Flat in 20 days

Global climatic anomalies allied with local weather conditions produced the most freakish hailstorms in central and north India in February and March. Tennis ball-size hailstones put an end to farmers’ dream of a good harvest. Preliminary estimates show loss of about 5.5 million hectares of crop. Was it the doing of climate change? Does India have a contingency plan to tackle such events? Aparna Pallavi, Kundan Pandey and Jitendra bring ground reports from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab as Soma Basu investigates the causes of the untimely hailstorms

 

Flat in 20 days

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Raghveer Lal was 22 and full of life. Standing amid the fast ripening crops of peas, pigeon pea and black gram in village Ramgadha in Damoh district of Madhya Pradesh, he would often dream of a bumper harvest and a better life. He was confident he would be able to repay the Rs 1.5 lakh borrowed from a usurious moneylender for taking 4 hectares (ha) on lease and buying seeds and fertilisers. But on the ill-fated night of March 10, it suddenly started raining. The rain was accompanied by hailstorm and gusty winds. His entire crop flattened within a couple of hours. At around 9 pm, as the rain ceased, Raghveer stepped out of the house to take stock of the situation, but did not return. His father Bhajje Lal went out looking for him, only to find his only son hanging from a tree in the farm. Dismayed, he too hanged himself from another tree. Having lost her husband and son, Nanhi Bai is in a state of shock. “Kuchh samajh me nahi aa raha hai (I am unable to understand anything),” is the only sentence she is able to mumble.

The freak weather event that battered the country’s six states—Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh—for an unprecedented 20 days, from February 24 to March 14, has left millions of farmers in a similar state of shock. It came just as farmers were getting ready to harvest rabi crops such as wheat, pulses, potato, sugarcane, maize, groundnut and mustard, and horticultural crops like grapes, papaya, mango, banana, onion and other vegetables. Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh had estimated their crop loss and Punjab had done preliminary assessment till the magazine went to press (see ‘Hailstoned’). According to the estimates, 4.65 million ha of standing crops were ravaged in the worst-hit Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh alone. Farmer leaders say about 100 farmers in this arid region have taken their lives in the past one month. The Maharashtra government has registered suicide by 47 farmers. Most of them were tenant farmers and counting on the harvest to repay their loans.

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The erratic weather has not spared big farmers either. In Nashik in Maharashtra, 42-year-old Atmaram Pawar from village Daregaon consumed poison after his entire pomegranate crop worth Rs 15 lakh was brought to the ground by hailstorm. Those who have survived are yet to come to terms with the unexpected disaster.

When asked about his losses, the initial, clipped response of the dazed Dilip Padmarao Patil was: “Rs 5-6 lakh.” But once he sat down to calculate his losses under a damaged orange tree in Borgaon village in Nagpur, the list threatened to go on forever. “The Rs 5-6 lakh I mentioned was just for the young orange crop that I lost. Most of the 750 trees in my orchard have also been damaged by the hail. Some have bent over, while others have lost their bark. Not more than 100 trees will survive. They were 10 years old and still had a productive life of 15 years. I had spent Rs 8-10 lakh on their upkeep,” says Dilip. If he plants a new orchard, it will take at least six years and Rs 6-7 lakh worth of upkeep before the trees start yielding fruit. “How much would that be worth in money?” he asks. Then, scratching his head, adds, “Wait, I have not yet calculated the wheat and chickpea crops, and the new cattle shed that blew away.” Then, just as one thinks the list is over, he adds, “All the fodder stored in the shed was spoilt too. But what is the use of getting into details? Will the government compensate for my loss?”

Financial crisis looms

Nandabai Koli, who earns her daily bread through agricultural labour, had invested Rs 50,000, most of it borrowed, to start a banana orchard on her 1 ha in June last year. But days before harvest, hailstones the size of tennis balls descended on her village of Nandra Budruk in Jalgaon district of Maharashtra, and laid the orchard waste. “A large number of trees have toppled,” she says. “The ones still holding on to the ground will not yield crop because the immature banana bunches have turned black. Worse, the trees will not survive the summer since their leaves have been ripped to shreds.” But her greatest worry is shattered Mangalore-tiled roof. “If I cannot raise Rs 10,000 to repair it before the monsoons, we will be in the open.”

