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Delayed monsoon, drought scare, bonded labour: Indian farmers' 'journey to hell'

'For me, my wife and two sons and two daughters, the journey to hell has already started. Our stomachs will be half empty soon,' a farmer affected by late monsoon.

india Updated: Jul 20, 2014 12:31 IST

Indian farmer Asghar Bhura scrapes a living by growing sugarcane, but this year's late monsoon has left his tiny plot parched and he will earn nothing from his harvest.

Bhura will have to go and work for a big grower to feed his family of six, making 250 rupees a day, as he did when India suffered its last severe drought in 2009.

"I have no option but to become a bonded labourer just to feed my family one meal a day," said Bhura, 50, looking at his stunted crop on his third of a hectare of land.

A Farmer walks in his sugarcane field in Shamli, in Uttar Pradesh. REUTERS

Bhura's borderline existence is shared by many farmers in the district of Shamli, in the sugarcane belt of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, three hours' drive north of the capital New Delhi.

With this year's monsoon rains several weeks late, the world's second-largest sugar and rice producer is on the verge of widespread drought in the face of a developing Pacific Ocean weather event known as El Nino, which is often associated with drought in South Asia.

In good years, the four-fifths of local farmers who tend a hectare or less, can get by. In bad years, they slide into debt. Some lose their land. Others are forced into servitude.

Hunger for land and water feeds social tensions. In nearby Muzaffarnagar, communal clashes last year killed about 65 people, most of them Muslims, and displaced thousands more.

Farmers plant rice saplings in a field in Shamli, in Uttar Pradesh. REUTERS

India's farm sector accounts for about 14% of the economy but two thirds of its 1.2 billion people depend on farming to live. Most poor live on the land. Areas that lack irrigation are most vulnerable when the rains fail.

Although the national weather office said on Thursday that the monsoon had covered all of India, rainfall in the first six weeks of the wet season has been more than a third below normal.

A poor monsoon could raise imports of cooking oil to India, the leading buyer of vegetable oils. The country may also cede its position as top rice exporter to Thailand.

Cane and basmati rice fields in Shamli, a district carved out of Muzaffarnagar three years ago, showed gaping cracks on a recent visit.

"For me, my wife and two sons and two daughters, the journey to hell has already started. Our stomachs will be half empty soon," said Bhura, whose gaunt face and unkempt beard betrayed anxiety and exhaustion.

A farmer plants rice saplings next to a sugarcane crop at a field in Shamli. REUTERS


Even if the monsoon revives during the rest of the planting month of July, farmers here expect losses of at least a fifth in summer-sown crops like rice, corn, cane, soybean and cotton.

India harvested 348 million tonnes of cane last year, with an average sugar content of 11%.

Productivity in Uttar Pradesh typically lags that of other growing regions like subtropical Maharashtra due to poorer soils and a less favourable climate. Another two weeks without rain could lower both tonnage and sugar content, possibly to 8 percent, local farmers reckon.

Farmers worry the impact this year could be worse than five years ago, when India suffered its worst drought in four decades. Subsequent supply shortages from the country pushed New York sugar prices to 30-year highs.

A Farmer works in his sugarcane field in Shamli, in Uttar Pradesh. REUTERS

"The rains improved in early July five years ago, but this year the dryness stretched beyond the second week of July," said Yogendra Singh, who mainly grows cane on five hectares of land.

Cane fields here are irrigated with water from canals built during British colonial rule. But the sturdy crop, planted twice a year, only blooms when it rains regularly.

"Canal water can initiate sowing activities in cane but water from the sky is vital for the nourishment and growth of the crop," said Singh, who retired from the Indian Air Force two decades ago to join his three brothers in farming.

Though production will fall this year, India will not have to trawl the global market for sugar because of surpluses piled up over the past four years.

A Farmer works in his sugarcane field in Shamli, in Uttar Pradesh. REUTERS


Other farmers are turning away from cane to other crops that they hope will safeguard their incomes.

"I have switched to cultivation of banana as it promises much higher returns than cane or basmati rice," said Nameet Panwar, 24, who is just starting out farming one hectare of his family's land.

Panwar expects to earn a minimum of 1 million rupees from growing bananas, he says, more than twice that of cane even if the sugar plant is harvested twice a year.

Responding to the late monsoon, local authorities have put contingency plans into action, including providing quick-growing seed varieties of pulses to growers and ensuring adequate supplies of pesticides and insecticides at farmers' doorsteps.

