Bengaluru: Following a lukewarm response to its promotional efforts, Karnataka has resorted to more forceful measures to get farmers in the Cauvery command area to switch from cultivating water-intensive crops such as paddy and sugarcane to drought-tolerant millets as part of a plan to stabilize farmers’ incomes and manage the water scarcity. 

Staring at its fourth consecutive drought year, the state government has stopped the sale of paddy seeds in some districts, including Mandya, and restricted their availability in Mysuru and Chamrajnagar, hoping to get farmers to switch to ragi and jowar among other coarse grains to mitigate the imminent loss of agricultural activity, keep fodder reserves going and shield farmers’ incomes. 

The state had only distributed 37,662.48 quintals of paddy seeds till kharif 2017 compared with 134,314.67 quintals last year, agriculture department data shows. 

“We actually want farmers to sow. We want them to take up a crop, but not paddy and sugarcane," Krishna Byre Gowda, Karnataka’s agriculture minister said in an interview last week.

“Normal contingency plans we can manage. But this time, the peculiar situation is that the entire command area is being shifted to these. So it’s not an easy task (but) so far we have managed."

Shifting entire districts to ragi is an unprecedented task. The state had to procure an additional 11,200 quintals of ragi seeds this kharif season over the availability of 33,937 quintals this year. Other crops such as pulses, oil seeds and maize are also being made available. 

The limited availability of paddy seeds through the government and advisories against sowing paddy do not necessarily prevent the farmer who can get the seeds from private companies or his peers. And farmers in the Cauvery command area, the heartland of farmer agitations in Karnataka, are not happy with the government regulating the release of water to canals. 

Kurbur Shantakumar, president of the Karnataka Sugarcane Growers Association, said that the state is pushing farmers into distress by taking away their right to grow paddy and sugarcane.

With legal issues limiting the quantum of Cauvery water at Karnataka’s disposal, the state government has been at the receiving end of farmers’ wrath. 

“There are no returns in ragi. The state says it will give Rs2,300 per quintal, but it costs more to cultivate it," Shantakumar said. He said lakhs of agricultural labourers have been rendered jobless with diminishing agricultural activity. The state government, for a few years now, have assured ragi buyback at prices higher than that of rice, but have still not made it part of the public distribution system (PDS).

Another big challenge to the government strategy comes from within the government—chief minister Siddaramaiah’s flagship scheme Anna Bhagya (free rice), which promises to replace ragi with rice.

The state government has invested over Rs150 crore in seed subsidies, buybacks and promotions to package ragi as not just a drought resistant crop helping farmers but also a nutritional crop. 

But the total cultivated area of ragi has come down over the years—from about 787,000 hectares in 2010-11 to 677,000 ha in 2015-16. To be sure, the area under paddy also came down from 1.54 million hectares in 2010-11 to 1.11 million hectares in 2015-16. 

Himanshu, an economics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, praised the Karnataka government’s efforts to promote ragi but said forcing farmers is not the solution. Rather, the government must continue investing in millets. 

Gowda said that the government would eventually like to see the cultivated area of coarse grains go up from around 1% today to 20%, but has no timeline in mind.  “This is too out of the ordinary to make a reasonable estimate," he said.

Close