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Silting the roads

PUSHPA SURENDRA

K. ANANTHAN

Desilting tanks ... no benefit to farmers.

IN normal years the average rainfall in the semi-arid plains of Mysore, adds up to 20 inches a year. This meagre rainfall if received at the right time is sufficient to sustain the two crops farmers here grow. Now fields once ploughed but not sown because of insufficient rains are being ploughed again in anticipation of rains.

When the Southwest monsoon finally arrived late in mid-June, every movement of the clouds was commented upon in great detail by the modern day meghadoots of the Kannada language press. The language papers with wide readership in rural areas have responded admirably to the hardships faced by farmers in their own way. Every major newspaper in Kannada runs weekly supplements on agriculture, tuned to the realities of farming in the present situation when soil and water resources have been abused by our over - dependence on chemical agriculture. By giving credence to the field experiences of farmers rather than the results of laboratory experiments or of experimental research stations, these newspapers caution farmers against switching over to "miracle crops" promoted by over enthusiastic agricultural scientists. Sadly what is lacking in their coverage of agricultural issues is a critique of macro-level policies that are at the root of the problems faced by farmers.

It seems the entire State administration is worked up about the failure of monsoon and suddenly the focus of drought relief has shifted from road laying to de-silting of tanks. Perhaps with an eye on next years' elections, the de-silting work is being carried out in a great hurry but without much planning. A hundred metres from our farm, a village tank was de-silted recently by the zilla panchayat. The villagers got to know of it only by the sound of the machine scooping up silt. Great big chunks of humus rich black silt was dumped on the road and used for widening the road. Most farmers were unable to utilise this precious resource. Tractors being much in demand for ploughing during this season, farmers could not get transport vehicles to carry the silt to their fields. Two tipper lorries that were used at site by the Zilla panchayat for carrying the silt from the tank to the road were hired "illegally" by some farmers to transport the silt to their fields during the night. The drivers were afraid to provide the same service to my farm during the day. On the third day, when I succeeded in getting a tractor, all the good quality silt had been used in the widening of the road. I managed to get only poor quality soil but I took it anyway because, at Rs. 30 a tractor load, it was the cheapest way to set right the much-eroded soil of our farm.

The effort of the Government in de-silting the tanks would have benefited farmers if transport vehicles had been employed at site for farmers to hire. The silt in the village tanks rightfully belong to the farmlands nearby from where soil had been washed away because of wrong cultivation practices promoted by the Government over the past four decades. The lack of publicity for the scheme was due to poor co-ordination between the zilla panchayats and the gram panchayats, which function merely as extensions of the Government rather than represent the will of the village communities as envisaged by our Constitution.

It is shameful that the Government of Karnataka, after three continuous years of distress, still does not have a well-coordinated strategy to manage drought relief works. The laterite soil types of the nutritionally impoverished farmlands in the arid and semi-arid regions do not have the capacity to hold moisture. Adding silt is the cheapest way to improve their water retention capacity. A government committed to protecting its natural resources should first and foremost be also concerned with improving the quality of its farmlands. Yet, extension services of the agricultural department are just content with doling out hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers.

The Government's decision to employ machines instead of manual labour in the de-silting of tanks has come in for much criticism and it has been argued that the unemployed agricultural workers should have been given priority over machines. It has also been said that de-silting tanks has only helped contractors and owners of earth moving machines. While this criticism is justified to some extent in villages where there was large-scale unemployment does not reflect the entire truth, which are far more complex. In the villages that are close to cities and towns the unemployed have been absorbed by the construction industry. Further, villagers consider it beneath their dignity to work on government's food for work projects for lower wages and for poor quality grain. In Kodagu district, the unemployed preferred to work on plantations in neighbouring Kerala where daily wages are three times the wages offered by Food for Work programme.

De-silting of tanks should ideally have been a community effort with active involvement of the villagers as it had always been in times past and not just deals to be brokered between the Government, the panchayat officials and the contractors. Unless the Government has a well-planned strategy to cope with the drought, another hundred years of "drought relief " measures will not bring any relief to the farmers. The Government, through its scheme of de-silting the tanks, has literally "paved" the road for future contracts because when heavy rains come the silt on the road will be washed back into the tank requiring de-silting again.

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