light on the farmers’ burdens. “The government appears to be not in favour of the farmers and the poor. The government has made it mandatory for a farmer to deposit ₹2.5 lakh to power his borewell.”

Karnataka Kolar 2024 Lok Sabha Polls Congress JD(S) KC Valley

Farmer Manoj Kumar. (South First)

“This requirement places an insurmountable financial burden on small farmers like me,” he explained. “Earlier, the overall tariff used to be around ₹40,000 to ₹60,000. Now, after the new government in the state, it has been to ₹2.5 lakh.”

“We avail loans to dig a borewell. Why should we pay an exorbitant amount for power? How will a small farmer bear the cost,” he asked.

Vimalamma, however, acknowledged the government assistance they have been receiving.

“We get all facilities from the government. I receive ₹2,000 under the Gruha Lakshmi Yojana every month. Even the electricity is free for domestic purposes.”

Free power up to 200 units under the Gruha Jyothi scheme was one of the guarantees the Congress government had implemented in Karnataka.

Toiling on the field alone would not make both ends meet, Vimalamma had realised.

“I am managing to run the house because of dairy farming. I supply milk to the KMF (Karnataka Milk Federation), and the money gets credited into my account once a fortnight,” she glanced at the cows nonchalantly ruminating.

“However, we won’t get an honorary amount on every payment. We receive it once in three or six months,” Vimalamma added after a brief pause.

The mother and son seemed resolute. Despite the adverse situation trying to push them into deep despair, they were pushing ahead.

Vimalamma and Kumar exemplified the resilience of rural communities and the indomitable spirit that keeps them going. They represented the group at the grassroots, who hate a drought.

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A peek into Kolar

Kolar has a rich heritage dating back 1,500 years. A region that is rich in literature and culture, it has been ruled by the Cholas to the Western Gangas, and was part of the Vijayanagara empire.

A sculpture at the Kolaramma temple. (Shailesh Patil/Wikimedia)

A sculpture at the Kolaramma temple. (Shailesh Patil/Wikimedia)

Formerly known by various names including Kolahala, Kuvalala, and Kolala, Kolar was referred to as Kolahalapura during the Middle Ages.

Its name, translating to “violent city” in Kannada, reflects its history as a battleground for the warring Chalukyas in the north and the Cholas in the south.

Noteworthy temples in Kolar include Kolaramma and Someshwara. The Dravida Vimana-style Kolaramma temple, constructed in the second century, venerates Shakti.

Kolar is a 90-minute drive from Bengaluru, the capital city, which too has been bearing the brunt of drought.

Despite its proximity to the state capital, one won’t see large-scale industries or shiny new roads.

There are no large-scale factories giving employment to local youth, there are hardly any prominent higher educational institutions or renowned hospitals to cater to education and health needs.

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Silk, milk, gold — and tomatoes

Referred to as the region of “silk, milk, and gold,” Kolar district is renowned for its agricultural bounty. However, the gold mines (Kolar Gold Fields) have been discontinued. Farmers in Kolar rely on borewells for both irrigation and drinking purposes.

Tomatoes being packed to be ferried to different places (Mahesh Goudar/South First)

Tomatoes being packed to be ferried to different places (Mahesh Goudar/South First)

A semi-arid region, Kolar is often drought-hit. Water is a precious resource in Kolar, which has Asia’s second-largest tomato market behind Maharashtra’s Nashik.

The crop is cultivated in over 10,000 acres and around five lakh tonnes are produced annually. Tomatoes from Kolar are exported to West Asia, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Farmers and tomato traders are unhappy with the government for not putting enough effort into building the required infrastructure for the agriculture sector, especially a well-equipped mandi (market) in Kolar.

The implementation of the Koramangala-Challaghatta Valley (KC Valley) tank-filling lift-irrigation project in Kolar irrigated thousands of hectares and improved the groundwater levels. Ironically, it also increased the woes of the agrarian community due to inadequate water treatment.

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Development imbalance

Despite its proximity to Bengaluru, Kolar, popularly known as the Gold City, has been lacking in adequate health, education, and agriculture infrastructure, and industries.

The people of Kolar have exercised their franchise in every election, hoping that their representative would change the fate of the drought-prone region.

However, unemployment, water crisis, lack of higher educational institutions, hi-tech hospitals, poor infrastructure for agriculture marketing, and pathetic roads, remain despite tall promises.

“I am pursuing a Master’s in Computer Applications (MCA) in Bengaluru City. I am commuting to the state capital daily because Kolar does not have a single higher education institution that offers MCA,” Sharath BR, 23, a resident of Kondarajanahalli near Kolar, told South First.

“Even after completing education, we have to yet again depend on the state capital for jobs. The governments must prioritise on bettering education, health, agriculture, and industrial sector here,” he demanded.

Despite an impressive production of tonnes of tomatoes, the local Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) is crying for the government’s attention.

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Wanted: A vision

“The Kolar APMC has been located on 20 acres for the past 20 years. This market is popular for tomatoes in Asia. The market needs at least 100 acres, considering the increase in production, market, and transport,” tomato trader Puttaraju told South First.

