In Conversation With Kalkuli Vittal Hegde, The Last of Sringeri's Farmers

Hegde, a renowned environmental activist discusses living as a farmer, being a part of numerous social movements, and registering the slow transformation of the political and ecological terrain of Karnataka.


Kalkuli Vittal Hegde. Credit: Sakshi

In the past four decades, Karnataka witnessed several strong farmers’ movements. These were incidentally set in the backdrop of a potent ideological wave, stemming from the early socialist politics of the region. While the initial wave of enthusiasm petered out as the movement broke down into political factions and towed behind unions and individual leaders who led the initial movement, the people’s struggle survived, responding to the political exigencies and agrarian crises. I grew up in early 1990s that had the immediate backdrop of a powerful political and social movement involving writers, journalists and activists of Karnataka. The same period also witnessed the rise and eventual decline of the naxal movement in the Malnad region. My early introduction to Kannada literature and, more fundamentally, to a society of Kannada writers and activists bearing unwavering political and ideological integrity left a deep impact on my understanding of people’s movements. I have known Kalkuli Vittal Hegde, who was part of such a society, from my childhood. In 2014, when I had some free time at hand, I set out on a short journey across Malnad and coastal Karnataka, both forming my hometown in some sense, documenting the social diversity of the region. I felt it imperative to meet Hegde and hear his experiences of living as a farmer, being a part of several social movements, and registering the slow transformation of the political and ecological terrain of the state.

As we sit down for what is going to be an unstructured interview, the cicadas raise their chorus in the backdrop, drowning almost every audible sound in the range. It is the beginning of September and the quaint temple town of Sringeri looks afresh after a heavy monsoon.

The infamous rainy season of the Malnad has begun to recede, but every now and then it pours like the world is coming to an end. It had rained through morning, interposed with an occasional thunder that made us wonder if the ground beneath us was splitting into two.

Kalkuli Vittal Hegde, a farmer and a renowned environmental activist in Sringeri, Karnataka, nodded and said, “…these are called ‘fake thunders’. The glory of the monsoon has already passed. They say, these thunders indicate the arrival of oyster mushrooms. They grow aplenty underground and are allegedly guarded by the cobras. I just know they taste good. You can verify the rest”. He is amused by recollection of these references, one of many I heard over the course of the interview.

Hegde has been a farmer for more than four decades. He was born in Sringeri and has lived there ever since, although his work and experience extend to most places in Karnataka.

He was a member of the All India Democratic Youth Organisation, a left-wing student union, in his early days as a student. Since he never cared much for the conventional education system, he did not bother himself with colleges and exams. His turf was social and environmental activism. Whether it is environmental conservation or the tribal movement against exploitation and displacement, he was at the forefront. He shot to prominence during the movement against iron ore mining in Kudremukh in Karnataka. It also earned him the wrath of the establishment, including that of successive state governments, whose known means of dealing with dissent was to categorise the dissenters as Naxalites.

There have been several attempts to intimidate and silence him and several false cases were filed against him. But Hedge remained undeterred.

He continues to cherish an unwavering belief in his principles. However, he bemoans the fact that he will be one of the last generation of farmers in the fertile region of Malnad.

We have just seen the ripples created by the Niyamgiri judgement. Tell us some more about Kudremukh movement and the role of law in it. Also, about the idea of environmental conservation as witnessed by you.

In Kudremukh, the people who went to court decided what issues should be raised. Their submission before the court was all that mattered in the eyes of the law. It may be correct. But it is also unfortunate as it eroded the element of people’s movement completely. Therefore, the environment movement which gained mainstream space excluded the people who had fought for the river.

As the western environmental model became the darling of the governments, it made the Adivasis look like villains. There is indeed an environment conservation model in people’s imagination. It is also a native way of conserving nature. This was unfortunately sidelined, as always, and the court did not bother to do anything apart from constituting a committee which adhered to the mainstream models of conservation.

