Nargund (Gadag district)/Bengaluru: At the final destination of the bus ride to Nargund, 500 km from Bengaluru, stands a Neem tree on which an effigy hangs from a noose made of a towel. “It is to remind those officials who visit us that we will soon be hanging ourselves like this if they don’t give us water daily," said Maheshwarayya S. Sureban, an ex-serviceman and farmer.

There’s no water—not even for drinking, leave alone irrigation. In Nargund, drinking water pipes are dry except for an hour—and only once or twice a week.

Nargund is surrounded by vast farms of cotton, maize, green gram, sunflower and onion, among other crops. But poor rainfall has destroyed all crops, leading to rural distress in the hinterland of Karnataka.

Though the state was the first in India to declare its 136 taluks across 27 of its 30 districts as drought-hit in August, farmers and their livestock continue to wait for relief, including drinking water and fodder.

Farmers of drought-hit areas are also eligible for crop loss compensation and loan restructuring. But months after the state government notified drought and said it was allocating 1 crore per taluk, farmers like Sureban are yet to get any benefit.

In north Karnataka, districts like Belagavi, Bidar, Gulburga, Bichapur, Bagalkot and Gadag received less than half of the average rainfall this monsoon. Many farmers have suspended sowing operations for the Rabi season.

According to Veerana Kamtar, assistant director at the agriculture department in Nargund, in the rainfed areas of the taluk crops have completely withered away and in the irrigated areas the damange is about 60-70%.

The rainfall deficit was as high as 92% in July, forcing many farmers to abandon farming. Of the 26,215 hectares of farmland, farmers sowed crops only in about 14,000 hectares this year, Kamtar said.

A high-level officer in the department, requesting anonymity, said relief measures are very slow. “Fodder scarcity has hit the roof. We are yet to receive any money (under the natural calamity funds) for relief works and jobless farmers are migrating to Goa," the official said.

In some areas, farmers, in a desperate attempt to save standing crops, have started stealing drinking water for irrigation, said V.A.Nadaf, a junior engineer at Nargund Municipal Corporation. “We are patrolling with police officers all along the pipelines, asking farmers not to take drinking water for irrigation," he said.

This has worsened drinking water shortage in Nargund, a taluk with a population of 37,000 who consume four million litres a day (MLD).

“The current supply is only 1.7 MLD as the water level in the Malaprabha dam has dropped from 23.796 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) to 9.56 TMC," said Nadaf. Last year, in the June-September period, the water supply was 2.5 MLD.

Raju Patel, a farmer who grows cotton, maize, onion and wheat over 100 acres, said the municipal administration stopped water supply to irrigate crops in July. While the three-phase power supply used to run borewell pumps remains erratic, his two borewells have already dried up.

Accute water shortage has meanwhile reignited water wars. Farmers in the region are now demanding the implementation of the Kalsa-Bandhura project, a four-decade-old river diversion proposal that has been opposed by neighbouring Goa on ecological grounds.

As part of an indefinite strike started on 12 August, protesting farmers in Karnataka have held four state-wide shut-downs, vandalised shops in nearby Hubli town and even burned down a bus on 25 August.

Rajkumar Khatri, principal secretary (disaster management) at the revenue department, said drought has affected 33.72 lakh hectares of agricultural land in Karnataka and caused a loss of 14,471 crore.

The state government asked the Centre in August for 3,500 crore to compensate the farmers, said Khatri in an e-mail response, following which an inter-ministerial team from the Centre visited Karnataka in September. But a high-level committee, chaired by the Union home minister is yet to decided on the quantum of relief, he said.

He did not reply on why authorities have delayed paying compensation for crop loss for this year.

A mail sent to agriculture minister Krishna Byre Gowda’s office on farm distress and compensation remained unanswered. However, Karnataka chief minister S. Siddaramaiah on 14 October said that the state is waiting for Central assistance.

“It is unfortunate that the PM has not responded to our memorandum and appeals even after a month. The Centre has not bothered to release any financial assistance to combat the drought, one of the worst in 44 years," said Siddaramaiah according to a report in the Times of India on 14 October.

“I don’t understand why the Centre is taking such a long time to provide immediate relief for the states," said Ashok Gulati, agriculture economist and former chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, a body that advises the government on food supplies and pricing policies.

“If they want, they can clear the assessment in two weeks. But if they are going to take six months for releasing drought relief funds, what benefit will it be for the farmers?" said Gulati, who is also agriculture chair professor at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, Delhi.

So far, five states—Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh—have declared drought as half of the districts in these states received deficit or scanty rainfall this year, Mint reported on 29 October.

States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Telangana, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Haryana are yet to follow suit although they account for 149 of the 302 deficit rainfall districts of the country, the report said.

Meanwhile, farm suicides are on the rise in Karnataka. According to the state farm ministry, more than 600 farmers, the highest in a decade, have committed suicide so far this year— almost half of them in the last four months. The worst hit are the poorest—marginal farmers and landless farm labourers.

The state government as part of a relief package has waived off interest on crop loans taken till the end of September and hiked the ex-gratia for farm suicides from 2 lakh to 5 lakh.

In Nargund, about 400 families of farm labourers are living in tin-roofed shanties. Over the last three months—the Kharif sowing season—many of them have been jobless with incomes plumetting from 200 a day to nil.

The families continue to survive on subsidised rice (and kerosene oil) provided through the public distribution system (PDS) despite the state government’s pledge to provide employment under the rural jobs scheme Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Act (MGNREGA) and the Centre’s decision to increase the days of work under the scheme in drought-hit states.

When asked how he manages to live these days, Srishan Patil, an agriculture labourer in the Vinayak Nagar colony, looked at the effigy on the Neem tree. “How would one answer that question?" he asked.