Monday, September 14, 2009


Suman Sahai

It is clear now that the monsoons are severely deficient and have more or less failed in North India. Uttar Pradesh, particularly the western part of the state, Punjab and Haryana are very badly affected, with perhaps UP being the worst affected area. In Bihar only ten percent of the normal rice area has been planted this year. This normally rice surplus state will face an acute shortfall in rice production and the small and marginal farmers have a very difficult time ahead. In fact all the northern rice surplus regions barring Punjab, like UP, Bihar and Haryana have been able to plant only a fraction of their usual paddy area. This means a serious shortfall in rice production this year.

In rainfed areas like Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, many farmers have decided not to plant the kharif maize at all since the rains are late and insufficient. They do not expect to get anything from the sowing this season and have decided not to waste precious seed. This way they also save the money that would have to be spent on inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. In Jharkhand barely half the rice area has been planted. Having read the weather, almost before the Met Department, many farmers did not even prepare their rice nurseries. Those that did, have lost the seed. Farmers in these areas know there will be little food this year, and people have begun to migrate to the cities already, in search of work.

Thank God that despite the many plans afoot to do so, the government did not sell the grain reserves that are meant as buffer stocks for crisis situations like the one we are likely to face this year. We have sold buffer stocks before, at a fraction of the cost it took to produce and store the grain, even as people in the country remained hungry. The reason offered to dispose this food grain is that it is rotting in storage. Well, the answer to that is better storage so that the grain does not spoil, not throwing it out, especially when we still have persistent hunger

This time what is disconcerting is the sense of complacency that seems to emanate from the government, which is issuing statements that there is no reason for panic, that even if the monsoon fails, we will manage the situation since we have adequate rice and wheat in our buffer stocks. Fifty five million tons of food grain is not a whole lot of food if the food deficit is significant, as it threatens to be this time. Either the officials in the food ministry are completely ignorant about how many people can be fed, for how long, on fifty five million tons of food grain, or they are deliberately lying , to make the situation look better than it actually is. It is criminal to create this false sense of preparedness because it will lead to complacency in stepping up the efforts to mobilize as much food as possible, to face the crisis.

Depending on the final shortfall in food production, the current grain reserves of approximately fifty five million tons, could help make up some of the kharif shortfall and provide food aid to the most vulnerable for a limited period of three to four months till the winter rabi crop comes in. But this plan overlooks the fact that for all rainfed regions, that are essentially monsoon dependent, there is no rabi crop. The only season when they can grow food is the kharif. When that fails, people in such regions face a serious food shortage for the rest of the year, till the next , hopefully good, monsoon comes.

The buffer stock planning disregards the far larger crisis of livelihoods that will be created for a population with no options but dependence on farming and its allied activities. If the kharif crop fails , agriculture labor and landless peasants who depend on wage labour, will be hard hit. They are able to earn from agriculture operations like weeding, threshing, winnowing, packing and transporting harvested grain. When this is reduced, their earnings are reduced. Apart from wages, the men and women who do the weeding are able to collect many types of nutritious , edible leafy greens that grow throughout the season in and around the cultivated fields. The weeds also provide green fodder for their livestock.

The poor who migrate from Bihar and Orissa every season to work as agriculture hands in Punjab and Haryana, will lose this income opportunity if the rains fail. These earnings form a substantial part of the annual income of such families. A shortfall in the kharif crop also means less straw for fodder, thus hitting at the survival of livestock that marginal farmers and landless peasants are so heavily dependent on. Stover and woody stems from crops like maize and linseed provide fuel for the farm family. These fuel sources will become unavailable if the kharif crops do not provide crop residues for fuel use.

What is barely being mentioned is that if the rains are delayed and late planting is done…the kharif crop will mature late , which means it will push back the planting of the winter rabi crop. The untimely or delayed sowing of the rabi crop will impact the production of winter food grains. In addition to the deficit in rice production , a delayed or poor monsoon also means that the crops that are sown at the tail end of the kharif season , like short duration mustard and linseed, will also not be possible. These are planted either in the last stages of the rice crop or immediately after the rice is harvested, to take advantage of the residual moisture in the fields .This loss will further reduce the food available to farm families and diminish farm incomes still further.

Can the current failure of the monsoon be attributed directly to the climate change that is under way? Or is it the result of a seasonal phenomenon like the El Nino? Whatever the answer, the present crisis certainly highlights one fact quite clearly, that our government is thoroughly unprepared to handle the problems that will be created by disturbances in the weather, that will increase as climate change becomes more manifest. The ICAR system has failed completely to respond to the early warnings about the devastation that climate change would bring for agriculture in South Asia. Nothing was done on the ground, even as the top brass flew around the world, attending meetings on climate change . Climate change warnings have been there for a number of years but the ICAR leadership has still not managed to come up with a coherent strategy that can help farmers today, to cope with the turbulence that climate change will bring and the effect this will have on their crops and fields.

Government departments dealing with agriculture have been talking for a long time about climate proofing our crops, buffering our agriculture systems and supplementing rural incomes through on- farm and off- farm operations. Not much has been done so far. The current crisis underlines the urgent need to shut down the perennial talk shop and put in place systems to support food security and rural livelihoods, because weather shocks will increase, not decrease in the coming years.

Suman Sahai can be reached at


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