Natural Disasters

Warning bell: Extreme weather is hitting India’s farmlands harder

With an increase in disaster risks, India needs to measure and assess its ‘disaster losses’ better

 
By Kiran Pandey
Published: Friday 31 July 2020

Natural disasters hit India’s farmlands the worst last year in two decades, the Centre said. 

More than 14.4 million hectares (ha), roughly seven per cent of India’s gross cropped area, was affected in the 11 months through February 20, 2020. The area, spread over 14 states, was seven times that of the previous year.

Losses could mount as unseasonal and excessive rainfall in March 2020 further damaged rabi crops in Punjab, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.  At least 0.4 million ha of cropped area was lost in these states, according to news reports. 

Before 2019-20, 2007-08 (8.5 million ha), 2006-07 (7.1 million ha) and 2013-14 (6.3 million ha) had been the worst years for cropland losses. Over 77.8 million ha of cropland was damaged between 2001 and 2020 due to natural calamities, government figures show. More than 40 million ha of cropped area was damaged between 2011 and 2020.

Madhya Pradesh hardest-hit

Of the 14.4 million ha affected in 2019-20, MP (6.04 million ha) accounted for over half of the losses, followed by Rajasthan (2.3 million ha) and Karnataka (0.93 million ha)

In March 2020, India recorded surplus rainfall of 47 per cent. Central India, consisting of MP, received ‘large excess rainfall’, with surplus rain of 220 per cent as on March 23, 2020, according to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD).

IMD defines ‘large excess’ as rainfall 60 per cent beyond the ‘normal’ (calculated for 1951-2000) for a subdivision.

Source: https://mausam.imd.gov.in/imd_latest/contents/index_rainfall_state_new.php#

The loss to croplands in MP in 2019-20 is over 6.5 times more than the loss recorded in 2013-14, according to government estimates made available to Parliament.

The state-wise estimates for 10 years (2011-2020, till 20 Feb, 2020) show that MP has lost the maximum area under croplands due to natural disasters in the country. 

In March 2020, the unseasonal rainfall and hailstorms further damaged standing rabi crops in large parts of the state. This included mustard crops in the Chambal and oranges in the Agar-Malwa region. Wheat and chana crops too were damaged in the state. 

Thus, the loss to cropped area for 2019-2020 is certainly much more.

This is certainly a matter of concern for a state where agriculture is central to the economy. About 75 per cent of the total population of MP is rural and its primary occupation is agriculture, according to the recent state agriculture plan. Nearly 71 per cent of the population is directly involved in agriculture.

Of the 6.97 million ha of croplands damaged in the state in the last 10 years, 6.04 million ha was lost just in 2019-20. MP’s gross cropped area is 25 million ha, according to the latest estimates of the state government.

Centre’s under-estimation

However, these figures could very well be under-estimates.

The loss of cropped areas in India is under-reported in cumulative government records of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, incidents in the last two years have shown.  

For example, the unseasonal hailstorms in February 2018 had destroyed crops in at least 980 villages of Bhopal, Hoshangabad, Shivpuri, Ashoknagar, Raisen and other districts of MP.

But the records presented by the ministry on the “loss to cropped areas” in MP during 2017-18 missed this.

In fact, the loss was acknowledged by the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare in the Rajya Sabha. The ministry had stated a loss of nearly 50,000 hectares of cropped lands in the month of February 2018, due to unseasonal rainfall and hailstorms.

The centralised records of losses are important to compensate states and farmers after assessment by inter-ministerial central teams. This forms the basis to release funds from the National Disaster Response Fund to the affected states.

Like MP, in Maharashtra, 0.41 million ha of cropped area was damaged between 2018-19 and 2019-20 (till Feb 20, 2020), government records have shown.

But according to a Maharashtra government official in a media report, 5.42 million ha of croplands were damaged due to unseasonal rainfall in October 2019.

Three months

One reason for the under-estimation could be that the disaster reports put out by the National Disaster Management Authority under the Ministry of Home Affairs do not list three months: January, February and March.

These are also the months when India witnesses extreme events like unseasonal rainfall and hailstorms, with huge losses to the cropped area.

To ensure a realistic monitoring and assessment of ‘disaster losses’, the disaster reports must consider listing these three months too.

See also: State of India’s Environment 2020: In figures for an assessment of how climate change impacts India

Government’s admission

Climate change has and will influence ‘weather patterns’ over India, the first assessment on climate change’s impact in India, has said.

Extreme weather events attributed to ‘changing climate’ such as extended dry periods, floods, hailstorms, cyclonic rains and winds will affect agriculture in the country, it has added.

Thus, systematic collection and analysis of data will be required for relief and future planning to adapt.

But the current disaster impact and damage assessment practices in India do not provide adequate information, the National Institute of Disaster Management admitted in a handbook, Post Disaster Needs Assessment India, published in September 2019.  

The government report pointed out flaws in the procedures used by the states to estimate the damages and losses that do not necessarily coincide with the norms of the Disaster Response Fund.

The report underlined the need to improve the methodology for disaster impact assessment currently used in India. It recommended standard format for collection of the baseline information and information sources required to conduct full-fledged assessments of disasters.

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