The governments do not understand that they are making thieves out of the rightful heirs. By incorporating a conservation model which is entirely alien to people, they were creating irresolvable problems. Even issues like sand mining began to target common people, who were taking small quantities of sand to build their humble dwellings. Meanwhile, the greedy land sharks who were eroding the banks of the river enjoyed immunity.

Now there are contractors and procedural regimes before you loot the sand. But the illegal mafia continues to exists. This seems to be an age of restrictions for wrong set of people. They have dumped concrete and alien technologies on us. Sadly, there are no alternatives but only restrictions.

Try and audit the environmental concerns of the government and you will find none. Soil erosion due to human intervention, unscientific agricultural practices, mindless encroachment of forest land etc. are the areas that require attention of the government.

What happened after the closure of Kudremukh iron ore company? Why did a social movement die?

At the time of the closure, there were about 400 permanent employees who were compensated by the company. But those who received the short end of the stick were contract labourers who were left with nothing, no social security or compensation, once the company decided to shut down.

We, the people´s movement, were concerned about them as well. We demanded that they be provided with alternative employment. It needn’t be mining alone as they were not destined for it. There were range of employment opportunities for people with different sets of skills. Our movement was always conscious of the fact that labourers had to be recompensed or employed in an alternate field in case of displacement from current employment.

We asked those workers to join our movement. It did work that way for a while, but as they belonged to different unions, it was easy to turn them against us eventually. In the end, when the company ultimately closed its operations, the workers were left with nothing.

We had managed to gather rice from the fields on the banks of the river Tungabhadra (which was intended as donation) to be handed over to the families of these contract labourers. But the government and the company colluded to prevent us from doing so. Even the roads leading to villages and settlements were shut down. Everyone in the establishment was scared of the movement growing stronger with support of the labourers.

There were several demands for restoration and maintenance of the surrounding environment after the closure. The Indian Oil Corporation had caused several invisible damage, like the silting of dams. The Lakya dam continues to be called as an eco time bomb, for the threat of its collapse due to water pressure and deposited silt is almost unparalleled.

If that happens, it will be the greatest calamity we have ever seen. The dam is 300 m high. If the tunnel chokes and collapses, the water will flood out, the silt would overflow and cover up Tungabhadra river for about 30 km. The government has not bothered in spite of our repeated warning that an entire river would vanish one fine day.

Sringeri, Karnataka. Credit: Sakshi.

Sringeri, Karnataka. Credit: Sakshi.

What is the contrast between the two perceptions of environmental conservation? Can you elaborate on the nature of the conflict?

The government frames policies according to the whims and fancies of the WWF and the WCS. According to these institutions, there can not be any harmonious co-existence between human beings and wild animals, the environment is doomed where human beings exist.

But the people have always co-existed with nature – there is nothing extraordinary or ‘artificial’ about it. If they cross paths with a tiger, either the animal or people will tactfully avoid encounters and make way for each other. For instance, if there is a king cobra looking for its prey, it makes a strange vibration as it moves. One can feel it so distinctly, that even a toddler, who has not seen a snake, will keep its distance and avoid any unpleasant encounter. These instincts come naturally in the environment.

In the past one year there have been 214 deaths due to snake bite in Karnataka. Tell me how many have died in Malnad? Most of the snakes are found here, but there wasn’t a single death. That is the uniqueness of co-existence found here.

If a tribal or a villager goes to the forest, he ensures that he takes nothing that is not essential to everyday life. He doesn’t fancy chopping of a plant or a living being merely because he possesses a weapon. You won’t even notice the human presence in the forest. If we, the city bred, walk into such dense forest, there is no way to negotiate the path without clearing some space. But a tribal knows well how to walk between those thickets, just like any other wild animal. All our environmental crises are a result of our irresponsibility in using resources from the nature. If we had lived like a tribal we would have learnt a responsible way of living in nature.

If you examine the nature of litigation in a small taluk like Sringeri, most cases are related to easement and profit pendre rights over the forest land in haadyas (usually a territory denoting forest land attached to the property over which an individual has a legal right).

These even outnumber land disputes and other civil litigation. If there is some forest cover surviving in these places, it is primarily because of these farmers who have protected it in the name of their rights. No forest that was artificially conserved and developed by the government has thrived.

