Of drought, floods and havoc

Harish Damodaran Satyanarayan Iyer | Updated on November 24, 2017

The extreme weather that has assailed the country over the last few years has crippled agricultural productivity and taken a human toll. Unable to repay debt and make ends meet, many farmers are taking their own lives.

In 2013, India had a copybook South-West monsoon and surplus post-monsoon/winter rainfall in most parts of the country. As a result, there was an all-round increase in sowing of most crops — farmers had every reason to expect a bumper harvest. But just when everything seemed set, they were hit by an abnormal weather system.

Western disturbances originating from the Mediterranean Sea are a normal phenomenon in January and February and are useful for the rabi crop, contributing to winter rainfall, especially in North-Western India and the Indo-Gangetic plains.

However, this time, the rains were unusually intense and spread to lower latitudes, into western and central India. These disturbances, interacting with moist south-easterly winds from the Bay of Bengal, caused heavy rains and hailstorms.

As a result, large areas where crops were just weeks away from harvesting — wheat, chana and lentils in Madhya Pradesh, mustard in Rajasthan and grapes and onions in Maharashtra — were destroyed.

The climate change vulnerability index ranks India twentieth in the list of countries that will be impacted by weather-related events in the next 10 years.

If it was drought not enabling farmers to even sow in 2009, this time round it has been excess and unseasonal rains, when the crop is almost harvest-ready. In 2013, Bihar again bore the brunt of floods, when the massive flooding of its rivers, including the Kosi, destroyed crops and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Cyclone Phailin caused an estimated $4.15 billion of damage to the agriculture and power sectors in Odisha. Up to 1 million tonnes of rice was destroyed by the storm.

The extreme weather that has assailed the country in the last few years has crippled farm productivity and taken a human toll.

Many farmers do not insure their crop (see: Time they took cover) and have no safety net to see them through such events. Unable to make ends meet, they either give up farming, or in extreme conditions, take their own lives.

The response from governments has always been poor, with the demand for assistance more than what is on offer.

The Agriculture Ministry records that between 2008 and 2012, for every ₹100 demanded by State governments as compensation for drought, the Central government granted about ₹10.

Unless drastic measures are taken and the disaster-response mechanism improves, the country stands the risk of seeing its farm output falling sharply.

This, in turn, will create food shortages, spur inflation, and increase the dependence on imports at a time when the country is trying to rein in deficit spending.

Published on March 31, 2014

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