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Heat, hardship and Punjab’s bitter harvest

A farmer cools off with a bucket of water while working at a wheat farm in Ludhiana district of Punjab. A blistering heat wave has scorched wheat fields in India and reduced yields.  (Photo: Bloomberg)Premium
A farmer cools off with a bucket of water while working at a wheat farm in Ludhiana district of Punjab. A blistering heat wave has scorched wheat fields in India and reduced yields.  (Photo: Bloomberg)

  • Wheat farmers in the state struggle as extreme weather leads to falling yields, and desperate measures
  • Agriculture will become more uncertain in the future. Experts suggest re-doing farming plans, cropping patterns and investing in research to create stress-tolerant crop varieties.

PUNJAB/NEW DELHI : April in north India is a season of approaching bounty – the wheat crop ripens under a spring breeze, and the fields turn many shades of gold. But this year, a sudden spike in temperatures left the crop shrivelled. Wheat was harvested from the fields 15 days ahead of schedule, to save whatever was left from the swirls of hot, steaming air. For several farmers such as Ramandeep Singh, whatever they could salvage was not enough.

A small farmer in Bajak village in Punjab’s Bathinda district, Singh owned four acres of farmland. This year, he had taken a loan of 6 lakh to lease 12 acres of land to grow wheat, expecting yields of 20-22 quintals per acre. The extreme heat not only singed the quality of the grain, but also shrunk yields. About 30% of the crop was lost, say the family members of the 35-year-old farmer.

On an unusually hot Baisakhi day, when the village had gathered at a mela to celebrate the harvest festival, Singh left for his fields. He dragged himself back two hours later, hurled himself on the cot and started vomiting. “Main jahreli dawa peeli aa (I have drunk pesticide)," Ramandeep told the doctors later. His family rushed him first to a government hospital and then to a private hospital, where he died on 18 April. He had left no suicide note, but his family members say he had been depressed over his financial situation.

“The wheat crop was the last straw. Before that, there had been one loss after another. They forced him to take his life," says his brother Jagvir. The farmer had defaulted on a 4 lakh loan from the Punjab National Bank, and he owed another 6 lakh to a middleman. Deputy commissioner of Bathinda, Showkat Ahmed Parry, told the media the reason for Singh’s suicide “does not appear to be a fall in the yield of crop."

But Singh was not alone. Several farmer suicides were reported that month as wheat yields crashed; estimates by some farmer unions put the figure at 14. For the majority farmers of Punjab, the crucible of the Green Revolution, where wheat and paddy account for 85% of area under cultivation, and where agricultural incomes have been on a decline, this summer was just another example of the rising risks of the farming life.

The tipping point

Wheat is a rabi crop, generally sown between October and December. It is highly heat-sensitive; the two months of February-March are crucial for the grain’s development, when wheat kernels plump up with starch and protein. “Temperature over 34 degrees can lead to shortfalls in yields, depending on the intensity, area and duration of exposure," explains Mariam Zachariah, a climate scientist and research associate at the Imperial College London, who studied the impact of heat stress on the productivity of wheat in the states of Indo-Gangetic Plains.

During March this year, northwest and central India experienced two back-to-back early heat waves —the first from 11- 19 March, followed by another from 27-31 March. Average temperatures in north India in March-April went up by 4.5 - 6.4 degrees Celsius, often crossing 37 degrees. The Government of India, in a notification, announced March 2022 as the hottest since 1901, the year the colonial government started maintaining temperature records.

Research carried out by scientists from India, UK, Norway and China and published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Research last year found that heat stress events are increasing in India’s wheat belt, which can lead to losses in yield ranging from 1% to 8%; absence of irrigation facilities is likely to increase that figure manifold, leading to losses between 4% and 36%. “If you look at long-term records, the high temperatures we are witnessing this year have been exacerbated by climate change," says Zachariah.

For years now, climate scientists have been warning that extreme weather events can have consequences for the world’s food security, and social and economic development. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) sixth assessment report, 2022, says climate change “is projected to negatively impact the four pillars of food security – availability, access, utilisation and stability. Low-income producers and consumers are likely to be most affected because of a lack of resources to invest in adaptation and diversification measures." Regions in Africa, Asia and South America are likely to be particularly vulnerable. While agricultural production may increase in colder, high-altitude regions, the crop yields are likely to decrease in tropical and subtropical regions, the report warned.

We are already seeing some of that playing out. The repercussions of this year’s March heat wave, for example, rippled out from the fields of Punjab to the international market. The war in Ukraine triggered a global wheat shortage.

India, the second-largest wheat producer of the world, stepped up to make up for the supply disruptions from Russia, promising “to feed the world". As prices of the grain soared across the world, India exported a record 1.4 million tonnes of wheat this April (compared to the 2.4 lakh tonnes in April 2021) – and was set to sell more.

But the heat-shrunk crop forced a swift change in plans. In Punjab, surveys carried out by the state’s agricultural department, reported by several newspapers, suggested that the heat wave shaved off yields by at least 5 quintals per acre. Eventually, the central government had to revise the estimate of wheat production from 111.32 million tonnes to 105 mt – a fall from last year. Jitters about domestic food inflation and food security finally led India to abruptly ban all wheat exports on 14 May. While India’s decision was not received well by the world, according to Sukhpal Singh, economist at Punjab Agricultural University, “exporting a sizable amount of wheat may have reduced the supply of foodgrains in the country, increasing poverty in an already struggling economy".