"We too have in place a drought contingency plan to mitigate any situations arising due to rainfall that is 50 % below normal," said district magistrate NP Singh. Marginal farmers would be given work digging wells.

A man lies on a heap of fodder, which was removed from a sugarcane field, on a cart pulled by a bull in Muzaffarnagar. REUTERS

India's weak monsoon delays sowing of summer crops - Govt data

India's weak monsoon has delayed sowing of summer-sown crops such as rice, corn, cotton, pulses and oilseeds, government data showed on July 18.

Deficit in monsoon rainfall is expected to narrow next week as the grain bowl in the country's northwest, oilseed areas of central parts and cotton belt of the western region are set to get a higher downpour.

The table below gives the area sown with various crops between June 1 and July 17, in million hectares.

CROP Normal Area 2014 2013
* Rice 15.49 12.74 15.42
* Corn 5.60 2.73 6.63

* Pulses 4.31 2.16 5.42
-Tur 1.72 0.97 2.22
-Urd 0.98 0.36 1.30

* Oilseed 10.14 3.81 13.66
-Soybean 7.27 1.95 10.32
-Groundnut 2.23 1.52 2.69

* Cane 4.54 4.61 4.62
* Cotton 9.22 5.60 10.05
Source: Agriculture Ministry
* Adjusted

A farmer sows paddy in a field near Allahabad. AFP

Late monsoon impacts storage position of major reservoirs - The central water commission report

Late arrival of monsoon has it's impact on the storage position of major reservoirs which is less than what it was last year and also lower than the average storage of last 10 years.

The Central Water Commission on July 18, this month, said the water storage available in 85 important reservoirs of the country as on July 17 was 39.995 billion cubic meters (BCM) which is 26% of total storage capacity of these reservoirs.

This storage is 61% of the storage of corresponding period of last year and 87% of storage of average of last 10 years.

"The present storage position during current year is less than storage position of last year and also less than the average storage of last 10 years," an official statement said.

A laborer drinks water as others await their turn as they work in a paddy field on the outskirts of Ahmadabad. AP

Central Water Commission monitors live storage status of 85 important reservoirs of the country on weekly basis.

These reservoirs include 37 reservoirs having hydropower benefit with installed capacity of more than 60 MW.

Punjab and Chhattisgarh have better storage than last year for corresponding period. States having lesser storage than last year for corresponding period are Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Tripura, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the Commission said.

The crucial Southwest Monsoon has finally covered the whole country reaching west Rajasthan, Saurashtra and Kutch region and the North Arabian Sea after a two-day delay.

The Southwest Monsoon has further advanced into remaining parts of north Arabian Sea, Saurashtra and Kutch, Gujarat region and west Rajasthan. Thus, it covered the entire country today," the Indian Meteorological Department had said yesterday.

But there are problems ahead because of the delay of monsoon in other parts.

This year, monsoon has been delayed by two days than its normal date of July 15 on which it usually covers west Rajasthan, the Kutch and Saurashtra regions and the North Arabian sea.

However, the weather department maintains that there has been no delay in the monsoon.

A laborer transplants paddy saplings in a field on the outskirts of Ahmadabad. AFP

Ground water levels are decreasing: Govt report

The ground water levels invarious parts of the country are declining and the state governments have been advised to take suitable remedial measures in this regard, the government told the Lok Sabha on July 17.

Replying to a question, Minister of State for Water Resources Santosh Kumar Gangwar said the comparison of ground water data, as monitored by the Central Ground Water Board, for the pre-monsoon 2013 with decadal mean of the monsoon (2003-2012) indicates that 56 per cent of the wells show a decline in ground water level.

"As per the latest assessment (2011), out of 6,607 assessment units (blocks/mandala/talukas/districts) in the country, 1,071 units falling in 15 states and 2 Union Territories have been categorised as 'over-exploited', based inter-alia, on declining ground water level," he said.

The minister also said the state governments have been advised to take suitable remedial measures to check ground water exploitation and ensure recharge of aquifers in water- stressed areas.

A farmer laughs and walks past a paddy field at Phoolpur, about 40 kilometers east of Allahabad. AP

(The story is based on multiple REUTERS and PTI reports spread across three days; July 20, 18 and 17 of this year. Relevant dates are mentioned in each report.)

First Published: Jul 20, 2014 11:54 IST