Myth of a normal monsoon: Deficient rainfall has farmers staring at loss

By August, farming in 18 states was either hit by floods or less rainfall. But this won’t affect the overall food security, says the government which is likely to soon declare the southwest monsoon as normal.

india Updated: Sep 19, 2017 10:18 IST
Jatin Gandhi
Jatin Gandhi
Hindustan Times, Sonipat
monsoon,monsoon in India,rain in India
Ompal Singh Aanchal at his farm in Khurari village of Sonipat district in Haryana. (Raj K Raj / HT Photo)

Ompal Singh Aanchal’s two-acre farm in Kurar Ibrahimpur village of Haryana’s Sonipat is a sight every farmer dreads — a partially-withered crop of sorghum, locally called jowar.

“My jowar has dried up,” he says, cursing no one in particular.

“This time we got good rain in the beginning but the last good spell was a month ago.”

Rain is crucial for sorghum that 62-year-old Aanchal mostly uses as fodder for his six buffaloes. He also has a standing crop of rice on another three acres that needs a lot more water.

Sonipat, however, has seen deficient rainfall for five straight weeks at 36% below normal for this period.

The first five weeks of the monsoon season beginning June 1 recorded excess rainfall ranging between 44% and 317%.

The southwest monsoon is the lifeblood for India’s farm sector, delivering 70% of the country’s annual rainfall, and is crucial for an estimated 263 million farmers.

Poor monsoon rainfall is bad news for the farmer and ultimately for the economy with nearly half of India’s population dependent on farm income.

The India Meteorological De partment (IMD) maps 660 districts — divided into 36 meteorological sub-divisions — for rainfall from June 1 to September 30, the official monsoon season in the country.

Lifeblood of the farm sector
The southwest monsoon delivers 70% of the country’s annual rainfall and is crucial for an estimated 263 million farmers

Sonipat lies in Haryana, Chandigarh and Delhi sub-division with 31 districts, of which 19 have seen deficient rainfall, more than 20% below normal, for four straight weeks or more now.

In neighbouring western Uttar Pradesh too, rainfall has been deficient, after intermittent spells of excessive rain.

By the end of August, according to data collected by the ministry of agriculture’s crop division, farming in as many as 18 states was either hit by floods that damaged crops and homes or less rainfall that is likely to affect yield marginally.

“Overall food security will not be affected. Rice output could drop a little but we have sufficient stocks,” a senior official said.

In less than two weeks’ time, the government will likely declare the 2017 spell of the southwest monsoon normal. At the current six per cent deficit for the long period average (LPA) of June 1 to September 30, the monsoon is normal, IMD officials say.

That is, if you consider the vast country with 142 million hectares of agricultural land as one unit. Less than half of this land is under institutional irrigation, agriculture ministry records show.

But as of September 17, of the 630 districts for which the IMD received data, 109 districts had excess or large excess rainfall; 274 districts had normal rainfall and 247 had deficient or large deficient rainfall.

Experts say the LPA hides the distress that erratic rainfall brings by averaging out the deviations across regions and time periods. The range of -20% to +20% of average rainfall over an area qualifies as normal.

“We are seeing a reduced number of rainy days and more concentrated rainfall in a few days. This sort of assessment hides regional and spatial disparities,” says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general at the environment think tank, Centre for Science and Environment.

Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh are food bowl regions with greater resilience to vagaries of nature because of the prosperity brought in by the green revolution, experts add.

These areas have borewells to tap into the ground water aquifers for irrigation when rains fail. There is not much drop in the yield yet the cost of production spikes compounding farmers’ distress.

Aanchal says selling milk will see his family through but this year will be about living hand to mouth.

Nearly 700km away, farmers in the chronically distressed Bundelkhand region with 13 districts spread over parts of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh await a worse fate.

Dayaram Ahirwar of Bansiya village in Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar is yet to repay the Rs 60,000 loan he took using his Kisaan Credit Card in 2016. His soyabean crop was destroyed last year by untimely rains and the Rs 11,000 he got as crop insurance was just not enough to pay back the loan.

This June, Ahirwar invested Rs 5,000 to sow urad in two acres of his farm and then took up another five acres on contract to try and recover his lost money.

It is mid-September and the 55-year-old stands in the middle of his field, surrounded by drying plants. He knows there aren’t enough pods and “the yield will be poor”. Ahirwar is a marginal farmer — owning less than 2.5 acres.

Even with a landholding of 28 acres, Bhanu Tiwari, 28, is not assured of good returns. He invested Rs 75,000 and sowed 2.5 quintal urad seeds because the pulse had fetched farmers up to Rs 12,000 per quintal in the local market last year.

The prospect of a poor yield this time has upset his plans.

Sagar district has seen five straight weeks of deficient rainfall after a normal bout of seven weeks.

AK Nema, deputy director of the state’s agriculture department told HT that the kharif crop — which includes mainly soybean and urad — was sown in around 4 lakh hectares this year but “insufficient rainfall” has affected it badly.

In coastal Karnataka sub-division that has three districts, Dakshin Kannada recorded 10 straight weeks of deficient rainfall till September 7 and Uttar Kannada, seven. But the overall deficit of 18% is within the “normal range”.

Prakash Kammaradi, chairman of the Karnataka State Agricultural Prices Commission, says the region is badly affected by poor rainfall this year.

“There has been long-term damage done to plantation crops like areca nut and tender coconut that are grown here,” he adds.

Bhushan warns that chronically distress-prone regions like Vidarbha, Marathwada and Bundelkhand are sensitive to smaller variations in rainfall.

The government estimates it will meet last year’s record food grain production this kharif season as well.

“That is the best optimistic scenario that the government is looking at,” said Ashok Gulati, agriculture chair professor at Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.

(With inputs from Punya Priya Mitra in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, and Vikram Gopal in Bengaluru, Karnataka)

First Published: Sep 19, 2017 08:28 IST