In the distant Dayagadhi Jejiyan village in Sungrur district of Punjab, 45-year-old Havinder Singh, who owns 1.6 ha, had taken 4 ha on lease for Rs 4 lakh and borrowed Rs 2 lakh for cultivation. “The entire standing wheat crop was wiped out,” he says with tears filling his eyes. “I won’t get bank loan for the next crop and cannot think of educating my children or holding a marriage in the house for at least two years.”

Farmers hit by the calamity are confronted by problems at every step while picking up the pieces of their shattered lives. Arranging fodder is a major problem. “Our crops were spoilt and so was the fodder,” says Singh. “The market cost of fodder is Rs 1,200 per quintal (100 kg). We will either have to sell our cattle to repay agriculture loans taken from banks or approach moneylenders.”

In Maharashtra, which saw the government setting up a large number of fodder camps in drought-prone districts last summer, similar demands this year have not yielded a response. “Due to rain, some grass has revived and we are pulling through somehow,” says Dilip Patil. “The crisis will intensify by mid-April.”

Due to losses, farmers are in a hurry to prepare for the next crop and are selling whatever little they could salvage. This has landed them in more trouble. “Harvesting flattened crops require extra care,” says Gurcharan Singh of Bhainsbagga village in Mansa district of Punjab. “So the cost of harvesting is high but returns are low.” As the damaged crop remnants flood the market, they are being procured at rock bottom prices by touts. “I was offered Rs 100 per quintal for onion, whereas it could have fetched at least Rs 500,” says Suhas Bacchav of Sonaj village in Nashik. On March 27, a disgruntled Bacchav blocked the Mumbai-Agra Highway by dumping onions on it, following which traders at the local wholesale market have raised the procurement price to Rs 200.

Struggling farmers are seeking government help to stay afloat. So far only Maharashtra has announced a special compensation package for affected farmers. In rest of the states, highly placed officials told Down To Earth that farmers will be compensated as per norms. But relief efforts have not gone beyond this.

Compensation or joke?

Going by the Maharashtra government’s ambitious Rs 4,000 crore compensation package, Patil is entitled to Rs 50,000 for his 2 ha orchard. The losses he has incurred amount to over 20 times the compensation amount. However, he would be fortunate to receive even that much. The official who visited his village for crop loss assessment surveyed just one farm. “No one knows what he has recommended,” says Patil. He will be entitled to compensation only if official records say crops have suffered 50 per cent or more damage. Farmers across the state complain that damage assessment has not been transparent. In Parbhani district, MLA Meera Renge has demanded that assessing officials should read out the assessment panchanamas (report) in the gram sabha to ensure transparency in determining eligibility.

In some areas, farmers have resorted to agitations demanding fair damage assessment. In Dhule district, farmers of 23 villages have threatened agitation unless the government does away with the 50 per cent damage norm. “Assessing officials are taking advantage of the norm to record less than 50 per cent crop damage and deny compensation,” alleges Bhagwan Patil, community leader from village Kapadne. “None of the 23 villages figures in the compensation list despite suffering extensive damage.”

In Punjab, where compensation is a meager Rs 5,000 per acre (0.4 ha), farmers are questioning the compensation model. “Farmers are eligible for compensation only when 75 per cent damage has occurred on at least 160 ha in a given area,” says Jagmohan Singh, senior Bharatiya Kisan Union leader. “Anyone can tell you that the norm is flawed. Our demand is that farmers owning a minimum of one acre and suffering at least 25 per cent damage should be compensated.” Balbir Singh of Tojo village in Bathinda district also questions the compensation model. “How did the government arrive at the Rs 5,000 per acre figure? The input cost per acre is at least Rs 9,000,” he says.

Till the magazine went to press not a paisa in compensation had reached farmers in the affected states because election code of conduct was in place.

“The government treats farmers like beggars,” says Karodi Yadav of Sagra village in Sagar. Yadav says this is the third consecutive season Bundelkhand farmers have faced crop losses. The government has conducted two surveys, first in September and then on February 20, to assess crop damage. “But we are yet to receive anything.” All that Yadav has to look forward to is years of struggle to get his shattered life and economy back on track amid increased anxiety as weather conditions grow more erratic with the passing year.

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