Unseasonal rains deepen distress and debt on farms
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Mathura/New Delhi: Last Monday, towards the evening, Sahab Singh, a 58-year-old farmer, walked up to his small patch of land in Mathura district of western Uttar Pradesh. Frequent spells of untimely rain over the past month had him worried. Joined by his two sons, Singh picked up two stalks of wheat that had turned black due to the wet conditions and rubbed them between his palms: there was a lot of chaff, but only a few grains.
Last year, drought had damaged Singh’s paddy crop. According to members of his family, the shock of another crop loss was too much for Singh to handle—he collapsed and died on his farm.
Singh’s death is part of an immediate narrative illustrating the fallout of unseasonal rain on an already-strained farming system. Together with the collapse in commodity prices after the end of the global commodity supercycle, this is now beginning to emerge as a forewarning of an impending agrarian crisis.
Farm distress is also leading to anger. A large number of Indian farmers are beginning to lose patience. Much of their ire, as in the case of farmers in Mathura, seems to be directed against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance, which had swept the polls in western Uttar Pradesh in the general election last year.
This should worry the BJP, which is heading into assembly elections due this year in Bihar, a mainly agrarian state, as the frontrunner. A rapid erosion of its support base among farmers could spell electoral doom for the BJP in a key state that elects as many as 40 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP won 22 seats from Bihar, more than any other party, and hopes to repeat that performance in the assembly elections.
In Mathura, the Singh family has accumulated debt of Rs.10 lakh; one-third of the amount has been borrowed from local moneylenders at 36% annual interest. In 2013, Sahab Singh was served a recovery notice for Rs.5 lakh from the local branch of a commercial bank. Later, he was locked up for non-payment. Rajesh, his younger son, says the bitter memories from two years back haunted Singh. The standing wheat crop was the family’s last hope after drought ravaged the kharif crop of paddy in 2014.
According to Buddha Singh, district president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, over the past month in Mathura district, 16 farmers have died either due to heart attack or by committing suicide. “No relief has reached farmers. Central and state teams estimated the damage at 25% without even visiting the fields. A farmer would be lucky to recover 20% of the low-quality grains. The situation is so bad that the harvested crop will not even pay for the labour costs to clear the field,” he said.
In addition, farmers have to deal with the fallout of a bumper crop of potatoes. Prices have crashed and farmers cannot find buyers—even for as little as Rs.4 a kilo. Cold storages in the district are full and many farmers have left the crop to rot in the field, said Rumal Singh, a farmer from the area.
An ongoing survey by ActionAid, a global not-for-profit working on poverty and human rights, has recorded 54 farmer suicides because of freak rain in March in the chronic drought-affected Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh.
Unseasonal rain and hailstorms lashed the wheat-growing states in four spells during March, just when the winter (rabi) crop was ripening. In Mathura district, rainfall was 24 times the normal level during the week ending 18 March. For Uttar Pradesh as a whole, it rained 4.4 times the normal recorded during March.
And it was 10 times the normal rainfall in Rajasthan, 4.6 times in Haryana, 6.5 times in Maharashtra and 6.7 times in Madhya Pradesh, worrying weather scientists.
“This is an unusual amount of rainfall for this time of the year—rabi crops were at a flowering stage and rainfall is not congenial in March,” said N. Chattopadhyay, deputy director-general, agricultural meteorology division, India Meteorological Department. Pulses, mustard, fruits including mangoes, oranges and bananas, and vegetables suffered extensive damage.
“But the most important crop to be damaged is wheat, which was at early maturity and flowering. There would be large-scale damage in north India,” he added.
According to numbers released by the agriculture ministry on 26 March, about 11 million hectares (ha), accounting for nearly one-fifth of the rabi crop in the country was damaged due to the unseasonal showers. More than 2 million ha—one-fifth of the wheat-growing area in Uttar Pradesh—is estimated by the farm ministry to be damaged. Farmers complain these figures are a gross underestimation.
Freak weather or trend?
Farmers say the present spell of unseasonal rain is not a one-off event.
“We were waiting for rain last year to sow the (kharif) crop. The rain was delayed by more than a month. Then there were dry spells. Now it has rained in March. Our crop cycle has not changed and we no longer know how to time our crops,” said Vijay Pal Singh, a farmer in his 70s from Baldev block in Mathura.
“We carried out a study last year which showed that extreme events such as hailstorm and unusual rainfall in March have indeed showed an increasing trend in the past decade,” said Chattopadhyay.
“This year, there was a series of western disturbances which affected north India the most. There are many debates going on regarding the cause and we attribute extreme events to climate variability rather than climate change,” he added.
The untimely rain is set to further affect stressed rural income because of a slump in commodity prices. The agricultural growth rate was estimated at 1.1% in 2014-15 compared with 3.7% in the previous year, and overall foodgrain production was estimated to dip by 3% on account of the deficit monsoon in 2014-15.
However, this was before the unseasonal showers in March, which was in excess in 421 out of 641 districts of the country, damaging crops in 14 states.
For a country sitting on large stocks (35 million tonnes—with wheat stocks more than double that of buffer norms), immediate availability of foodgrains may not be a cause of concern. But for farmers like Singh who spent more than Rs.20,000 per acre in input costs, a damaged harvest will mean slipping back into even more debt.
The central agriculture ministry has asked states to use money from their respective state disaster response funds for immediate compensation and request for relief from the centre if these funds fall short.
“The entire process of estimating the extent of loss takes months. State and central governments estimate the damage, then frame rules for compensation. Whatever little reaches a farmer—a year or two later—is insignificant,” said Sudhir Panwar, a professor at Lucknow University and a member of the Uttar Pradesh state planning commission.
“If crop yields can be estimated using advanced techniques like satellite imagery, why can’t crop damage?” he added.
The last time Sahab Singh’s family received any compensation for crop loss was for the drought in 2009. The family received a cheque for Rs.1,000 two years later. They had to pay Rs.150 to middlemen in bribes to get hold of the cheque and encash it.
Vijay Pal Singh, another farmer, summed up the plight of farmers.
“I was a student in 8th standard (in 1957). Our English book had a chapter called ‘The Indian Farmer’. I still remember a line, but have only understood its full import now:
“An Indian farmer is born in debt, lives in debt and dies in debt.”