Down to Earth - - COVER STORY -

"Let's pray to God that the re­vised forecast doesn't come true," said Harsh Vard­han, Union Min­is­ter for Science and Tech­nol­ogy and Earth Sciences, as the In­dia Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal

Depart­ment on June 2 fur­ther down­graded mon­soon rain forecast con­di­tions over the Pa­cific Ocean.

A failed mon­soon this year could mean sixth con­sec­u­tive crop fail­ure in most parts of the coun­try. Weak sum­mer mon­soons and un­timely

win­ter rains and hail­storms in the past three years have al­ready pulled down the over­all agri­cul­tural growth rate to near zero per cent. The pat­tern is un­com­fort­ably sim­i­lar to the most se­vere droughts in re­cent

In­dian history (see `Rude re­minders'). Fears of food­grain short­age and food price in­fla­tion loom over the coun­try. But the worst af­fected will be the farm­ers. Decades of de­cline in agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity has left them cash-strapped, dis­tressed and with­out re­silience to cope with any­more ad­ver­si­ties. The agri­cul­tural econ­omy is pri­mar­ily made of loans now. At this point, a col­lapse of the agri­cul­tural sec­tor seems im­mi­nent. This will hit 60 per cent of the coun­try's pop­u­la­tion that re­lies on farm­ing and af­fect the na­tional

econ­omy that's strug­gling to re­vive.

As the gov­ern­ment goes into over­drive, draw­ing up con­tin­gency plans, it must re­mem­ber the sit­u­a­tion

de­mands no short-term so­lu­tions. It must also re­mem­ber that dry mon­soons and un­sea­sonal rains

will only be­come more fre­quent with chang­ing cli­mate. But sea­sonal dev­as­ta­tions should not cause

long-term des­ti­tu­tion. So, the gov­ern­ment must an­a­lyse where it is go­ing wrong in its strate­gies and im­me­di­ately pre­pare a long-term plan to re­solve the agrar­ian cri­sis. Farm­ers have en­dured pol­icy my­opia for long. An as­sess­ment by RICHARD MA­HA­P­A­TRA with re­portage by KU­MAR SAMB­HAV

SHRI­VAS­TAVA, JI­TEN­DRA and JY­OT­SNA SINGH from Ut­tar Pradesh, Ra­jasthan, Haryana, Mad­hya

Pradesh and Ma­ha­rash­tra

says Rahul At­hole of Talavada vil­lage in Ma­ha­rash­tra’s Beed dis­trict as he re­counts the events that forced his el­der brother, Sahi­brao, to take his life.

At 33, Sahi­brao was full of beans. Within two years of man­ag­ing his one-hectare (ha) fam­ily land, he proved wrong all those who said agri­cul­ture was not re­mu­ner­a­tive: he con­verted his mud house into a brick-and-plas­ter one and paid back the hous­ing loan of 1.5 lakh. In 2012, he bor­rowed 2.1 lakh to grow cash crops. He planted sweet lime and wa­ter­melon on a small patch and cot­ton on the rest. Un­for­tu­nately, that year the rains failed. All the eight dis­tricts, in­clud­ing Beed, that make up the Marath­wada re­gion, faced one of the worst droughts in re­cent history. Sahi­brao tried to re­cover the losses the next year, but 2013 did not prove to be a good year ei­ther. Freak hail­storm and un­sea­sonal rains in March 2014 were the fi­nal straw. It flat­tened readyto-harvest rabi crops, in­clud­ing wheat, pulses and cot­ton, across Marath­wada. Sahi­brao could not bear the shock. News­pa­per head­lines and the gov­ern­ment coldly made him part of the grow­ing list of farm­ers com­mit­ting sui­cide in Marath­wada, a re­gion that is fast out­pac­ing Vi­darbha in cases of farmer's sui­cide.

Rahul man­ages the farm there­after. Be­fore he could start sow­ing, he had to bor­row money to pay back his brother’s mount­ing debt and buy agri­cul­tural in­puts. He could not have been more un­lucky. The mon­soon failed last year and the drought con­di­tions con­tin­ued for 16 months, well into the win­ter. This stunted the rabi crops, which re­quire a cou­ple of good showers be­tween Oc­to­ber and Jan­uary for en­sur­ing soil mois­ture. And then, as if an episode of déjà vu, freak un­sea­sonal rains and hail­storms lashed the re­gion again in March this year, dam­ag­ing what­ever lit­tle grew on the fields and killing hun­dreds of cat­tle.

Ac­cord­ing to ini­tial sur­veys of the gov­ern­ment, most vil­lages in Marath­wada, which con­trib­utes sig­nif­i­cantly to crop pro­duc­tion in the state, have lost 50 per cent of the crops. The re­gion suf­fered crop loss in 0.4 mil­lion ha in the first fort­night of March.

Rahul now faces the same un­cer­tain fu­ture his brother did. “News re­ports say the mon­soon will fail again this year.If that hap­pens it would be the end of the world for my nine-mem­ber fam­ily,” he says.

From bad to worse

Such sense of im­mi­nent calamity en­velops farm­ers in most parts of the coun­try who are head­ing for a weak mon­soon.On June 2,the In­dia Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Depart­ment (imd) down­graded its mon­soon rain­fall forecast for this year and said the coun­try is likely to get only 88 per cent of the nor­mal rain­fall this sea­son, down from the 93 per cent forecast it had made a month ear­lier. Rain­fall of less than 90 per cent is likely to re­sult in a drought year.imd down­graded its forecast due to the strength­en­ing of El Niño sys­tem in the equa­to­rial Pa­cific Ocean.“El Niño con­di­tions are likely to strengthen fur­ther and reach mod­er­ate

"I was un­able to fathom his agony when he con­sumed pes­ti­cide last year; this year I might fol­low in his foot­steps,"

strength dur­ing the mon­soon sea­son. There is about 90 per cent prob­a­bil­ity of El Niño con­di­tions to con­tinue dur­ing the south­west mon­soon sea­son,” imd state­ment said. The Aus­tralian Bureau of Me­te­o­rol­ogy, which mon­i­tors weather pat­terns across the trop­i­cal Pa­cific, has up­graded its mon­i­tor­ing of El Niño for the first time in five years, and warned that it is “likely to per­sist in the com­ing months”. This in­creases the risk of a poor mon­soon two to three times.

A de­fi­cient mon­soon does not bode well for farm­ers who are yet to pick up the pieces of their lives af­ter five con­sec­u­tive crop fail­ures—ei­ther due to too lit­tle or too much rain (see ‘When freak be­comes norm’).

In the hot and semi-arid Marath­wada, 87 per cent of farm­ers, mostly small and mar­ginal, de­pend on rain for agri­cul­ture. Since 2009, the re­gion has re­ceived scanty rain and faced two se­vere droughts. To make mat­ters worse, farm­ers are fac­ing un­sea­sonal rains and hail­storms for the past two years. Af­ter los­ing both kharif and rabi crops in con­sec­u­tive years, farm­ers have been switch­ing to cash crops like Bt cot­ton to re­cover losses. But these are cap­i­tal-in­ten­sive.

“Fre­quent droughts com­bined with ex­ces­sive use of chem­i­cal fer­tilis­ers have re­duced the car­bon con­tent of soil from 1 to 0.3 per cent in the past decade, af­fect­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity,” says S B Va­rade, soil sci­en­tist, for­merly with Marath­wada Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity, Parb­hani.Bt cot­ton farm­ers in Au­rangabad told Down To Earth that the yield was high ini­tially, but it is fast de­clin­ing. This year, farm­ers could harvest only 100 kg of cot­ton from an acre (0.4 ha), which yielded up to 300 kg till three years ago. Cot­ton prices, en­tirely de­pen­dent on the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket, have also plum­meted to a fiveyear low. “Five years ago, 100 kg of cot­ton would fetch ` 7,000. Now it hardly sells for ` 3,000. Thus, per unit pro­duc­tion cost for cot­ton is of­ten more or equal to the price a farm­ers gets for the crop,” says Shashi Ke­vad­kar, a jour­nal­ist in Beed. This is fur­ther push­ing the farm­ers into the debt trap and dis­tress.

A study by Ma­ha­rash­tra-based Di­lasa Jan­vikas Prathishthan shows that 95 per cent of the farm­ers who com­mit­ted sui­cide in the past year were cot­ton grow­ers. Chief Min­is­ter Deven­dra Fad­navis has ad­mit­ted that 800 farm­ers have com­mit­ted sui­cide be­tween Jan­uary last year and the first week of April this year due to crop fail­ure; at least 250 took their lives in the first four months of 2015.

Mad­hya Pradesh’s Bun­delk­hand re­gion suf­fers from a sim­i­lar predica­ment. Most farm­ers in this semi-arid re­gion de­pend on agri­cul­ture for sus­te­nance and grow only one crop a year. For this they need only a few showers of rain. But the re­gion has been reel­ing from a long spell of drought in the past decade. De­clin­ing gov­ern­ment sup­port, like agri­cul­ture ex­ten­sion and ir­ri­ga­tion pro­vi­sions, have stripped the ca­pac­ity of Bun­delk­hand farm­ers to con­tinue farm­ing. Yet they have not given up hope. Kishori Pra­jap­ati, a small farmer from Ma­jhguan Kalan vil­lage in Ch­hatarpur dis­trict, is one of them.

His en­tire crop with­ered last year due to poor rain­fall. He still bor­rowed 1.5 lakh to sow rabi crops, with­out re­al­is­ing that in the times of un­known weather events he is pin­ning his fu­ture on false hopes.

On March 30, some­thing un­usual hap­pened while Pra­jap­ati was tak­ing an af­ter­noon nap to es­cape the dizzy­ing mid­day heat. The clear sky sud­denly turned black and within a few min­utes a thick layer of le­mon-sized hails cov­ered his en­tire vil­lage and farms.The stand­ing crops of wheat and gram on his two-hectare farm were crushed. He could not bear the shock and fainted. As he re­gained senses a few min­utes later, Pra­jap­ati rushed to the hut, picked up a rope and headed to­wards a tree to hang him­self. Though he was res­cued, he keeps won­der­ing how to pay back the loan and feed his fam­ily for a year.The freak hail­storm and rain dam­aged crops in 0.9 mil­lion ha across 43 of the 48 dis­tricts in Mad­hya Pradesh.

Un­sea­sonal rains have also wreaked havoc in the Bun­delk­hand re­gion of Ut­tar Pradesh, where farm­ers grow a va­ri­ety of cash crops, in­clud­ing wheat, pulses and oil seed, in win­ter. These crops need good sun­light to flour­ish in Jan­uary-March. Any rain in this pe­riod af­fects the growth of the grain. This year, it rained dur­ing most parts of Fe­bru­ary and March in the six Bun­delk­hand dis­tricts of Ut­tar Pradesh.In some ar­eas, crops per­ished as fields re­mained wa­ter­logged for days, while in oth­ers, stand­ing crops were flat­tened due to strong winds. “More than 70 per cent of wheat crops were blighted, and the en­tire crops of pulses and oil seeds were de­stroyed in the re­gion,” says Raja Bhaiya of Banda-based non-profit Vidya Dham Samiti, which works with the farm­ers in the re­gion. The crop loss has wiped out the whole year’s in­come of the farm­ers. Ini­tial es­ti­mates of the state gov­ern­ment put the crop loss at 6,677.45 crore. More than 230 farmer deaths were re­ported from the re­gion be­tween March and April this year.