For the government, the hard choices between farmer profits and food security will continue to come up. A recent report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) on climate change and food systems predicts a 16% drop in India’s food production, and warns that the number of those at risk for hunger could increase 23% by 2030 due to climate change.

For small farmers like Ramandeep Singh, the tumult in global wheat markets had little effect on their fortunes. “Most of the farmers sold all the wheat only at the MSP of 2,015 per quintal," says Harinder Singh, a wheat farmer, who is also a representative of Bharatiya Kisan Union in Bathinda. Only those who had godowns to store the grain, and wait for the prices to rise higher, would have benefitted, he said. But wheat yields have fallen across the board, and even large farmers have seen their calculations go awry.

A trail of damage

In Punjab, conversations with farmers reveal a trail of damage from the changes in weather. This is hardly surprising. Climate change will potentially leave no aspect of agriculture untouched – from changes in soil and water to the behaviour of pests, from the health and productivity of livestock to the fall in the nutritional value of food.

For example, a farmer from Barnala district, Jailawar Singh, rued that the potato crop this year had shrunk in weight and quality. Another farmer reported that the milk yields of cattle had reduced by 1-2 litres, as had the yield of cattle feed he grows on his 2-acre farm. According to farmer Gurcharan Singh, who grows moong (green gram lentil) on the borders of Bathinda and Barnala, the pesticides he used were ineffectual this year, leading to a severe damage to this crop. “Heat not only impacts the pests’ behaviour but also the efficacy of chemicals used to treat the disease in the crops," says Mukesh Kumar Dhillon, principal scientist, entomology, at Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi. As plants and pests modify their physicochemical properties to fight extreme weather events, the ideal condition for the chemicals to work no longer exists. That is to say, the pesticides become less and less effective.

In many ways, Ramandeep Singh’s story is one of several small climate-related shocks adding up to a disaster. Last year, the Bathinda farmer had taken six acres on lease to grow cotton. But his harvest had been ruined by an attack of pink bollworm—an expert committee set up by the Punjab government found that the infection was a result of a new pest strain and exceptionally high rainfall and had destroyed 70% of the crop across Bathinda.

“All crops are sensitive to heat waves, especially vegetables. But since wheat is one of the most grown crops, its impacts are far-reaching and widely talked about," says Pavneet Kaur Kingra, head, department of climate change and agricultural meteorology, at Punjab Agriculture University.

In Punjab, as agricultural incomes fall and indebtedness rises, the lack of a safety net will only multiply risks from climate vagaries, and make more farmers vulnerable. For instance, the state’s farmers are not covered by crop insurance. Punjab and some other states, including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Telangana and West Bengal, have exited the Prime Minister Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) launched in 2016, which would have secured oilseed and food crops from both natural and unnatural disasters. But several farmers fault the scheme on several counts— high premiums; untimely, insufficient and delayed compensation and a faulty technique to assess crop loss. Under the scheme, a farmer is compensated on the basis of the average of crop loss in a notified area. “If a pest, a hailstorm or an animal damages my crop, shouldn’t I get the compensation, irrespective of what happened on my neighbour’s farm ?" asks Harinder.

“In the digital world when we can identify and map remote places using technology, why do crop insurance companies still estimate loss by working on the average production of village panchayats ?" says Devinder Sharma, a food policy expert based in Punjab. He recommends that the state compensate farmers for losses, and encourage crop diversity by introducing more assured public buy-back schemes.

How to weather the future

Climate change is not going to be a smooth transition, It’s going to be a bumpy ride," warns K S Kavi Kumar, professor at Madras School of Economics. While the mean temperature is likely to go up over several years, climate change will be experienced as a series of heat spikes and shocks. “And we are absolutely unprepared for these short-term transitions," says Kumar.

The IPCC has warned that climate change will affect the poorer, hotter and low-lying countries disproportionately. But the resources to weather the crisis must come from the developed world, argues Harjeet Singh, senior advisor, Climate Action Network International. “There is a narrowing window of opportunity for climate resilient development, which means that adaptation has to be skilled up across the world, this is where developing countries need to be supported. This heat wave highlighted the fact that even large developing countries like India are not prepared and globally we have not done enough to provide money, technology or capacity building in time," he says. Government policies must quickly respond to extremes in weather and invest in early warning systems, say experts.

“We might have to re-plan and reassess the global crop pattern to suit the changing temperatures," says Singh, the economist from PAU. He explains this might also mean a shift in the types of crops grown, cropping patterns and duration and, most importantly, investing in research to find stress-tolerant crop varieties that can cope with extreme temperatures.

For Ramandeep Singh’s family, the choices are stark. Saddled with debts, the responsibility of educating his brother’s children, Jagvir has even thought of selling the land. He will not be alone. “Almost everyone in the village I know is losing their farm lands," says Harinder. The spiral of unprofitable farm income, increased dependency on loans and climate insecurity might make it even harder for Punjab’s farmers to stay on in their fields.

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