Dealing with drought

How have farmers survived two years of inadequate rainfall? What do they think about forecasts of plentiful rains this year? Seetharaman R finds out

A healthy spell of monsoon is long overdue. The last two years were tough for the farming and the rural communities with inadequate rainfall and groundwater levels at all-time lows. Poor harvest slowed the entire rural economy, hampered the agricultural supply chain and its associated industries.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has predicted an above-normal monsoon this year. This prediction has, however, not brought cheer to all farmers.

Testing times

Indian farmers have incurred significant losses in the last two years due to poor monsoon. An unrelenting sun has left their lands parched and severely tested their endurance.

Sennakesavan, a veteran farmer from Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, says, “Last year, we got 318 mm of rainfall, far lower than the 630 mm considered normal. I incurred a loss of ₹10,000 per acre even after getting the government’s aid of ₹3,000 per acre. This year, the crop yield will be 10 per cent less than last year on my 62-acre land.”

The method of measuring loss differs across farmers. Nitin from Pune, whose family owns nearly 200 acres of farm land, says, “The loss per acre may not be quantified only in terms of money. Instead, it can be measured from the number of crops a farmer can harvest in a year. Though farmers can do three crops, many managed to do only one crop last year.” In terms of money, Nitin’s loss was nearly ₹10,000 per acre.

Satyajit, a banker-turned-farmer from Pune, says, “Last year was a complete loss of investment in sugarcane. I invested ₹16 lakh in banana and sugarcane on six acres, but I earned only ₹3.5 lakh. The drought was the worst in the last 50 years.”

The fallout of a weak monsoon and low farm income had a major economic impact over the last two years. Rural spending has been severely hit. “Farmers made good money between 2006 and 2013 and they built houses. But in the last two years, poor farm income has stopped construction of new homes and vehicle purchases completely. Spending on marriages was also cut down. Now, people have no money left to invest in the farm,” says Satyajit.

Doubt and optimism

So, what does the farming community think about the IMD’s positive prediction on the monsoon? The reaction is mixed, ranging from optimism to caution. Nitin thinks that most farmers are looking forward to a good monsoon. They want to borrow, sow crops and get a fixed return. “It is encouraging that farmers want to take loans for the upcoming season and avail crop insurance simultaneously to protect themselves,” he says.

Although sentiment has turned positive due to expectation of a good monsoon, Satyajit thinks that many farmers have run out of money. So they are looking for cheap alternate crops.

“Farmers don’t have the initial capital of ₹30,000 to ₹40,000 to grow sugarcane. So, they plan to sow seasonal crops like bajra and jowar, which will cost them only ₹10,000 per acre, but can earn them good return in a short period of four months,” says Satyajit.

But not everyone is optimistic. Sennakesavan, who has diligently collected rainfall data from 1970 till date, thinks monsoon will be 10 to 15 per cent below last year. He expects Thoothukudi district in Tamil Nadu to get only 250 mm of rainfall this year, far below the normal rainfall of 630 mm. “80 to 85 per cent are rain-fed crops here. So, on account of a bad monsoon, we are trying to sow drought-resistant crops this year.”

He also uses water management techniques from the available ground water to improve his yield.

Sathish, a farmer from Palladam, Tirupur district, Tamil Nadu, is both doubtful and optimistic over the upcoming monsoon. “I hope the south-west monsoon arrives on time. It is the major source of water for the catchments of Parambikulam dam, which irrigates our farm,” says Sathish.

One factor worries all the farmers — the ground water is at historically low levels and the consequences may be dire in the future.

Government pitches in

Satyajit attributes the loss of agricultural wealth to political mismanagement of water canals over a period of time.

According to him, the excellently built water canals in the British era have been completely mismanaged over the last 15-20 years. He says that last year they did not get any water due to water siphoning and absence of embankments.

Both Satyajit and Nitin feel the current government is doing a good job by building workable micro-irrigation projects and restarting stalled irrigation projects. Satyajit thinks that though the government has good intentions and attitude, it still lacks the right feedback mechanism to make changes at the grassroot level.

According to Satyajit, relics of the past continue to torment farmers. The so-called co-operative sugar factories are still run by people of the last government. “Farmers don’t get fair and right remuneration; they do not weigh our produce correctly and give delayed and staggered payments over a period of six to eight months. There is huge corruption in the sugar factories and many farmers have gone to court. Because of this, farmers opt for other cash crops, which they can sell for cash immediately in the market,” says Satyajit.

Meanwhile, apart from the focus on the operational issues, schemes with good economic sense vis-à-vis the local demography will definitely go a long way in encouraging the local economy and save reserves of the government.

“Many sow coconut in this region, thus resulting in excess supply. Consumption of coconut oil needs to be encouraged in place of palm oil. This can help reduce the import of palm oil, thus helping conserve our foreign exchange reserves,” says Sathish.

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