Agriculture

This monsoon is different

It is one of the few years where a monsoon is entering at a time when half of India’s districts are facing drought; some are facing the fifth consecutive spell of drought

 
By Richard Mahapatra
Last Updated: Thursday 23 May 2019
This monsoon is different. Photo: Getty Images

Monsoon has already entered Indian territory. Going by the India Meteorological Department, it would be a normal monsoon and the distribution of rain would also be normal. As usual, the much-awaited season is always cheered, by farmers and governments equally. But, this year’s monsoon is different.

It is one of the few years where a monsoon is entering at a time when half of India’s districts are facing drought; some are facing the fifth consecutive spell of drought. On Akshay Tritiya, considered to be the start of India’s agricultural cycle, many farmers reverted to their traditional ways to forecast rain. Such was the desperation for good rain.

There is also another reason why this monsoon will be different. The monsoon season is usually time for appraisal for India’s largest private enterprise — agriculture. Like us, farmers expect there will be a raise in income, and monsoon is a defining factor. By default, they have a sort of a monopoly. Remember, they are the world’s only producers, everything else is manufactured.

But this year there is a concern: Monsoon is no more a factor that dominantly decides their income, or how much they will earn from their produce. Last year they produced the highest in the history of the country. But, as official data shows, their income did not rise. Rather, it has been the third year their net income has been on the decline. They do cheer the monsoon, but when it no more decides their earning, they just dive into a short-term annual romance.

Like our corporate honchos, farmers also manoeuvre difficult terms of trade. Except the monsoon that has been predicted to be normal, all other factors are not in their favour. They are sure about bumper harvest, but the market is not able to give them the right return. Their consumers are spending less and less as food inflation is hitting lowest benchmark. The moment food inflation raises a bit, trade specialists embark on import to control. Again, the domestic producers are left with unfavourable terms.

This monsoon has another pocket of uncertainty. Though the El Nino is weak, it still can disrupt the normal pattern of monsoon. It can result in erratic rainfall, extreme events, and huge loss of standing crops. For the farmers it means losing the capital investment even before the occasion to trade arrives, that is, the harvest season.

In the last three years alone, there have been 500 such occasions. The enterprising farmers with the monopoly of production have not been able to seek interim helps: insurance schemes just cover an insignificant percentage of their brood. Most of the capital investment comes as credit from informal sources with high interest. So, instead of hoping for a raise in income they might end up incurring further losses. This year they have invested in desperate situation of being not earning for years and being under drought for long. Even the soil doesn’t have much moisture to sustain a break in monsoon.

Being the drivers of a big enterprise, they do enjoy political power. But this monsoon, there is a feeling of uneasiness. They could not change the terms of trade despite forfeiting many days of works to protest for a fair price.

They could not convince their customers that a small rise in food price is needed to support the producers; the usual term of profit margin that every person engaged in a business inherently demands as a right.

They demanded a deal, a kind of economic stimulus, to fresh start their business. Like what we hear about bailout packages for Air India or banks dealing with non-performing assets. That also did not materialise.

By the time monsoon rains drenched their farms, with more despairs than hopes, they would feel lonely. It is not just a losing battle but losing a way of survival. And they are in minority: Only 100 districts in the country have more than 50 per cent people depending on agriculture for survival.

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