The man who takes care of the lake

These lakes have existed from the times of the Vijayanagara Empire, and built under the aegis of Krishnadevaraya. These lakes were built by the Palegara or the local chieftains of the empire. The extent of ruling of the chieftains expands all the way to Pathapalya, Gummanayakanahalli, Kalkooru, and Teluru. It was then, under the leadership of the kings, they realized that the water that is in such vast quantities could be utilized for farming and other related things.

Most of the lakes are built under the leadership of Narasimhanayaka, one of the chieftains of Gummanayakanahalli and Pathapalya. These chieftains named the lakes after their mothers, and hence this lake is named Doddammanna Kere (lake). The lake is easily around 400 years old as there is a rock with an inscription that reads “REGD 1825”. It also shows the number of lakes that were built during those days.

My name is Venkatappa, my father is Chiklakshmana. The name of my village is Tholapalli, Bagepalli Taluk, Chikballapura, Karnataka. I follow my ancestral occupation of being a Neerganti or a lake manager. If there is no water, there is no job for us. 

This lake has about three Kunte (feeder lakes). One of them is Pavakrayana kunte, Koppkunte, Yatrayana kunte and Thunget kere. When these feeders are full, the water flows into the bigger lake. Two lakes called the Machinill kere and Dalvai Kunte were built to supply drinking water to the people. It is a chain of lakes that fill, and as the water level increases, it moves to the bigger lake near Aithmarkere then to Naramadya Palya. From there it flows to the Vandmaan dam and eventually flows to the Mubort Valley Project in Andhra Pradesh.

The chieftains realized that storing water and harvesting it would allow the soldiers and the farmers who worked in the empire to be able to practice agriculture easily. Supporting agriculture would also mean that the future generations too could benefit from these plans. This would also allow land ranging from 150 acres to be cultivated. Since water management would be key during such times, our profession came into being asneerganti’s. Water is always a community resource and should be accessible to everyone. Hence, we regulate the water flow and ensure that there is no mismanagement.

When the lakes fill up in November, people begin to cultivate Paddy. Since paddy is water intensive and requires water once in five days, we regulate the water flow to the fields. When the harvest season comes, we usually are paid in kind. We used to be paid 100 seru (1 seru = 933 gms) of paddy for every acre and 8 hore (8 bundles) hay since the times of the ancestors. From being able to grow two crop cycles, farmers now can barely grow one due to lack of water, as the lakes are now filled with slit and grass.

The water is released only when we know there is enough. Sadly, there is almost six feet of silt these days. This is something the entire village knows and there can be no special provisions from any big landholders, politicians or anyone who abuses power. The water is for the land near the lake and we do not cater to dry lands further from the lake. It is impossible to supply water to such far off places, as the lake is designed to cater to only the nearer 150 acres of wetlands. Kushke lands receive heavy rainfall while Kalake are irrigated lands. When there is no water in the lakes, we are unemployed and have to look for alternative sources of livelihood. We sometimes end up cultivating the small pieces of land we own.

Engaging in the Neerganti profession is difficult these days. Despite toiling from 7 am, having to be under the risk of snakebites, silts, we barely make Rs 200 a day. With the invention of machinery in harvesting, we are not paid like before. It is barely enough to sustain ourselves. I guess as times change, we need to change as well.

When farming was done by plow, the land that is tilled is called the Kalake. The soil fertility was maintained by using neem leaves, animal dung such as that of cows, sheep and goat. The insects in the soil would also help maintain its fertility. But ever since we started using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, these insects have been killed. Chemical fertilizers are also water intensive. For example, if you put urea in a place with little water, the plant will die if it does not receive enough water. Whereas the natural compost we would use, the plant would survive easily and it would stay for a week. We can no longer practice agriculture the way we used to anymore.

