Why 2023 may be an annus horribilis for India’s farmers

A dry winter, arrival of El Nino and two years without earnings make this year terrible for Indian farmers   

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Thursday 23 February 2023
The hope of the Rabi crop harvest reaching even last year’s level is waning

The more India’s farmers hope for the better, the deeper they get into distress.

In the last two years specifically, there was not a single season that was “normal” and didn’t affect farms and thus farmers. The southwest monsoon of 2021 was statistically normal, rescued from a deficit state to a near normal one by excess rainfall in September.  

August 2021 was the sixth-driest month since 1901. While some farmers had normal crops, others lost them. But they were hopeful as the late withdrawal of monsoon and heavy rain in September and October meant good soil moisture and reservoir levels for a bumper harvest during the Rabi season.

In the beginning of 2022, extreme rainfall and coldwaves dashed that hope by damaging standing crops. While the world was entering into a severe food crisis as the Russia-Ukraine war started, Indian farmers had their own battles to fight.

The late withdrawal and excess rain events spurred the Rabi acreage. But the severe heatwave during harvest time in April-May 2022 led to widespread crop loss, particularly of wheat. This led to a downward revision of overall grain production.

The wait for the monsoon started and the dire situation of 2021 repeated. Another “normal” monsoon with an uneven temporal and spatial distribution — long dry spells and heavy rains towards the end of the season, or in September — led to widespread crop loss.

Excess rain in September has been an unmissable trend, at least in the last three years. The monsoon extended to the end of October, 2022; 52 per cent of the 36 meteorological subdivisions received above normal rainfall.

This brought down the paddy harvest and delayed the Rabi crop for nearly two months. The sudden rise in temperature led to the stunting of the wheat crop and the government stopped export of wheat in May, anticipating a shortfall.

So, for three consecutive crop seasons, there has been no occasion a farmer could even recover cost; accruing loss instead.

Expectedly, all hopes were mortgaged to the Rabi crop of 2023. Farmers took up Rabi crops in 15 per cent more farms than last year. This year, the blow is severe — the winter has effectively vanished by January end and the country is experiencing mid-March temperatures.

And this unusual high temperature is not just felt in the wheat-growing northern parts of India but also in the eastern part of the country. This will severely stunt the wheat crop, as in last year but on a wider scale. So, the losses are going to be more. This means for two years, a farmer has not experienced a normal crop season; has not earned anything effectively; but has to continue doing so.

Will the next Kharif crop season be normal? Weather forecast has pressed the alarm bell — the three-year La Nina is on the wane and the dreaded El Nino will make an entry in 2023 by July. El Nino usually means a subdued monsoon for India and also extreme heat.

It means, after losing a Rabi crop, farmers can’t even trade with hope for the Kharif now. As they say, hope is not a strategy or plan. But what if it is the only commodity that farmers own?

For the country’s overall foodgrain situation is also going to be hit, adding food inflation as well as making the poor more vulnerable to food insecurity. The hope of the Rabi crop harvest reaching even last year’s level is waning.

On the other hand, the government’s food stock has been depleting, first for meeting the food security scheme’s commitment and second due to releasing some three million tonnes of grain into the market to keep the inflation under control.

Without a bumper harvest in the next two months means we are hitting a scarcity situation. This will lead to higher food inflation. Notwithstanding the free foodgrains under the food security scheme, people have to fork out more for food. This adversely impacts the overall income levels, particularly for farmers who have not earned a profit for the last four consecutive seasons. 

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