A failed monsoon this year could mean sixth consecutive crop failure in most parts of the country. The government must immediately prepare a long-term plan to resolve the agrarian crisis
Off to another bad start
"I was unable to fathom his agony when he consumed pesticide last year; this year I might follow in his footsteps,"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 Rs 1.5 lakh. In 2012, he borrowed Rs 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 ready-to-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 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 five-year low. “Five years ago, 100 kg of cotton would fetch Rs 7,000. Now it hardly sells for Rs 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 Rs 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 water-logged 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 Rs 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 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 Rs 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.
| `The crisis has been there for long'
These are symptoms of an agrarian crisis. While some of the trends are recent, the crisis has been there for long. However, it could not be felt for some time because of consecutive good or normal monsoons. Underlying the crisis are growing unavailability of crops, the collapse of public investment and lowering expenditure in rural India, and the turn to unsustainable practices of depending on farm loans.
This has occurred in an environment of liberalisation in which global trends and fluctuations have influenced domestic prices and the pattern of domestic production. The consequence has been a combination of increased volatility in production and rising rural indebtedness, which increase vulnerability.
As a country, do we have the resilience to tide over consecutive crop losses?
Any shock that impacts production by constricting revenues earned by an already indebted and cash-strapped peasantry threatens a collapse into bankruptcy. This spells disaster in an environment where social protection is minimal or entirely absent. Moreover, with state policy increasingly biased in favour of corporate and the government financing that shift by cutting rural development and social expenditures, the protection that the state had earlier offered in times of crisis has virtually disappeared. There is little space for resilience here.
Is rising rural debt a systemic problem or just part of a long phase of transition?
If rural indebtedness increases at a time when the viability of crop production is under threat, the trajectory is unsustainable and the problem systemic. This is no process of "livelihood transition", though the peasant unrest it may precipitate could make it the trigger for policy transition or even structural transformation.
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