We used to cultivate various crops such as Raagi (finger millet), Sajje (Pearl millet), and Jola (Sorghum). Buttermilk made out of Sojje is quite an experience. Groundnut would be grown for minor consumption. Nowadays no one eats them. People back then used to be very healthy, these days’ people are barely fit after 40 years.Grain would be stored keeping in mind the need for the next crop cycle and for consumption of the household. There is a saying that goes “a house should be full of kids and grains”. These days’ crops are all about making profit. Therefore, people end up growing crops that are in demand in the market. People do not want kids or grains. Farmers even grow vegetables now. However, the price fluctuates very much. One day a farmer will make Rs 200 for a box and all of a sudden the next day the price falls to Rs 20. An acre will need an investment of Rs 40 thousand, which amounts to two lakhs for five acres. This causes financial stress, and how can people earn the returns?

This market fluctuation might cause the farmer to grow something else, such as brinjal. Even then they will not make a profit. They continue to be in debt for generations. Unable to pay off debts, farmers resort to suicide.

These days’ people are not willing to have guests over. In the olden days, people used to pride themselves for being able to feed guests, and it was almost a status symbol. People loved feeding guests. These days we have to go to stores and bring groceries on credit, but earlier people had stocks of what was needed.

In the past, water was used very judicially. Land was cultivated in smaller numbers and the lakes were designed to cater to a specific land area such as 30 or 40 acres. Farmers used to be united to share water. We do not see that anymore. Profit driven mentality has taken a toll on the trust factor and there is so much greed everywhere. This is why we are not able to have even two crop cycles.

These days’ people have started investing in bore wells. But the water quality is very different. The high Fluoride content is making our bones brittle. Open wells do not have water anymore and we have to dig as deep as 1000 feet to get water. If bore wells need to be dug at such depths, how can lakes and open wells at 30 feet have any water?

Bore wells are expensive. Farmers with just half an acre also invest in a bore well which costs about two lakhs, including pump sets, electricity and other expenses. When you do not have the source to get the return on it, how does one pay for their daily expenses, pay off debts, and educate their children? The same money can be kept as a deposit in a bank and they will earn Rs 4000 as interest per annum. Unable to pay off such huge expenses, they end up hanging themselves despite having children and a wife to think about.

If four people have an acre of land each, instead of getting a bore well in every acre, it is better if we all pool in the resource and get one common bore well. It is about pride these days, just because Thimappa has one, Venkatappa has to have one, then Rangappa and Chennappa have to have one, that is the attitude. Money is the driving factor here. The market is erratic, but no one looks at it. Growing tomatoes and the likes incurs a lot of expense that includes harvesting, transportation, storage, etc., for which the returns are poor. However, when we grew Ragi and Paddy, this was not the case.

Growing Ragi is less expensive compared to vegetables such as tomatoes, brinjal or onions. Ragi earns Rs 2200 per quintal, and you can harvest about 40 quintals per acre. The returns are definitely more, even if you make 30 quintals per acre.

These days we do not have the old breeds of fish anymore, all of them are hybrid. People go to Gauribidanur and get breeds such as Katla, Rofu, and Common Carp. People auction it and that is how they make money. It is almost impossible to find native species these days. When the native species used to be found, it meant that the lake was healthy and that was a good sign. I am not sure what it is called in Kannada, but in Telugu, the fish is called Jalla, Jallkorda, Mallkorda and Poojappa. If these are found in the lake, especially Poojappa, it is almost equivalent to having goddess Lakshmi in the lakes. These are called Thaai meen, or Mother fish. It meant that the lakes would always be full. I also have seen it in the past 30 years. The fish will weigh around 12 kgs, after two years. It would be impossible to catch them. They would measure 4 to 6 feet in length. We do not have those fishes anymore.

The God we pray to, Gangamma Devi, used to be on a rock on the banks since ancient times. The idol was brought here from Andhra Pradesh. It is our Manedevaru (Family Deity). We have built temples and we worship them. If we do not get water from the lake, we take a dip in the water. The lake is important to us. That is why we worship it.

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