The western model of environmental conservation resulted in this artificial distinction between namma kaadu (our forest) and sarkarada kaadu (government forest – the one with restrictions and prohibitions) thereby reducing the situation to ridiculous distinctions. These days, if the people want to steal, they go to sarkarada kaadu.

Our conception of marking the forests and thereby conserving it has always been fantastic. For an acre of tari bhoomi (irrigated land) they have set apart one acre of forest land, for every one acre of bhaagayta bhoomi (dry land) they have set aside two acres of forest. Some of them maintain even more – in terms of unmarked boundaries, till the beginning of a hill, river or someone else’s property. It would be designated as their forest.

Social forestry is a joke – they have only gone around planting acacia, nilgiri and other plants which destroy soil fertility. The gift of the British was an artificial distinction in nature that I mentioned earlier. The demarcation of forest areas as Queen’s property and the British forest zones turned native heirs into robbers. These forests can not be grown – they have always existed and need to be owned up. In places which receive more than 120 mm of rain, the land is never left vacant. The process of naturally filling land prevents soil erosion due to heavy rains. If nothing else, a small patch of grass grows there on its own. So the question of growing a forest is irrelevant.

What has been the impact of Forest Rights Acts here? There must be some friction after the recent move to bring Kudremukh under Project Tiger as well.

Kudremukh National Park spreads over 600 sq km. The categories of forests are also an invention of the British. They called it the reserve forest (for them to collect the forest products), protected forest and the state forest. The distinction continues today. The limit of notified forests is very small and it was established through a government notification. But when they drew boundaries, they have drawn it from Tanikodu to Mala, which includes tribal land.

It was improperly done and even now the land is not a reserved forest by the virtue of notification. The unfairness of the process has not been questioned and the Adivasis are paying the price. Even worse, the declaration of national park has been only through oral orders. Hence, there are no provisions for rehabilitation.

If there is no reserved forest, then you cannot rehabilitate. As a result of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), they have started handing out cultivation certificates (not hakku patras, the grant certificate which could be used to develop land, raise bank loans etc.) to a few – just about 30 people. This has led to unnecessary confusion. The usual friction between the tribals and the officials continues like everywhere else. Sringeri has had its fair share of animosity with FRA, like any other tribal belt.

Project Tiger and other projects are mindless plans. They indicate apathy and indifference of governments. Recently 600 sq km of land within Kudremukh National Park has been declared as a buffer zone under Project Tiger. Ironically, the national park is not ideal as a tiger habitat.

There are barely four tigers in whole of the national park, which roughly results in one tiger per 125 sq km. Tigers live only where their preys choose to live. The main prey of the tiger is deer. Deer and sambar prefer park like level lands, unlike Kudremukh, which has an elevated terrain. This region is filled with steep hills and valleys which makes it difficult for tiger’s prey to graze and survive. Without the prey, there is no reason for the tiger to live in Kudremukh.

My question is, these four tigers have existed before and will continue to exist in the future, so why on Earth should you jeopardise the lives and livelihood of 15,000 people with the project? Recently, I spoke to an environmental activist who is an avid supporter of Project Tiger. He said, ‘there was no need of tigers for a Project Tiger’. I was taken aback. So whose interests are they protecting with these projects? Is it good enough to protect tigers alone? Don’t human beings have a right to live alongside?

The Gadgil report has listed numerous categories of species that are being endangered. All of that is fine. But we also need to remember that people live here and their lives are being endangered too. Agriculture in Malnad is failing, areca nut is suffering from yellow fever which hasn’t found a cure for hundred years now. In some years, areca nut may disappear from Malnad.

Doesn’t this look more like marketed environmental conservation, the one with labels and tags?

The heritage tags from UNESCO, Kuvempu bio-reserve etc. are all projects that have popped up to protect interests of invisible stakeholders. Neither people nor the environment stand benefitted from any of these. They don’t even seek support or participation of the locals. A national park is equivalent to a Special Economic Zone.

