Cost of inaccuracy

Published: Friday 31 July 2009

Cost of inaccuracy

Aparna Pallavi and Archita Bhatta

From what to sow to when to reap, farmers need weather forecast at every step. It can make or break them

The monsoon forecast in May said India would receive good rains this year, and the onset was predicted for the first week of June. Accordingly, farmer Lakshinarain Baghel bought 25,000 kg soybean seeds for his 25 hectares (ha) at Rs 30 a kg. He chose a long-duration variety that yields a good crop when water is sufficient. He prepared the field for sowing, but three weeks of June passed with no rain. Panic gripped the region in central Madhya Pradesh as yet another drought appeared imminent.

On June 25, Baghel sold his seed stock at Rs 22 a kg--the price of the long-duration variety had crashed with the drought-like situation. He purchased 25,000 kg of JS 9305 seed, a short duration drought-resistant variety, at Rs 35 a kg. The prices of drought-resistant varieties were soaring.What is more, he had to spend about Rs 30,000 for tilling his land with tractor all over again for sowing, and another Rs 31,250 on reapplying superphosphates. This fertilizer is used just before sowing for the best results, he explained. But if rains fail much of the fertilizer is lost. "I have already lost more than Rs 1 lakh even before sowing has begun," he said.

Down to Earth  
Baghel lost more than a lakh of rupees even before he began sowing
Photograph by Aparna Pallavi
On July 1, when this correspondent visited Baghel's village Khamkheda in Vidisha district, the sowing was half done, following three spells of light rain in as many days. But panic was still in the air because there had been no rain in the past two days. "Unless there is more rain soon, there will be more losses. Moisture has penetrated the soil only up to four fingers depth (seven-eight centimetres)," said village sarpanch Pradeep Singh Baghel. "Below that the soil is still dry, but we are sowing because it is already late. If it does not rain within a day or two the seedlings will die."

The delayed monsoon has spoiled farmers' calculations in Vidisha, an area known for highly mechanized and input-intensive commercial farming. Although the loss of sown seed has been minimal, farmers have spent an extra Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,500 per hectare, mainly on extra rounds of tilling and on superphosphates. Small farmers who do not own tractors have lost substantial amounts on renting tractors and on diesel and drivers' wages.

Farmers blame the agronomic setback on inaccurate weather information received through radio, TV and newspapers. "Forecasts of the meteorological department are not taken seriously because they do not work," said Govind Dewalia, who cultivates 40 ha in Ban village. "Even now for the past three days we have been hearing the monsoon has arrived in the Bhopal-Vidisha-Raisen region, but there is no rain," said Rajendra Sharma, former sarpanch of Deokhajuri village. Sharma rues that because of the May forecast the village is stuck with long-duration soybean seeds. Many people could not apply a second dose of phosphates because stocks in the market were exhausted. "Last year we were prepared for drought but this year there was no warning," he said.

During last year's drought, say farmers, agronomic disaster was averted in many parts of the district because in view of the low rains, farmers intercropped soybean with pigeon pea, also known as tur. But due to the early monsoon predictions this year, farmers did not bother to save tur for their kharif crop. According to Pradeep Singh Baghel, intercropping increases the cost of harvesting in areas where farming is mechanized. Farmers resort to it only when necessary. "The tur crop matures one month after soybean, so we have to go for expensive manual harvesting," he said.

The state meteorology department, however, insists it supplies exhaustive weather information through special farmers' bulletins twice a week through TV, newspapers and the All India Radio. Nine agro meteorological field units in the state provide district-level information on weather conditions, along with advice from agriculture experts, according to D P Dube, director of the Met centre in Bhopal.

H D Verma, in-charge of the Sehore field unit, under which Vidisha falls, said information is passed on by rural agricultural extension officers and through the Internet to contact farmers, who are supposed to spread the word. But the Sehore unit has contacted farmers only in Sehore district, he said. Verma could not give a definite percentage of farmers who received the information.

Both officials insist awareness among farmers is high regarding these bulletins since the field units and the Met centre in Bhopal receive phone calls from farmers seeking information on weather conditions. Dube gave the example of Swami Dharmachetan Virendra Kumar of Hirnai village in Vidisha tehsil, who calls him up regularly to get details of weather conditions.

Virendra Kumar, when contacted, said less than 0.1 per cent of the farmers in the state call up the field units for information. He complained that information disseminated through media is not farmer-friendly. "Most farmers are unable to access the weather bulletins because they are broadcast at inconvenient times when farmers are in the field," he said. "The Krishi Darshan programme on Doordarshan, for instance, is telecast at 6 pm, which is a very busy time for any farmer."

Kumar has been campaigning with agriculture ministers, officials of relevant departments and media persons, for allotting a regular column in newspapers for weather reports relevant to farmers. Farmers also complain about the jargon used in weather reports.

In effect the only weather information farmers have definite access to is the daily weather forecasts on TV and in newspapers. These are too generalized to be of help. Many farmers then fall back on their traditional knowledge of weather.

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