Karnataka Kolar 2024 Lok Sabha Polls Congress JD(S) KC Valley

Kolar City Municipal Council former president VK Rajesh

“The successive governments have been confined to making false promises. Farmers toil hard for at least three months to harvest tomatoes. When he brings his produce to the mandi, there are no proper facilities including cold storage and godowns to store the produce.” he drew a candid picture.

“Besides tomatoes, the mandi is popular for other vegetables as well. Despite having the potential, the government has failed to address the concerns of farmers and traders,” Puttaraju did not hide his disappointment.

Former president of the Kolar City Municipal Council VK Rajesh said Kolar should have a medical college: “Kolar has barely witnessed any development. A government medical college should have been set up by now,” he said.

“Unemployment is severe. The industrial area has been developed in Narasapura and Vemagal but a rail coach factory was supposed to be set up in Srinivaspura. There is no vision for the elected members in Kolar,” Rajesh added.

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Project to water woes

The Koramangala-Challaghatta (KC) Valley project has become a talking point in the 2024 Lok Sabha election campaign trail in Kolar. The agrarian community is worried about the challenges it has been posing to health and farming.

Aimed at treating 440 million litres of sewage water daily from Bengaluru’s five Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs), and replenishing groundwater in the drought-prone regions of Kolar and Chikkaballapura, the project was implemented at a cost of ₹1,342 crores.

Farmers, however, are unhappy. The replenished groundwater, besides irrigating the crops, has been bringing in diseases, affecting the quality and quantity of the yield.

Mangasandra’s Ashwathappa was one among several farmers affected by the project. “I grow tomatoes, beans, and ridge gourd. Last year, I had a good crop but the plants were hit by viruses and diseases this year,” he told South First.

“We used to get around 1,000 crates of tomatoes from 300 saplings. Now, we are getting barely 400 crates. The project helps in recharging groundwater. But last year, our crops were hit by diseases,” Ashwathappa added.

He, however, did not blame the project. “I have not tested the soil or water to confirm the reason,” he refused to assume and jump to a conclusion.

Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha and Hasiru Sene General Secretary G Narayanswamy found fault with the project.

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Hurried project

“In a hurry to implement the KC Valley project, Bengaluru’s sewage water is being brought to Kolar. The water is not being treated as per the detailed project report.”

“Our sole demand to the government is to mandatorily conduct tertiary treatment of the sewage water. The farmers argue that the water can be fit for drinking and irrigation only when the sewage water goes under tertiary treatment before recharging the groundwater,” Narayanswamy told South First.

“Politicians have the financial wherewithal to have RO (Reverse Osmosis) plants at their residences but it is not the same with the common man. We are dependent on natural resources. We welcome this project but never expected that sewage water will be released here,”  he pledged to continue his fight for tertiary treatment.

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Political equations

With the first phase of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls in Karnataka nearing, political activities are gaining momentum in 14 parliament seats including Kolar (SC), which is witnessing a direct fight between the Congress and the JD(S).

Kolar is one among the three parliament seats, where the JD(S) – alliance partner of the BJP-led-NDA for the Lok Sabha polls – will be contesting in Karnataka. The seat is reserved for the Scheduled Caste.

The Kolar parliament seat also includes two Assembly segments from the Chikkaballapur district – Chintamani and Sidlaghatta.

Among the eight Assembly seats falling under the Kolar Lok Sabha constituency, five are represented by the Congress and three by the JD(S). The BJP was defeated in all eight assembly segments seats in 2023.

Historically, the reserved seat is dominated by the Congress. Karnataka Minister for Food and Civil Supplies KH Muniyappa has represented the segment for a record seven consecutive terms in the Lok Sabha.

However, the BJP managed to conquer the Congress’s Kolar forte by defeating Muniyappa in 2019. In the changed political scenario, the BJP has given the seat to JD(S).

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Congress — a divided house

Mallesh Babu is the JD(S) candidate, who is taking on businessman KV Gowtham of the Congress. Babu had unsuccessfully contested to the Assembly twice from Bangarpete.

A political commentator, who did not wish to be named, said the ruling Congress is on the back foot in Kolar. “It is evident that everything is not well within the Congress over the selection of candidate,” he told South First.

“As Muniyappa’s demands were not met, he is barely campaigning for the party candidate despite having a clout in the constituency. His daughter has been confined to KGF. Even the party leaders did not display unity during the nomination process,” he pointed out.

“Gowtham is not a familiar face since he was associated with the party activities in Bengaluru. He is being considered as an outsider. On the other hand, Mallesh Babu has the upper hand, considering his family’s legacy and contribution to the overall development of Kolar,” he opined.

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Caste matters

Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) are the dominant castes in the Kolar (SC) parliament constituency.

Vokkaligas, Muslims, Kurubas, Christians and Lingayats are the other dominant castes.

There are 17,08,565 votes in Kolar. Women voters (8,45,639) outnumbered men (6,62,716). Transgenders have 312 votes.

“People consider the candidate’s image, party, caste, and money while exercising their franchise. Women voters might lean towards Congress, considering the guarantees implemented. There is also a Modi wave in rural areas,” the commentator added.

(Edited by Majnu Babu).