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India's puny monsoon sparks fears of drought

Published Aug 03, 2012 03:31am

Indian women labourers return after a day's work at a paddy field on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar. — AP Photo
Indian women labourers return after a day's work at a paddy field on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar. — AP Photo

KHERIKHUMMAR: India's monsoon rains that lash the country each summer arrived late and have been feeble this year, leading to hardship for hundreds of millions of farmers like 61-year-old Rameshwar Dayal.

The much-romanticised annual downpour that normally sweeps in at the start of June in the far south of the country is a lifeline for him and about two thirds of the 1.2-billion population who depend on agriculture for their incomes.

But the rains have been so poor that some farmers have decided not to sow crops, spelling more bad news for a slowing economy buffeted by its worst power crisis this week following massive blackouts.

“My fields are completely dry. There have been no rains and I have no artificial irrigation facility to be able to grow food grains,” Dayal told AFP from his village, Kherikhummar, in the northern state of Haryana.

Haryana, along with neighbouring Punjab state, is known as the “bread basket” of India, the source of over 60 per cent of food grains such as wheat, maize, rice and pulses that are grown annually.

It has been one of the worst affected this year with 65 per cent less rain than the long-term average, according to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in New Delhi.

Nation-wide, the monsoon has been more than 20 per cent below its average, sparking fears of drought among farmers who remember vividly the failure of 2009, when India suffered its worst drought in nearly four decades.

Another deficient year would cause more harm to India's slowing economy, which grew at its slowest pace in nine years in the first quarter of the year.

Drought would also further spur rising global food prices. India is the world's biggest producer of pulses and second-biggest producer of rice, sugar and tea.

The rain gods have cheated us

For Dayal, who has a small holding that would normally produce corn, millet, sesame and wheat in the summer, the rains have been so poor that he has decided against even sowing his crop this year.

Others nearby have watched their efforts wilt in the summer heat. Over 30 per cent of total arable land in the area has no direct access to irrigation, according to data collected by CCS Haryana Agricultural University in 2010.

In India as a whole, as much as two thirds of farmland is estimated to be purely rain-fed.

“What is the point of sowing the seeds when you know that there will be no water to irrigate the crops at several stages,” said Dayal, as he smoked a pipe outside his concrete cottage that stands near his parched ancestral lands.

“I cannot waste my seeds and my money,” he added.

Ahead of the monsoon, farmers had been through their usual routine. The land had been ploughed and tractors repaired.

“All our efforts were a waste of energy. The rain gods have cheated us,”said Saroj Singh, a farmer and mother of two.

“There is hardly any work in the fields and there will be no income this season.”

Singh says her husband and her father-in-law are both alcoholics and the family of six depend solely on the income from their eight acres of farmland which brings in about 200,000 rupees every year.

Outside of Haryana and Punjab, western areas such as Maharashtra and Gujarat and parts of southern states have been affected. A total of 306 of India's 620 districts have received less rain than the long-term average.

The great gamble with nature

While the government is yet to declare a drought, it has already offered 19 billion rupees in cash and subsidies to tens of millions of farmers.

It has also rolled out contingency plans to ensure seeds are available to farmers and adequate fodder is supplied for livestock, as well as prioritising drinking water from low-level reservoirs.

Overall this year, there has been a reduction of around eight million hectares in the crop area sown compared to last year when the rains were normal.

“Every year India plays the great gamble with nature. It seems this year Indians will be losing the gamble. Bad rainfall means tremendous losses,” said Ram Kumar, a professor at the CCS Haryana Agricultural University.

Kumar, who works closely with the farmers in the region, said it was almost impossible for farmers to recover from the losses they incur in a bad season.

“They use their savings to meet the household expenses and many even sell their land out of desperation if they do not get any non-farm jobs,” he explained.

Some independent agriculture economists fear a repeat of the drought in 2009 that sent food prices rocketing and caused huge hardship for the country's poor and middle-income groups.

“We will have a considerable adverse impact on agricultural output. This will significantly increase supply-side constraints, negatively affect growth and inflation,” said D Chaudhari, a professor at the Anand Agricultural University in western state of Gujarat.

Chaudhari said this year's monsoon was a picture of contrasts. Excess rainfall in the north-east triggered destructive floods that displaced six million people, while much of the rest of the country has sizzled without regular rains.