Bengaluru: The Karnataka government could well be on its way to declare the state as drought-affected after nearly two months of dry spell, according to two people familiar with the move.

At least 150 villages in the state have already qualified as drought affected, with more being added as rainfall continues to be deficient, said a Cabinet minister, one of the two people mentioned above, requesting not to be named as it is not yet official.

A cabinet sub-committee is expected to make an official announcement next week, he said.

The state government normally waits till the end of September (end of the season) to declare a drought but severe water shortage and deficient rainfall could force the government to do so earlier, the minister said.

This would make Karnataka the first state to declare drought in India this year. It became the first state to do so even last year.

The June-September monsoon is important for India as it accounts for 70% of India’s annual rainfall. Further, it is critical for the country’s 263 million farmers and the crops of rice, sugarcane, corn, cotton and soybean, which are largely dependent on rainfall because nearly half of India’s farmland lacks irrigation.

According to India Meteorological Department (IMD), the country had a normal June-September monsoon this year, instead of an above-normal monsoon as IMD had predicted earlier. With only days to go for the monsoon to end (it officially ends on 30 September), IMD says the rainfall deficit as against normal is 5% for the country as a whole.

However, regional monsoon tracking centres, which usually give a more micro picture of rainfall deficit than what is projected by the IMD, paint a grim picture for Karnataka. Notably, last year, as many as 10 states declared a drought following Karnataka.

Karnataka’s law minister T.N. Jayachandra did not confirm the declaring of drought but said that the state experienced a dry spell this season, except for June. In August, the state recorded 126 mm of rainfall as against normal rainfall of 206 mm, almost 40% lower and classified “deficit", according to the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Center.

The deficit is all the more worrying for Karnataka for two reasons, according to a farm expert based out of the state, who did not want to be named since he is working on a government panel related to agriculture right now.

The first reason, he said, is that it comes at a time when rural distress has peaked in the state.

Earlier this year, it lost 70% of its winter harvest, after its kharif output collapsed after drought, gripped 27 out of its 37 districts in 2015. This massive drought came on the back of unseasonal rains damaging the winter harvest and a monsoon deficit leading to a dip in kharif output in 2014-15.

A cumulative effect of this could be seen in a sharp decline in cultivated area in the state, analysts say. The total area of cultivation in Karnataka has come down from 96,200 hectares (for major crops including paddy, sugarcane, ragi, maize and pulses) to 61,600 hectares, according to the state agriculture department.

This means three years of below-normal monsoon in a state where the rural economy predominantly thrives on agriculture or allied jobs. Separately, an estimated 1,300 farmers killed themselves in Karnataka last year alone. The number is the highest in a decade, owing to many reasons, including huge debt and payment defaults by sugarcane factories.

The second reason could be purely political, according to the farm expert mentioned earlier. The state will be going to polls within a year and the verdict shall have a crucial bearing on both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Congress is in power only in Karnataka in the south of Vindhyas and the BJP is struggling hard to win back some of its lost ground in the previous elections. For both the parties, the agrarian heartlands are too precious to be lost due to pro- or anti-incumbency, analysts said.

The development also comes at a time when the state has been accused of not communicating well its acute water shortage situation while arguing against sharing inter-state river Cauvery to neighbouring Tamil Nadu in the Supreme Court, or while knocking on the doors of other states like Goa and Maharashtra for drinking water from a northern riparian river Mahadayi.

A collapse in agriculture is inevitable this year, said the minister cited above. “It needs to be attributed directly to current shortage of water," he said.

The decision to declare a drought may depend on rainfall the state receives in the last two weeks. But going by the forecast, the situation looks grim.

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