Let me tell you how it operates: any multi national company can invest here in the name of research. UNESCO also operates like an MNC. They head straight for medicinal plant research, tapping on the pool of traditional knowledge in the process. A Netherlands-based institute has been using the western ghats for Medicinal Plant Core Area (MPCA) and conducting research for years now.

When they gain something out of it, they go ahead and patent it. What do we get out of it? The most that has happened is Naati Vaidyara Sammelana (Conference of Experts in Traditional Medicine). Even that has been outsourced to the RSS, which has expertise in imaginary medicines and propaganda at the most. If you look behind their facade, you will realise the corporate stronghold at the bottom of it. It is just another avenue for exploitation.

Tribes like Hakki Pikki that are a repository of knowledge, have been increasingly criminalised. They are a skilled tribe and have been holding immense knowledge as to medicines and medicinal plants from time immemorial. There has been a systematic attempt to commercialise the knowledge and criminalise the knowledge holder in the case of Hakki Pikki tribes.

We consider ayurveda with great reverence but don´t realize that Naati Vaidya is greater. It has the regional roots and has evolved out of needs and customs of the region. There can´t be 100% success. But then nothing has been tested and verified for us to condemn it outright. Even the research on food and dietary practices are so euro-centric that there has been very little said or studied about our food habits and systems.

Why didn’t the Naxal movement ever take off here?

In Sringeri, the Naxal movement was like the environmental movement and projects – it was imposed on people. It was never a people’s movement nor did it take into account aspirations and needs of the society. A prototype text book revolution. Introducing Naxalism was more of a misadventure and a result of vested interests of those who thought the place was ideal to start the Naxal movement.

There was an agitation in the form of Kudremukh movement; there was an ideal terrain and forest cover. But the people were never ready. We tried convincing few who were leaning towards the movement. People here were different from the others.

A few years ago, they would hide even if they happened to meet city dwellers. It was not in their nature to confront anyone and they leave alone the government. Therefore, there was no question of any revolution. The movement never really took off as it did not have any patrons. Those in the movement never understood people or their culture. Just a handful of boys stuffed with ideologies moved around and disappeared.

As a reaction to this, the state took on the locals and began to torture them. The people here bore the brunt of misdirected state actions. Hence, the Naxals completely lost their base amongst people and the sympathy for the movement eroded.  A movement will not die if it is born out of agitation of the people. It should move from within. This was external and uninvited. Like Project Tiger, this was project Naxal and wasn´t any better.

But the government used the situation tactfully. As I had mentioned earlier, the government had notified the reserve forest and had orally extended it to places that would not have been otherwise covered. Also, the government used innumerable pressure tactics and harassments to make it seem that the people were moving out ‘voluntarily’.

Unfortunately, at about the same time, our movement was in full swing. The government tagged us as Naxals. Adivasis and Naxalites were overlapping insofar as the police and the government were concerned. We tried clarifying many times that the problems and concerns of Naxalites weren’t the same as that of the tribals. But that was futile. As a result, there was confusion and chaos.

A few in the tribal movement were killed. A few of them were tortured. There were false cases filed against us. Almost 18 of them were against me alone. So, in 2006 when FRA was enacted we decided to dissolve the movement as part of our demands were fulfilled and we badly wanted to avoid the tag of Naxalites. There were 13 extra police stations established to deal with Naxals. Each station has about a staff of 80, which means there are about 1,000 policemen who are being paid to serve in these five taluks.

Kalkuli Vittal Hegde´s farm in Sringeri, Karnataka. Credit: Sakshi.

Kalkuli Vittal Hegde´s farm in Sringeri, Karnataka. Credit: Sakshi.

Finally, I am just curious to explore the agricultural scene in Malnad. This has been the rice bowl of Karnataka for the longest period.

I am one of the last generation farmers here. Agriculture here is becoming like that of Thailand –  the focus is on tourism, while both the crop and the farmer is dying.

