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The Fight For Food.


new internationalist
issue 319 - December 1999

The fight for food

With the mighty monsoon becoming increasingly wayward, Indian farmers are
having to use every ounce of their ingenuity. Devinder Sharma reports.

For Chimanbhai Parmar, it has turned out to be an endless wait. More than two months after completing the sowing of the groundnut crop, and hoping for a second bumper harvest in a row, parched and barren fields stare at him. For kilo-metres in every direction, the absence of the monsoon rains has left behind a picture of devastation and misery.

The outlook this year for Parmar, who has three children to support, is less than promising. With his fields failing to yield anything, he has to look for work elsewhere. Used as he and his fellow farmers are to hardship, the options are, nonetheless, desperate. They could end up as daily-wage labourers for the Public Works Department, which ironically enough is responsible for repairing roads damaged by the monsoon’s fury, among other things. A day’s toil for the Department would fetch around 30 to 40 rupees (less than a dollar). Or else they could try seeking piecemeal work in local shops and industrial units to tide them over. Each farmer is praying that this lean time is short-lived and that things won’t get so unbearable that they have to start selling off their cattle.

Chimanbhai Parmar and the other small farmers of Chandroda village in the coastal Saurashtra region of India’s Gujarat state are victims of an aberrant weather phenomenon that seems to be becoming more and more established with each passing year. Like thousands of small farmers in the region, Parmar has learned to live with the ‘curse’ of the rain gods. For more than a decade now the monsoon rains – once regular arrivals in June – have followed their normal trend only every alternate year. This year, hoping against hope, farmers had welcomed the first showers and immediately undertook the sowing of groundnuts, their only cash crop. Within a month of sowing, the plants had paled and withered in the scorching sun – fodder for the cattle to graze on.

Creeping drought
Parmar’s village belongs to one of the 11 districts in Gujarat where the rainfall deficiency has been critical, the shortfall exceeding 50 per cent of normal expectations. The long and dry spell has taken a severe toll on crops in Gujarat, the country’s biggest groundnut producer, which accounts for about 35 per cent of the total harvest. In the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh the lateness of the rains meant that farmers were left with no choice but to forgo the sowing of soya beans and groundnuts. They could not even resort to their usual standby in such situations of sowing coarse millets in the first week of August. When the rains finally did arrive, more than a month after they were due, in late August and early September, farmers were quick to cultivate low-yielding pulses in a desperate effort to make the best use of the available moisture.

In parts of Rajasthan it was a similar story. Situated in one of the most inhospitable arid zones in the world, Rajasthan’s northwest corner extends into the vast Thar desert. With a wide range of temperature and an unpredictable monsoon climate, drought and desertification are common, and water is scarce. Devoid of assured irrigation, the normal time for sowing coarse millets like bajra coincides with the onset of monsoon rains in July. If the rains fail to arrive even a week after the right time for sowing bajra is over, farmers opt for coarse grains like sorghum and moth. And if the rains are later still, the only alternative is to go in for pulses like moong and arhar.

Despite the Indian Meteorological Department predicting a normal monsoon this year, the rains remained elusive over the western parts of Rajasthan for most of August, forcing farmers to put more areas under pulses. Similarly, two districts in neighbouring Haryana, three districts in Madhya Pradesh, and fourteen districts of Tamil Nadu in southern India received less than 50 per cent of their expected rainfall. Only 64 per cent of the country’s cultivable land received normal rains. Farmers had little choice but to increase the area under pulses at the cost of oilseeds and coarse millets. Over large parts of the northeastern states and Bihar the monsoons were earlier than usual, leading to an increase in the area under rice.

Over the years farmers in the rainfed regions of the country – comprising nearly 70 per cent of the land under the plough – have learned to live with the vagaries of the monsoon. With small landholdings, often not exceeding one hectare, and farming entirely at the mercy of the rain gods, the farmers in the drylands of India are a beleaguered lot. Without any official support in the form of direct subsidies, it is, however, their courage in the face of adversity and endurance at the time of calamities that has enabled them to survive the odds stacked up against them. They rely on an abundant store of existing traditional knowledge to free themselves from the clutches of errant weather.

[image, unknown]

Among all the factors that influence agriculture the climate is by far the most important. Rapid deforestation, melting of the glaciers, reduced river flows and worsening industrial pollution are all factors in influencing change. In the past eight years the two frontline agricultural states of Punjab and Haryana, forming the food bowl of the country, have been receiving excess rainfall; while Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala have been receiving less and less of their average share. Last year extremely high summer temperatures, followed by a prolonged dry spell during the monsoon season, brought on severe drought conditions in Orissa. But, soon after, Orissa witnessed flash floods, indicating that such abrupt weather changes were on the rise.

Regeneration now!
Knowing that the efficient management of water is the key to viable agriculture, farmers in many parts of the country have developed and strengthened their tradi-tional water-harvesting practices. In the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, for instance, villagers have been able to recharge more than 100,000 drying wells. They set to work diverting into specially dug filter tanks rain water that would otherwise have run off. Once filtered, the water was guided into wells. In the absence of any government-supported programme to augment water supplies, villagers were encouraged by grassroots workers to rely on their own ability and knowledge. Learning from their fellow villagers, the movement to recharge drying wells is spreading on a large scale in areas adjoining Gujarat.

In the Alwar district of Rajasthan, villagers motivated by the non-governmental organization Tarun Bharat Sangh, began conserving traditional water-harvesting structures like tanks and ponds. More than 3,500 defunct village ponds have become operative in the past three years. And in the process villagers in the district have been able to perform an incredible feat – regenerating five dried-out rivers. As a result, villagers now even cultivate vegetables and sugarcane, both water-intensive crops.

Mounting a defence
Preparing a strong defence against the frequent prolonged dry spells is certainly an effective strategy to adapt to the changing climatic pattern. Already, farmers in the northeast regions of India have been quick to tailor their cropping patterns to the changes in the monsoons. For the past few years, a shift in the monsoon cycle has been observed. The southwest monsoon has been arriving early by about a fortnight, necessitating an early transplanting of rice. This year, more than 3.1 million hectares of land under rice was planted early in eastern India to coincide with the monsoon rains. One benefit of this early planting is that the crop may escape some of the usual pests and diseases. A good rice harvest is expected.

In the years to come, the greatest challenge to Indian farmers could come from a rise in temperatures, which would dry out soils and increase the rate by which plants lose moisture. While some experts believe that higher temperatures would help farmers by destroying some weeds and disease pathogens, others think that a mere 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (about 0.65° Celsius) increase in temperature could reduce India’s wheat crop by ten per cent.

The spread of desert, a shorter growing period for foodgrains in the north, changes in the cropping pattern, reduced water supplies from the major river systems following the drying up of glaciers: all of these will all have a multiplier impact on the country’s food security. The odds against Indian farmers, despite all their ingenuity, could ultimately prove to be too high.

Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst.
Two of his recent books are GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap.

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New Internationalist issue 319 magazine cover This article is from the December 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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