Double blow to India's monsoon

Farmers struggling as devastating drought hits

Farmer Vijay Nazirkar cutting partially destroyed sugar cane to be used as fodder for his cattle at a village in Pune, India. Two successive years of drought have hit farmers in India especially hard.
Farmer Vijay Nazirkar cutting partially destroyed sugar cane to be used as fodder for his cattle at a village in Pune, India. Two successive years of drought have hit farmers in India especially hard.PHOTO: REUTERS

MAHOBA DISTRICT (India) • For the first time in his life, farmer Jeevan Lal Yadav is getting his wheat and vegetables from the market 8km away instead of his own farm.

Mr Yadav, 43, has not been able to grow anything this past year on the 2ha of land he cultivates here in the heart of northern India, parts of which are experiencing a severe drought. He is one of millions struggling after a strong El Nino led to reduced rain from the south-west monsoon.

Rainfall in 2015 from monsoons, which sweep over most of India from June to September, was 14 per cent below the average. The dip was more than 40 per cent in some areas, including India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where Mr Yadav lives.

Because most Indians are farmers, and a majority rely entirely on the monsoon rain, a blow to the rainy season is devastating, rendering lives barely recognisable.

Instead of guarding his annual harvest against wild buffalo, Mr Yadav now sits among a crowd outside the door of the village headman, hoping to get picked for a public works programme that pays 161 rupees (S$3.30) a day. His name is called every other day at best, he said.

"I've never seen anything like this," he said, outside his mud hut in Thurat, a village of several hundred homes surrounded by mostly barren fields that in years past were green with a harvest of wheat and lentils. "It's all dry. I didn't even sow the seeds," he added.

Compounding the effects of the El Nino-induced drought this past year is that much of India also suffered from the mild El Nino in 2014 that reduced monsoon rainfall by 12 per cent. Two successive years of drought hit farmers so hard that Prime Minister Narendra Modi focused his annual Budget message last month on programmes to improve crop insurance and credit, build irrigation systems and continue the rural employment scheme on which Mr Yadav now relies.

These programmes have existed to varying degrees for years in rural India but have been inadequate, said Mr Vineet Kumar, a climate change officer at the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi non-profit organisation that studies farmers' problems.

He added that although weather warnings may be issued from the top, there was not enough coordination in many states and districts for the news to reach farmers on time.

Mr Yadav said he prayed for water every morning and evening. He does not pray for anything else, he explained, because "if you have water, you have everything".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Farmers struggling as devastating drought hits Double blow to India's monsoon'. Print Edition | Subscribe