Like cricket, agriculture in India is a game of glorious uncertainties and good timing. And for farmers in large swathes of land across northern India, it’s the timing of rains that has gone wrong this year.
From Bodh Gaya in south Bihar to Farrukhabad in Uttar Pradesh, farmers are fretting over late rains, playing catch-up and trying to save their crops.
When the Magadh region of Bihar got its first showers last week, it triggered a flurry of farm activities. After a quick on-field puja, women headed straight into paddy nursery beds.
“Fast. Don’t waste much time praying. We need to cover 2 acres in the next two days,” Sumesh Singh told his wife as the farmer couple began sowing in their field near the village of Taregna, where tourists flocked to watch the solar eclipse recently.
However, time is not what Singh and farmers like him have on their side. Paddy saplings first need to be grown in small nurseries for 21 days before being transplanted or laid out on the fields. But without timely rains, saplings have over-aged.
Switching to other crops is hardly viable, although that's a common refrain among policymakers these days. Rice is not only the staple crop for people in this region, but it's also the dominant source of livelihood for millions in the impoverished states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar that make up nearly a quarter of the country’s 1.1-billion population.
Till July 29, Bihar had been able to sow only 17 per cent of its target sowing area of about 35 lakh hectares. Countrywide, the area under kharif paddy shrunk to 191 lakh hectares on July 31, compared to last year’s 257 lakh hectares, a drop of 26 per cent. The main shortfall till mid-July was from UP (9 lakh hectares), Bihar (6 lakh hectares), Chattisgarh (6 lakh hectares) and West Bengal (3 lakh hectares), according to government data.
If Singh cannot finish sowing in the next week, he may have to buy foodgrains for the first time in about three years.
With 14 mouths to feed, he is surely headed for a debt trap, like thousands others.
With no rainfall, he hired five labourers to bore a deep well for irrigation. The plumbing cost a flat Rs. 20,000, money he borrowed from a private lender. Seeds for “Sonam”, a fine rice variety, came for Rs. 17,200. For his three-acre farm, he needed 36 kg of seeds; each costing Rs. 480. The input cost: a tidy Rs. 37,200.
The story is no different in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, where the government has already declared 47 of the 71 districts drought-hit.
Even in Punjab and Haryana, where the dependence on rains is minimal, farmers are facing hard times as the delay in monsoon has forced authorities to ration water for irrigation so to keep water reservoirs from drying up.
In Bihar’s breadbasket of Rohtas, the water level in the lifeline Son river, the only one in the country that flows north, is running low. “We have been able to release 13,000 cusecs only after 14 July. During normal monsoon, we usually release above 20,000 cusecs,” assistant engineer at Rohtas’s Inderpuri barrage, PC Prasad, said.
This means even Rohtas, which feeds Bihar, will face about 20 per cent dip in output, according to agriculture officer Subhash Sharma.
Farms in neighbouring Gaya district are failing. The district’s paddy target area was 1.96 lakh hectares for 2008-09. “Sowing has been done on about 975 hectares till July 27,” district agriculture officer PK Mishra said. This works out to just 0.5 per cent.
Barho Mandal, a share-cropper in Gaya’s Matayani village, said he has no idea on how to make ends meet this year.
Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment, is a “land of rivers without water, hills without trees and men without wisdom”, goes a popular local saying. Now, said Mandal gazing over his bare field, "you have farms without crops”.