More than three weeks after the heavy unseasonal downpour and hailstorm flattened vast swathes of standing crop in north and western India, the farming community is still counting its losses.
While centralised data to assess the real loss of life and livelihood is still trickling in, a largely unreported human tragedy is unfolding in the hinterlands since the first week of March.
A rising number of farmer suicides, shock deaths and distress sales of farm produce and even land to pay off debts, is being reported from some of the worst-hit states such as Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. The bad news is that the Met department predicts another spell of unseasonal rains between March 29 and April 1-2.
Croplands in Tindwani village of Barabanki district, barely 30 km from UP capital Lucknow, resemble a rotting wasteland. Rabi crops like wheat, cereals, mustard, vegetables and flowers, all lie dead or decaying in the fields. “Aaj poore gaon mein matam hai (the whole village is in mourning),” said Baale, a farm labourer.
The trail of destruction that started mid-February in some parts and carried on till mid-March took the farmers by surprise. The sudden rise in temperature after the rain havoc sped up the decomposition of water-logged crops. “Now, whatever is left in the field is not even fit for cattle fodder,” laments Sovindra Singh, another farmer from Tindwani.
Unofficial reports say nearly 50 farmers have either committed suicide or died of shock in UP. A preliminary survey by the state agricultural department claims that in the 26 rain-hit districts, the wheat crop has been decimated by 21%, pulses by 22-23% and oilseeds by 20%. However, the overall statewide average loss is no more than 2%.
While the Centre and state governments have announced separate compensations of Rs 4,500 per hectare of non-irrigated land and Rs 9,000 per hectare of irrigated land, for a majority of the farmers, this amounts to zilch. The terms of compensation, from the government and insurance companies, entail that to qualify, a farmer’s total sown area must have been destroyed by more than 50%.
What the above statistics mean is that those with small land-holdings, which is the case in most of eastern UP, have nowhere to turn to. Jaint Ram of Barabanki’s Tindwani village is a case in point. His family was elated after getting Rs 40,000 as loan from a rural bank for farming.
A few days later, more good news came when the local kisan society agreed to give them 70 bags of fertiliser on credit (each bag costing Rs 1,200). But the freak rains have now pushed them to bankruptcy.
“We are left with nothing. We do not have a way out,” says Jaint Ram.
Geeta Devi from the same village echoes the inevitable that stares all of them: “Selling the land is the only option left. I do not have anything left to clear the debts.”
In distant Maharashtra, it’s a double whammy. A long-standing drought in 226 of the 355 talukas last year and the unseasonal rains this March have crippled the farmers. Standing crops like wheat, jowar, chickpea, as well as mango orchards, vineyards, and pomegranates, have all been badly hit. Farmer suicides have spiked in the cotton-belt of Vidarbha. At the country’s largest onion mandi in Nashik, the crop has crashed from a high of Rs 16 per kg to Rs 11 per kg. Prices of grapes, earlier selling at Rs 100 per kg, have dropped by 50% in the wholesale market. The state has put the total loss at more than Rs 1,000 crores.
The crop damage in Maharashtra spans the districts of Pune, Nashik, Amravati, Bhandara, Ratnagiri and Raigad.
The state government has declared a Rs 7,000 crore short-term relief package, with finance minister Sudhir Mungantiwar saying that the state’s share of Rs 4,000 crore has already been disbursed.
In Rajasthan 4,247 villages in 28 districts were affected by the unseasonal rains. In 3,102 of these, the damage to crops has been more than 50%. The affected crops include cumin, isabgol, wheat, gram, mustard, barley, garlic and coriander.
There were 34 rain-related deaths in Rajasthan, including two shock deaths and two suicides. Prabhulal, 45, of Amora village in Kota district is a shattered man. The ruined wheat crop in his nine bighas of land has upset all his calculations. “I had planned the wedding of my two daughters, Girija (19) and Pooja (18) this year. But now I don’t even have the money to feed my family,” says Prabhulal.
As the political wrangle over compensation and relief plays out in Parliament and state assemblies, for the farmers dependent on subsistence agriculture it’s a long way to normalcy. As Sriram of Barabanki’s Tindwani village puts it: “I don’t want my children to be farmers. I don’t want them to struggle every day to earn two square meals.”(With inputs from Masoodul Hasan, Brijendra Parashar & Oliver Fredrick in Lucknow; Rakesh Goswami in Jaipur, and Shailesh Laxman Gaikwad in Mumbai)