Drought but why: The agricultural wasteland that is Bihar

Below-normal rainfall and drought-like situation for 7 years pushing out youth for livelihood

By Mohd Imran Khan
Published: Monday 04 March 2019
Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

For Gurudayal Yadav, a proud owner of 11 acres of land, the worry on the cold last day of January 2019 after the total failure of paddy crop last kharif is that the situation is not good for wheat in the rabi season either. All this is due to severe drought in his village Siriyawan under Mohanpur block in Gaya district. It is one of the 275 blocks in two dozen districts declared as drought-hit last year in Bihar.

Gurudayal, in his mid-60s, narrated his recent difficulties, “I have cultivated wheat in only 1.5 bigha of over 15 bigha land and am trying to keep it alive by irrigating through a pump set but I doubt that groundwater will be available for irrigation by early March as water layer has already lowered. Even my motor pump is not giving adequate water. I don’t know whether the wheat crop will survive or not next month.”

Mohanpur is one of the worst drought-affected blocks in the state. 

Unlike the last rabi season, when he cultivated pulses and gram along with wheat in his land, this time cultivation on that scale was a risk, so he cultivated in 10 per cent of his land in view of drought. “Last kharif season was bad as my paddy crop failed and resulted in only 15 mann (one mann is equal to 40 kgs) rice in place of 200 mann in normal monsoon season,” Gurudayal says.

Gurudayal’s two sons left the village two months ago after poor paddy crop and little hope from rabi. “One of my sons was working in Mumbai for several years in a steel factory but after severe drought two other sons were forced to migrate to Mumbai to earn a livelihood.” Many like them migrated across this remote and underdeveloped rural pocket of Bihar.

Another villager Krishna Sao said his hand pump has dried and there are several like him: “Now we are arranging drinking water from deep bored hand pumps. But one thing is certain, we have to face serious drinking water problem in March and April when the water layer will go down completely.”

Sao said a mechanic in the village Ramu Mushtri is a busy man these days as villagers are calling him since early morning to repair hand pumps. People are fed up with low amount of water from hand pumps due to depleted groundwater.

“Ponds have dried or drying. There is little water in a huge pond spread in 100 acres, villagers call it Mohanpur dam, where cattle from more than over a dozen villages used to bath and drink during harsh summers. This is first time in my memory that it is drying,” Singh says.

Mohanpur is still considered to be a Maoist stronghold. It is about 19 km from Bodh Gaya. But unlike Bodh Gaya, Mohanpur is a different world. Most residents belong to backward castes, particularly Yadav and Musahar community. Bhim Shankar Manjhi of Khuruwa village under Erki panchayat in Mohanpur, said today our main concern is rabi crops and drinking water. Both are important for us. “After devastating kharif season, rabi is our hope. But wheat crops are not healthy due to lack of water. Hand pumps are drying in January itself. There is no water even in deep wells and water level has gone down.”

Manjhi, in his late 20s, owns three bigha land, a rare for his Musahar community to own land, as most of the 2.5 million of them are landless. Cattle feed is becoming a big problem for them. “There is scarcity of green fodder and even traditional cattle feed like rice straw has become a luxury here.” With fodder crisis, farmers have been forced to sell their cattle.

“Farmers like us have patience to face difficult situations like drought and have developed tolerance to survive,” Manjhi, who is also an elected member of his panchayat, said. After bad kharif crops last year due to deficiency of 25 per cent rainfall during monsoon Manjhi is not hopeful of rabi crops either with dry fields, lack of moisture and little chance of irrigation. 

Manjhi said poor labourers, mostly middle-aged and old have been earning their livelihood under MNREGA. The young have been migrating and are not interested to work on the low daily wage of Rs 177 under MNREGA.

According to annual rainfall reports of IMD, Bihar has been witnessing deficiency of rainfall during monsoon. The state has recorded less than normal rainfall in the last seven years. As per the IMD rainfall information, Bihar gets 1,027.6 mm rainfall in a normal monsoon year. 

In 2012, Bihar received 813 mm rainfall during monsoon, which was 21 per cent less than normal and in 2013, it received 722.2 mm rainfall during monsoon, which was 30 per cent less than normal. It was followed by 17 per cent less than normal rainfall during monsoon in 2014 when Bihar recorded 848.6 mm. 

Again in 2015, Bihar received 745 mm rainfall during monsoon, which was 28 per cent less than normal. In 2016, it received 933.9 mm rainfall during monsoon, which was only 3 per cent less than normal. In 2017, the state received 9 per cent deficient rainfall with a rainfall of 936.8 mm. But again in 2018, state received 25 per cent less than normal monsoon. In case the rainfall deficiency touches the 19 per cent mark, the state is said to be under the grip of drought. 

Even Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has expressed concern over declining rainfall in the state while speaking at the inaugural function of East India Climate Change Conclave in June this year and quoting from IMD figures, he had stated that from 2006 to 2017, the average rainfall in the state stood at 912 mm. Bihar used to get 1,200 mm of rain per year but average rainfall had declined in the state.

Poor rainfall resulted in decline of rice and paddy production in Bihar. Principal Secretary of the state agriculture department, Sudhir Kumar Singh, said production of rice has gone down this time due to drought like situation. Last November, disaster management department Principal Secretary Praratay Amrit said drought will hamper the paddy crop. 

According to officials of the department, Bihar recorded rice production of 74.15 lakh metric tonnes during kharif season in 2018-19, down from 79 lakh metric tonnes in 2017-18. Agriculture is the backbone of Bihar's economy as 77 per cent of its workforce is engaged in it. 

(This article is the fourth in a series of stories that will track the drought situation in India)

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