Diminishing returns

Published: Tuesday 15 September 2009

Diminishing returns

Wilted crops dot the countryside; farmers cry for water, electricity

Down to Earth "August is the time when we have at least 3.5 feet (one metre) tall bajra, but this year the land looks as barren as nothing has ever been sown here," said Mewa Singh. "It drizzled just once in July. I have never seen this in 50 years of my life."

Mewa Singh is better off than most other farmers in Bhungla village of Haryana's Bhiwani district, for he did not sow anything in his over-a-hectare (ha) field. He relied more on a jati tree in his backyard than the Met department's prediction. The jati tree didn't shed leaves this time like it does just before every monsoon. "It was green and our elders say it does not rain when the jati remains green," said Mewa Singh.

Mewa Singh's friend Mahadev Singh, pradhan of Gokulpura village in Bhiwani, has invested about Rs 35,000 on sowing cotton and bajra in 1.2 ha.His first two attempts at growing bajra failed because it didn't rain. He bought seeds again and sowed for the third time, hoping it may rain in August. He ended up spending Rs 10,000 on seeds. "These hybrid seeds cannot survive high temperature, but the seed companies have benefited," said Mahadev. He is sustaining cotton with water from a tubewell.

Down to Earth  
Mahadev's two attempts at sowing bajra failed. He bought seeds again
Photograph by Ravleen Kaur
Bhiwani adjoins Churu in Rajasthan, which has the highest temperature in India for most part of the year. The soil there is sandy and the groundwater below 120 metres, so farmers mainly depend on rainfall for irrigation. "This year sowing is at least 20 per cent less than normal in Sirsa, Bhiwani, Rohtak and Fatehabad. Still the government has not declared these districts drought-hit," said Gurnam Singh, state head of the Bharatiya Kisan Union. "If the dry spell continues farmers will soon become part of the wandering tribes like construction labourers," said Azad Singh, pradhan of Bhungla.

All 500 families in Bhungla depend on dairy besides farming. Since the area under cattle feed has also gone down, people are forced to buy dry cattle feed from the market at Rs 170-180 per mann (40 kg)--up from Rs 50 per mann last year. Azad Singh said he is spending Rs 150 on a buffalo every day. The profits have come down because the milk of underfed buffaloes is not so rich in fat.

"Cross-bred cattle cannot tolerate high temperature and by the end of June many were sick," said J S Samra, chief executive officer of the National Rainfed Area Authority.

The area under major kharif crops in India like paddy has decreased by 5.7 million ha (20 per cent) compared to last year because of deficit monsoon, said the agriculture minister. The ministry estimates the area under oilseeds has also gone down by 0.6 million ha. More farmers have sown coarse cereals, like bajra, jowar and maize, and pulses this year. The area under these crops has increased by 1.8 million ha (see table Decline in kharif sowing).

Decline in kharif sowing
State Average sowing area Sowing area this year
Assam 2.6 million hectares (MH) 80% (1.08 MH)
Punjab 4 MH No overall shortfall but shift from paddy to pulses and maize. Paddy area reduced from 2.735 MH to 2.71 MH
Bihar 3.8 MH 52% (1.972 MH)
Jharkhand 1.9 MH 24% (0.451 MH)
Haryana 3.015 MH 65% (1.971 MH)
Uttar pradesh 6.0 MH (only paddy) 41% (2.5 MH)

In Assam 1.3 million ha of cropland is affected, said Pramila Rani Brahma, state agriculture minister. Assam would be able to produce only half of the 3.9 million tonnes of rice it needs, the minister added.

In Punjab, Subhash Chandra Godhara sowed genetically modified Bt cotton for the first time in May end. He invested about Rs 15,000 on seeds. Two months later he was still waiting for the saplings to grow in his 4 ha in Gumjal village of Abohar district. In the interior parts of Punjab, one gets a yield of 1,600 kg of cotton per acre (0.4 ha) but in Abohar it is usually 400 kg. "This year I am not expecting even that, though I have invested more," said Godhara. He has leased the rest of his 20 ha to Punjab Agro Industries Corporation at an annual rate of Rs 10,000 per acre.

Down to Earth  
Fazal Ahmed's guavas are spoilt. He is selling them cheaper than salt
Clamour for water, electricity
Abohar is at the tail end of Bhakra canal and faces severe water shortage, and Gumjal is the last village of Punjab before Rajasthan. "We are not the Sikh vote bank and that's why the government is not concerned about us," said Surender Kumar Jakhar, chairperson of Indian Farmers' Fertilizers Cooperative Limited (iffco) who belongs to the region. "Canal water is regularly reaching Sangrur and Muktsar, where chief minister Parkash Singh Badal's land is. It even goes to a village in Rajasthan for two days in a week where Badal has land, but not here."

The Bhakra canal is releasing 20,000 cusecs of water every day--8,000 cusecs less than normal. As a result, power production is low. Electricity is being diverted from urban areas to farmers. Industrial units are closed for three days a week in Punjab to supply electricity for irrigation, said Samra of the rainfed area authority.

The diesel sale has gone up 40 per cent in the state, he said.

The Centre declared a subsidy of 50 per cent on diesel for farmers on August 3. Uttar Pradesh has demanded Rs 2,000 crore from the Centre to pay for 10 hours of power supply in its 58 drought-hit districts.

Rice-wheat cycle continues
The Met department advised that farmers take up short-duration crops--like some varieties of bajra, oilseeds and pulses that ripen in two months--this season so that the rabi sowing in November is not delayed.

Farmers in Uttar Pradesh are not aware of the advisory. Even those with meagre landholdings continued to transplant paddy saplings that take at least three months to harvest.

Zikr-ul Hasan, a farmer in Kannauj district, transplanted paddy saplings in a bigha (0.084 ha) after an intense but brief shower in the end of July. The crop was already yellowing when Down To Earth met him a week later. "And this is the bagad (riverbed) area. The Ganga flows just two kilometres from here," said Hasan. He is using tubewell water. "Running a tubewell on diesel costs Rs 300 per hour," he said. Since paddy fetches a good price in the market Hasan hopes to make some money.

"Seventy-five per cent of the agricultural land in Uttar Pradesh is under paddy and that is why we are hit hard," said Mohammad Kalim Khan, the district head of the Samajwadi Party in Kannauj.

In the guava orchard next to Hasan's field, the yield has been down to a seventh of last year's. "The fruits are infested with worms. We have to bury them so that animals don't eat them and fall sick," said orchard owner Fazal Ahmed. He could sell guavas for not more than Rs 1.5 per kg. "This is less than the rate of salt. I am barely recovering the labour cost, forget about profit," he added.

Forty per cent crop was lost in Pratapgarh district of Uttar Pradesh until July; if it does not rain anymore the loss will go up, said Ketki Singh, district chief of the Bharatiya Kisan Union.

Pratapgarh has dug 60 ponds under nregs but not one of them collected rainwater, said Bhaiyyalal Patel of Samajwadi Party. "That is because all of them have been made where the gram pradhan wanted them, without considering the gradient and slope," he added.

Drought has forced small farmers to work as labourers in others' fields. In Badi Sonahi village of Pratapgarh, Shobhavati and her friends got a job for six days to transplant rice in their neighbour's fields that has a tubewell.

"We have a four- biswa (one biswa is 125 sq m) field but no water. So we left it unsown his year," said Shobahvati. "My husband is working at the nregs site and gets Rs 60-70 a day. He has gone there for 10 days this year. We are barely surviving with this earning."

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