Drought wreaks havoc on Indian farmers

A punishing drought in western India is hurting livestock farmers as the region experiences water shortages.

India drought

She is 11 years old and lives in Bonewadi, a small town in Maharashtra, with her mother, two sisters and one brother. She is in grade six and walks 3km to attend school. In the evening, she walks 7km to feed her cattle at a camp. Meet Asha, a young girl born in a farmer’s family that owns 11 acres of land, which is usually sufficient to earn enough money to make a living under normal conditions.

Then there is Digambar Pandurang Atpadkar, a 70-year-old farmer who owns 60 acres of land and four wells in Vartuke Malwade, a small village, also in Maharashtra, India’s second most populous state. He and his wife have walked 10km to reach the cattle camp, which offers emergency food and shelter, to save their eight animals. 

 India’s Satara district parched by drought

Asha and Atpadkar are just two among the many who have been hit by drought in India. And surprisingly, majority of the farmers and cattle taking refuge in the cattle camp are from Mann taluk in Satara district – that has 21 cattle camps this year – which is under the parliamentary constituency of Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, who recently claimed to have spent millions of rupees supporting irrigation facilities in Maharashtra.

Moreover, Mann taluk is also adjacent to the sugar belt – sugarcane is an infamously water-intensive crop – which politicians consider their stronghold, having poured in a lion’s share of Maharashtra’s development funds here. Yet, the region, popularly known as Manndesh in local folklore, continues to remain at the mercy of whimsical rains.

Triggering concerns of poor farm output and higher inflation, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) has predicted less rain from June to September. “We expect 15 per cent shortfall in the seasonal rains,” LS Rathore, the director general of the IMD, told reporters.

Animals affected

The drought, India’s first since 2009, will not cause a shortage of staples as the nation’s grain stores are overflowing with rice and wheat, and sugar output is set to exceed demand for a third straight year. But the drought will deal a devastating blow to grain crops used for animal feed. That would badly hit the vast majority of the country’s farmers, whose only assets are often cattle and small landholdings. Many of these farmers struggle to survive at the best of times and the drought could push them over the edge. 

Quick Facts

– Agricultural sector output accounts for 20 per cent of the Indian GDP

– Between June 1 and August 5, the monsoon rain has been 17 per cent lower, according to the IMD

– If the rainfall records below 90 per cent of the 50-year average, it is considered deficient or “drought”

– Four states – Karnataka, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra – are facing drought-like situation

– A cattle camp provides farmers with cattle feed, fodder, shelter for their animals, allowing them to maintain what little resources they have by keeping their animals alive.

– In New Delhi, the retail price of gram dal has increased to Rs 67 ($1.20) per kg from Rs 53 ($0.95) per kg, tur dal from Rs 70 ($1.26) to Rs 74 ($1.33) per kg, masoor dal by Rs 8 ($0.14) to Rs 61 ($1.09) per kg and sugar to Rs 39 ($0.70) per kg from Rs 35 ($0.63) per kg three months back  

“The cattle population would be adversely affected due to marginal availability of green fodders… But the food grains will be supplied through the public distribution systems to the families below poverty lines, which would help the families living in poverty to cope with the situation,” Amar Nayak, a spokesperson for the development organisation Action Aid, told Al Jazeera. 

Four states – Karnataka, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra – are facing drought-like situations. 

“We are here because there is no water in our village. Neither for the animals, nor for us. Our cattle get sugarcane, corn, fodder, dry fodder, green fodder; we get rice and pulses here,” said Atpadkar, who left his house and land to save the lives of his cattle, his most valuable possessions. 

Cattle camps

The Mann Deshi Camp has rescued more than 11,000 animals from going to butcher shops. People are migrating to other places in search not of work, but of water for their animals. “Farmers here are ready to buy fodder, pledging their gold,” Chetna Gala-Sinha, the founder and president of the Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, the only women’s bank in rural Maharashtra, which has set up the cattle camp, told Al Jazeera. “But ask us how and where to buy water?” The problem is not just money, Gala-Sinha said, but a lack of available water. 

When men migrate in search of better opportunities for their animals, women turn to the cattle camps and now the camp has given shelter to more than 3,500 families from the nearby villages. Looking like a small township in itself, the cattle camp, spread across the five acres of land originally meant for the housing colony for poor villagers, provides nearly 350,000-400,000 litres of water and 140 tonnes of fodder to the animals every day.

All the wells in the region have dried up due to what experts say the “mismanagement of water”. When Atpadkar was asked why he left behind his house and land and took shelter in the camp, he says: “Why? What do we eat there? Soil? There’s no food, no water… We take this as our home. Death is inevitable, here or there. If our animals die, what are we left with?”

India is naturally prone to drought. “Particularly in the areas removed from the core monsoon – that is in the northwest of the country – the average recurrence time of droughts is 8 to 10 years,” explained Upmanu Lall, the director of Columbia Water Centre at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “Severe droughts occur about every 30 years. The 2009 drought was not a major event.”

And women like Sheelabai Digambar Atpadkar, 60, has no other option but to find a way to save her family assets. She walked 16km with her animals to reach the camp. When asked about the situation in her village, she said: “The water tanker comes once in 15 days. My six cows need more than 200 litres of water every day. Where can we store this? If I sell my cattle, I will lose my lifetime savings.”

Chance for recovery

Meanwhile, there are reports blaming the IMD for not predicting the monsoon failure in advance. In recent years, the IMD’s computer modelling has improved its ability to forecast seasonal rainfall, but “it is very difficult for climatologists to develop an accurate seasonal forecast, the one with a high degree of certainty”, Andrew Robertson, a scientist at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, told Al Jazeera.

The Green Revolution brought improved crop yields to India in the 1960s, but now the country faces a scarcity of water. “The investments in agricultural improvements for the Green Revolution lifted the country out of the problems,” said Lall. “However, the cost of the complacency that set in subsequently, and the inability to continue to assess the implications of the trajectories that were put in place has led to the resulting problems today.”

Not everything looks so bleak. “Still there are chances of recovery in the worst-hit regions. Monsoon rains may come, but again it’s another prediction, another probability. Everything is unpredictable when it comes to monsoons, especially in a country like India,” Robertson said.

Moreover, farmers have their own robust ways to adapt to climate variation. “We came across inspiring examples as how farmers used traditional seeds, how they have preserved seeds, adjusting the sowing periods as per the forecast of rain, managing the water harvesting systems,” Nayak told Al Jazeera.

Maybe such adaptations, promoted with adequate resource and policy support by the government, can help future generations like Asha to fulfill her “dream of becoming a doctor”.

Source: Al Jazeera