India's crops hit by another dry summer

Modi government under fire for failing to prevent farmers' plight from getting worse

NEW DELHI • India has just suffered back-to-back drought years for only the fourth time in more than a century, summer crops are wilting and reservoir water levels are at their lowest in at least a decade for the season.

Yet the government has not held a high-level meeting to discuss drought relief for farmers since June, when its weather bureau forecast - correctly as it turned out - that this year's monsoon rains would fall short.

Fifteen months since taking office, in part on his record in boosting agriculture as chief minister of Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces growing criticism for failing to shield Indian farmers from deepening hardship.

"The whole government machinery became complacent," said Dr Ashok Gulati, an agricultural economist and former adviser to New Delhi.

After rainfall in June, the government "took no precautionary measures" even as the weather turned dry, Dr Gulati said.

The lack of urgency risks worsening rural distress ahead of state elections that Mr Modi must win to stand a better chance of passing tough reforms.

The next to go to the polls is Bihar, home state of Mr Radha Mohan Singh, the minister responsible for agriculture and farmers' welfare.

Mr Singh has been out campaigning in India's third-largest state by population.

A senior official at his ministry said the government was ready to help farmers deal with crop losses. But there were no plans for any new meetings, said the official.

The government was waiting for states to formally declare a drought before it could pass on benefits, Mr Singh said on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, across villages in the huge western state of Maharashtra, weeds grow through drooping sugarcane and soya bean crops. Rats infest sunbaked rice fields.

Rains were more than 40 per cent below normal in central Maharashtra. Farmers there, worried that their crops will fail again, said they had lost hope with Mr Modi.

"He talks only," said Mr Nanasaheb Patil, 32, a rice grower in the hill village of Bamnoli.

"Since he came to power, nothing has changed for us," said Mr Patil, who received no government aid when unseasonal rain damaged his crops earlier this year.

Crop damage is no longer as big a worry for India as it was as recently as eight years ago, thanks to bumper harvests of staples such as rice, wheat and sugar, aided by government subsidies.

But for India's nearly 200 million marginal farmers, many of whom borrow heavily to cultivate plots smaller than 0.8ha, the fate of one crop can make the difference between life and death.

Reports of farmer suicides are rising. In the drought-hit Maharashtrian district of Marathwada, nearly 600 have killed themselves so far this year, according to reports. Rains in Marathwada were less than half the normal levels.

India's June-September monsoon rains are so far 14 per cent below normal because of El Nino, a weather pattern caused by Pacific Ocean warming that can cause drought in South Asia. Rains were 12 per cent deficient last year, cutting grain output by 4.7 per cent in the year to June 2015.

Farm output could fall this year too. However, the senior agriculture official said he did not foresee a major drop as the sown acreage has been robust.

Last year, the monsoon retreated late. This year's monsoon has already started withdrawing and could leave too little moisture for farmers to sow winter crops such as wheat and rapeseed on time.

Winter crops, heavily dependent on water from reservoirs at 84 per cent of average levels over the last decade, account for about half the grain output.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2015, with the headline 'India's crops hit by another dry summer'. Print Edition | Subscribe