Malnad was a region that was appropriated since the time of British. They had occupied the land for its valuable resources –  the land that was needed for tea, coffee and rubber plantations. In independent India, many thousands of acres were lost in Malnad for the construction of dams. It was indeed the rice bowl of the state and drew people even from the farthest drought stricken areas.

But now the crop output has reduced. We can never grow paddy here – growing a quintal would cost us somewhere in the neighbourhood of Rs 2500, whereas the market rate offered for paddy is Rs 1300.

The government is spending so much on education, but the same education is insulating people from taking up agriculture as a profession. As a result, our villages are being converted into old age homes. Our generation will be one of the last one to engage in agriculture. Most of them have stopped growing paddy, some are migrating to cities after selling their fertile agricultural lands. Some are filling their lands with acacia, nilgiri and other trees that destroy fertility of the land.

The agricultural lands around city dwellings are being converted into sites. So, the number of farmers and farm lands are declining steadily. Therefore, it is no surprise that the labour in agricultural sector is sparse.

Also, you must realise that agriculture in Malnad and coastal Karnataka is skilled work. It requires utmost degree of professionalism and knowledge of the environment. That is also one of the reasons for the decline of farming in these regions.

The farming crises always hits the small holdings. That is one of the reasons why coffee planters here are never massively affected by fluctuations of man made factors or variations in environment.

Most of the coffee plantations here were and are held by the British. Initially, in the pre-independent India, they allowed Indians to be managers in their plantations. Starting a plantation required CRC, which was never given to Indians. As years passed by, Indians began to hold small stretches of plantations on their own. But, most of the small holders came in post-independence period, after the removal of the CRC.

The tea estates continue to be owned by the British companies. A few large holdings of coffee were bought by the Indian owners from companies which held them earlier. All these things merely suggest that these are not representative of the farmers that we are concerned about. You wont even call this farming.

Rain is a curse here. Last year we lost much of the crops due to heavy rains. But if there is no rain, the dams will be empty. So we are always in a fix. The loan waiver plan raised the hopes in some farmers here. They waited for the waiver even when they had the capacity to pay back; they invested the money further.

But then no waiver came and they had to lose the gamble. Now most of them are defaulters to banks and co-operative societies. Private loans are raised from the areca nut Mandis. There have been a few farmer suicides but not all of them due to credit concerns. Few of them feared dishonour and insults. I think, these days there is more respect for farmers deciding to kill themselves than those choosing to fight on and live.

But hasn’t there been a sudden surge in market rate for areca nut?

It is always strange about areca nut – the producers and the consumers of the crop have always been located far apart geographically. This actually mystifies the related transactions around the crop and the way its prices fluctuate. Few of the farmers have tried to become traders and dealers in areca nut to break this mystery but have failed.

Malnad has traditionally grown areca nut. The market has evolved in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Kanpur etc. where they did not grow but only consumed it. There is a massive vacuum in information. The government has no role in it.

There is no information on why the markets fluctuate in an unpredictable manner or any information on how much of the crop is stocked and how much of it is released to the markets either.

We don´t even know why areca nut is used in such huge quantities – the only popular usage has been that of paan but that alone will not explain the ups and downs of the markets. Even those who are trading in areca nut have no idea why prices go up. Both the farmers and traders are merely passive actors in this transactions.

In most cases farmers stand to lose because the prices go up after they have delivered the crop to the dealers or the middlemen. The profit is strategically diverted to other players. In 2013, the rates increased as the crop output was low for the year. Also, the previous year saw imposition of import duty of about 140% by the UPA government on imported areca nut, especially from Malaysia, Thailand and Ceylon. Therefore, demand for domestic areca nut surged.

The consumption increased as it was election period and people had some money left in their pockets. The prices usually fall in the same speed as they go up but the government takes no responsibility at any stage. As usual, areca nut continues to be mysterious. Now that the NDA government has increased the tax on imported areca nut to about 170%, one would have expected the prices to increase. But the prices have almost halved since then.

Anyway, I think that is all about Malnad and the agriculture. The life has stagnated here in this temple town, primarily because of the temple. Rest of it can be attributed to other equally adverse reasons.

Sakshi is a research fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi.