Leaving farmland parched, farmers despondent and a nation worried, the monsoon strikes at the foundations of a still agrarian economy of India
Itâs been a slow and agonising wait for a nation that lives on annual hope. With just a few weeks left before the southwest monsoon runs its course, the harsh reality is sinking in. Half the country reels under drought-like conditions. A further rise in food prices looms ahead. Farmers in ten drought-hit states are desperately trying to save their crops and feed their families. Forget, for the moment, the rural growth storyâ"why, thereâs no drinking water in many of the 246 drought-hit districts.
The silver lining: it could have been worse but for the last two years of record food grain yield and political compulsions ahead of Elections â09. Government silos are overflowing with around 50 million tonnes of wheat and rice. âWe have sufficient wheat stocks. Rice worries will not start till next year,â avers Prithviraj Chavan, minister of state, PMO, who is part of the group of ministers monitoring the drought situation.
For now, consultations are on with the states to assess the damage. As Outlookâs correspondents discovered, many farmers are facing crop ruin and increasing debt burden in key drought-hit states like Bihar, Haryana, UP, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. The market expects a 10 million tonne fall in paddy production; sugarcane, pulses, oilseeds and cotton output will also dip by 10-15 per cent. Bad weather, together with sugar politics, will see India enter the import market for the second year to bridge the demand gap and to control domestic prices.
Unlike vegetables (where the dry spell and higher labour costs have contributed to rise in prices), pulses and edible oils are seeing an upward spike despite liberalised imports and stable global prices. The lack of government intervention in the retail market is clearly allowing profiteers to exploit the situation.
âInternational prices of food grain are quite stable. We are, however, going to face some issues with pulses as globally traded quantity is limited,â says Sanjay Kaul, a commodities and supply chain consultant.
In the case of edible oil, there are expectations that the global prices may remain stable for a couple of months. Signal of Indiaâs plans to import higher quantities could well change that.
On the brighter side, there is expectation that deficient rains may see more farmers shift from paddy to pulses and oilseeds, which are less water-intensive. Taking advantage of the monsoon revival, farmers are indeed shifting. For example, in the north more acreage has come under high-value basmati, while Andhra Pradesh has seen more acreage come under groundnut. And if (thatâs a big if) IMDâs optimism of near-normal rains till September end coupled with a better northeast monsoon comes true, prospects for the late sown and winter crops may improve.
âWe have not learnt much from the 2002 drought. Investments in irrigation structures of all types need to be doubled and tripled,â says economist Ashok Gulati of IFPRI. We desperately need government intervention in the retail market, a neglected area. Or else food price woes will be added to water stress.
Bihar has declared 26 of its 28 districts drought-hit. And Gaya district has received only 350 mm of rainwater so far, against 950 mm last year.
Busia village has been in darkness for two months now. The two transformers have burnt out and nobody has the money to offer district electricity officials to get them repaired. The wells are running dry and thereâs no foodgrain in the PDS outletsâ"that means farmers have been forced to purchase rice from the open market and thereâs no kerosene in the ration shops.
Donât get deceived by the lush green grass that has sprouted as a result of some drizzles. The lives of those who live in Gayaâ"barely 120 km from Patnaâ"can be summed up in two short words: rice and salt. An occasional watery dal, a luxury these days, has been the diet of farmers and farm labourers, who are reeling under an unprecedented drought. âUparwala sun nahin raha,â is the collective refrain of farmers.
Bihar has declared 26 of its 28 districts drought-hit. And Gaya district has received only 350 mm of rainwater so far, against 950 mm last year. As officials expect an over 50 per cent fall in paddy production due to negligible rainsâ"from 77 lakh tonnes produced last year to below 32 lakh tonnes this yearâ"the state administration is gearing up to tackle a scale of disaster that stares at Bihar in the face after some 35 years.
Things are so bad that Kamleshwar Yadav, a farmer, and farm hand Sanjay Kumar have been forced to seek work outside their village to ensure at least a meal a day. âLast year wasnât this bad,â says 58-year-old Yadav with less than an acre of land. This year has been a long wait for himâ"one of his buffaloes has already been sold for Rs 6,000. Yadav is keeping the other but does not know how long heâll be able to provide fodder. Pointing to the dry paddy field, he says the buffalo will finish off the grass in two days flat and after that, there may be little option but to sell this one too. Worse, he has borrowed Rs 10,000 from a private moneylender and has no means to pay back.
Migration is as high as 70 per cent, as men are forced to move out of their village in search of work. Sanjay Kumar is finding little workâ"most of the small and marginal farmers watch over their lands lying waste. In return for whatever work he sometimes manages to find, Kumar gets 2.5 kg of rice daily, which he shares with his family of four. For the last month or so, theyâve been eating it with a little salt. He has occasionally worked at shops as a labourer, but thatâs clearly not enough.
Though he has an Antyodaya card, entitling him to 25 kg of rice and wheat every month, Kumar has often been denied his rations because the local fair-price shop doesnât have enough stock. The district administration has been ordered by the state to repair the transformers and ensure that PDS outlets have adequate stocks. The state is banking on dried-out rice saplings from failed crops as a source of fodder. But, as always, such ameliorating measures take time to implement, while people like Yadav and Kumar get desperate with each passing day.
This is southern Haryana, where rainfall deficiency this year has been as high as 73-88 per cent.
Chander Suta Dogra
It wasnât easy to persuade Banwari Lal, a farmer with 22 acres of land in Bakhtawarpura village of Haryanaâs Bhiwani district, to show us his withered fields. âJust the sight of my fields is painful,â he says. âIâve spent most of the last month trying in vain to save at least some of the bajra crop.â The canal that irrigates part of his land has been dry since March; water from Lalâs two tubewells has gone brackish. All that remains is a scattered, stunted growth of some bajra that Lalâs wife Pushpa has taken to uprooting daily. âAt least I can use the green leaves to feed our four head of cattle,â she says.
This is southern Haryana, where rainfall deficiency this year has been as high as 73-88 per cent. Vast swathes of land havenât seen more than a meagre shower. As the overall rainfall deficiency in the state is put at 53.7 per cent, a jittery state governmentâ"preparing, as it happens, for early assembly elections in a couple of monthsâ"is hesitant to declare any district drought-hit. Though the official line is that the situation is not âso badâ, privately, officials concede the government doesnât want to create resentment by dishing out drought relief only in some districts.
Thatâs why chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda rejected the 50 per cent diesel subsidy announced by the Centre. The reason: it would create resentment in the nine districts to which it wouldnât apply. Instead, he has sought relief of Rs 1,000 per hectare across-the-board to compensate farmers. Though perhaps politically more expedient, that would still be too little and too late for farmers. Drought relief, on the other hand, is Rs 6,750 per hectare, but applicable only after districts are declared drought-hit.
Lal has spent Rs 20,000 just to sow his fields, borrowing most of the money. He wants the government to reimburse at least some of the money spent on sowing and says the subsidy on diesel would have helped. But no one bothered to ask himâ"or the hundreds of other farmers in the stateâs paddy belt. The state governmentâs only contribution to mitigate the farmerâs hardship so far has been to ensure at least eight hoursâ power supply daily in the last month. But this isnât enough.
It is estimated that there will be a shortfall of 1.2 lakh hectares under paddy; total shortfall of kharif cultivation is expected at 3.42 lakh hectares. The cost of fodder has tripled and availability of water in the state canal system is down by more than 50 per cent. The consumption of diesel in the state has gone up by 40 per cent in the last month as desperate farmers buy huge amounts of diesel on credit to run pumps.
The anger is bubbling over. There are daily agitations by the All India Kisan Sabha and the Bharatiya Kisan Union. In Bhiwani, a junior engineer in the electricity department was made to climb up an electricity pole and stay there till police rescued him. And at Ratia, some days ago, angry villagers took over an electricity supply unit and tried to run it themselves.
The twin problems of drought and a fear of displacement have claimed 15 lives in the last couple of months.
Urella is a tiny village with a population of 5,000 in the Chevella mandal of Rangareddy district. Itâs just 70 km from Hyderabad and is represented in Parliament by S. Jaipal Reddy, the Union urban affairs minister. Villagers here say that the twin problems of drought and a fear of displacement have claimed 15 lives in the last couple of months. Most of them, especially the elderly, have suffered heart attacks over the impending loss of cultivable land to an irrigation project. In the last fortnight alone, two young men committed suicide quite possibly due to drought conditions. The family of one of themâ"Venkatesa Goudâ"has about 6 acres in Urella and was cultivating cotton, maize and some flowers. For his one acre in this family plot, Venkatesa had apparently borrowed Rs 50,000 from moneylenders for buying seed, pesticide and fertiliser. He was hoping that with a good harvest he could pay back at least part of his accumulated debt of a few lakh rupees. But with rains failing, he lost hope and hung himself from the ceiling.
âSince our village is close to Hyderabad, we earlier thought we could sell off our land at a boom price of about Rs 20 lakh an acre and clear all the loans in one shot,â says Peramaiah Goud, Venkatesaâs father. But that didnât happen once the government announced the Pranahita-Chevella Lift Irrigation Project. Farmers say the land valuation was much below market price. âThis had depressed all of usâ"and with the rain failing, the problem was compounded,â adds the father.
As we go round the village to take a look at the stunted crops, slowly changing from green to a golden hue, the stories of other villagers echo the agony of the Goud family. Nagalingam, who has sowed cotton and maize on four acres, says: âWe have survived because we are a little more brave than Venkatesa.
Otherwise, our condition is no different.â This farmer had borrowed Rs 40,000 from moneylenders at four per cent interest and says that it costs him about Rs 10,000 an acre to cultivate. âEven if it rains now, as it did today, itâs of no use: the plants will not recoup,â he says, indicating the height the maize crop should have reached by now had the rains not failed.
From Chevella, as we travel in the opposite direction to Siddipet, in Medak district, the drought and suicide stories are repeated by farmers and farm labourers. Siddipet mandal, the bastion of Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) leader K. Chandrashekara Rao, has seen two farmers commit suicide in the last fortnight and the districtâs unofficial death figures stand at 14.
Papulla Prabhakara Reddy of Himambad village, in Medak district, was looking after eight acres of family land, essentially maize and paddy. The well on the farm had dried up and he borrowed Rs 65,000 to sink a borewell. Four failed attempts were too much for the 58-year-old Reddy to bear.
The second suicide last fortnight was of Bhumaiah Gari Venkata Reddy, 59, from the neighbouring village of Chinna Gunda Velli. The borewell he struck at two spots on his five acres did not yield water. He had a loan of Rs 2 lakh on him, according to his wife Yellamma. Of course, the rural development officer and the local TRS MLA have come visiting with assurances of help. But that doesnât seem to have cheered the farmers one bit.
Even in much-monitored parliamentary constituency of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi the plight of the harried farmer is hardly better than elsewhere
The rain gods may have at long last shown some benevolence, but it has failed to bring cheer to most small farmers in Indiaâs most populous state. Even in much-monitored Rae Bareliâ"the parliamentary constituency of Congress chief Sonia Gandhiâ"the plight of the harried farmer is hardly better than his counterpart from neglected, rocky Bundelkhand, which recently reported a suicide by a farmer. Rae Bareli is among 58 of Uttar Pradeshâs 70 districts that have been declared drought-hit.
âWe prayed and waited, but the gods refused to bless us for two long months,â says Binda Deen, 65, a small farmer of Tera-Baraula village. âAll I own is 1.25 bighas, which takes care of my household food requirements for four-five months. This season we havenât been able to grow a single stalk of paddy so we have no choice but to hunt for work or beg on the streets.â
There is no joy in Bindaâs home as the second heavy shower of a truant monsoon pierces through the roof. Worried about getting the youngest of his eight children married, Binda is wondering how to run his household. He hasnât been able to procure a BPL ration card or benefited from any of the governmentâs much-publicised schemes for subsidised seed or fertiliser. âI manage to earn Rs 30-40 a day by working in the fields of other farmers,â he says.
Many farmers in Tera-Baraula village have similar tales of woe. Being a low-lying area close to the Sai river, the village is often flooded when the river overflows. This year the river has no water. The village head, Ram Bharose, appears helpless. âI have moved heaven and earth to get the irrigation canal system working, but to no avail. My effort to get BPL and Antyodaya ration cards issued has also been in vain,â he laments.
This is despite 90 per cent of the 7,800-strong population belonging to the OBC category. Asked why he hasnât taken the plight of the people of his village to Sonia Gandhi, Ram Bharose says, âAlhough she scans every nook and corner of her constituency, it happens to be our misfortune that she is yet to set foot on this soil.â
At this time, these fields are usually green with paddy. Now, most of them lie uncultivated.
Dark clouds gather over stretches of farmland in West Bengalâs Birbhum district. Itâs August. At this time, these fields are usually green with paddy. Now, most of them lie uncultivated. In the few patches where seeds were sown, sparse shoots appear through arid ground. Tribal farmer Futun Mandi, 80, stretches his arms skywards, murmuring something in Santhali. âCome, storm! Come, rain!â his 12-year-old grandson Somenath tranlated for us into Bengali. The boy looks frazzled, never having seen his grandfather so broken. Futun owns six bighas of land. Unlike poorer villagers of Shayeripara, his family can afford three square meals a day. No dearth of rice. Vegetables grow at home. The nearby forests yield plentiful fruit. Then there is that occasional catch, a wild bird or a rabbit. He even buys fish from the market. After all, he earns some Rs 1,500 from each bigha every season.
But this year heâs unable to cultivate his land. âWith so little rainfall, the ground is hard. Itâs difficult to plough, far less sow,â he sighs. Squatting, he holds his head in his hands in despair. âHow will I feed my family?â He has heard that the government will subsidise mustard as an alternative crop. But as he has already invested in paddy, he is in a spot.
Official statistics corroborate Futunâs plight. Rainfall in the state has been 44 per cent below normal. Ganesh Burman, director (agriculture), says even this paucity wouldnât have had such an adverse impact if the distribution was sustained over a period of time. âA certain measure of water accumulation is necessary for cultivation,â he says.
Couldnât the irrigation projects of the NREGA help? After all, Birbhum falls in the Mayurakshi Dam region. Unlike the 11 districts of Bengal officially declared drought-affected, Birbhum has over the years been flood-prone. Joydeep Das, the block development officer of Birbhum, explains, âSuccess of government irrigation schemes depends also on natural rainfall.â
Suddenly, it begins to drizzle. âIf it rains heavily for a few days even now, there is hope of survival,â Futun says, as thereâs a rumble of thunder and the rain gets heavier. He looks up. Water streams down his face.
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