The state gov­ern­ment has not of­fi­cially ad­mit­ted to such sui­cides, but both the state and Cen­tral gov­ern­ments have been trad­ing charges over who is re­spon­si­ble for the deaths. “Most farm­ers killed them­selves due to the shock of poor pro­duce. This year’s rabi crop looked very good till it rained and farm­ers had high hopes on these crops to get out of their mis­ery,” adds Raja.

In the first four months of this year, un­sea­sonal rains have lashed 14 states, in­clud­ing Haryana and Punjab, two of In­dia’s top grain pro­duc­ers. These states re­ceived up to 10 times more rain­fall than what they nor­mally re­ceive dur­ing the pe­riod.The coun­try

"Farm­ers don't have money to take up kharif this year. They will have to bor­row again"

as a whole re­ceived 80 per cent more rain­fall than nor­mal be­tween March and May. As per imd, the av­er­age rain re­ceived in March was 61.1 mm, nearly dou­ble the nor­mal of 30.9 mm, mak­ing it the wettest March in 48 years. Close to 19 mil­lion ha of stand­ing crops, ac­count­ing for 30 per cent of the to­tal rabi acreage, have been af­fected. Go­ing by gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates, it is worth 10,000 crore.

Now, these are the states that will be se­verely af­fected by the deficit mon­soon. “Bat­tered by con­sec­u­tive crop losses, most farm­ers do not have money to take up kharif this sea­son. They will have to bor­row again. And the deficit mon­soon will fur­ther push them into the debt trap,” says San­jay Singh of Par­marth Sa­ma­j­sevi Sansthan, a non-profit work­ing on agri­cul­ture in Ut­tar Pradesh. Given the al­ready dis­tressed con­di­tion, the fu­ture seems daunt­ing. Es­ti­mates show that In­dia’s food­grain pro­duc­tion would come down by close to six per cent.

Start­ing from pan­chay­ats to Par­lia­ment, the crop loss and the re­ported spate of farm­ers' sui­cides has dom­i­nated dis­cus­sions in the last two months. The Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance (nda) gov­ern­ment faced a united op­po­si­tion on the is­sue both in­side and out­side Par­lia­ment.

On April 8, Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi quickly widened the re­lief net by rais­ing com­pen­sa­tion amount by 50 per cent and by re­duc­ing the el­i­gi­bil­ity cri­te­ria to in­clude those farm­ers who have faced at least 33 per cent crop dam­age. Af­ter a few weeks, he in­au­gu­rated in­sur­ance schemes for the poor, in­clud­ing farm­ers. Non-nda ruled states like Ut­tar Pradesh have turned this into an op­por­tu­nity of scor­ing po­lit­i­cal points. Congress vice-pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi scripted his po­lit­i­cal re­turn from a much talked about va­ca­tion us­ing the sit­u­a­tion.But, the more the gov­ern­ment and po­lit­i­cal par­ties talk about farm dis­tress, the more they high­light In­dia’s dis­turbed track record in reach­ing out to farm­ers in times of cri­sis.

Clearly, the prob­lem lies some­where else that no­body likes to talk about.

Fam­ily of Sahi­brao At­hole, who com­mit­ted sui­cide in June 2014, fol­low­ing con­sec­u­tive crop fail­ures since 2012

Kishori Pra­jap­ati, a small

farmer in Ma­jhuguan Kalan vil­lage in Ch­hatarpur dis­trict of Mad­hya Pradesh,

at­tempted sui­cide af­ter los­ing his en­tire crop in the hail­storm of March 30, 2015

This year, Parmesh­war Kokat of Thakar Adgaon vil­lage in Beed, Ma­ha­rash­tra, har­vested one-third of the cot­ton he used to get three years ago. He buys wa­ter from a neigh­bour at 10,000 per month for ir­ri­ga­tion. The crop is push­ing him into the debt trap

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