Episode 1: Is Himachal Heading Towards an Impending Climate Disaster?

We travel across Himachal to study climate change and its impact on the farmers whose livelihood depends on it.

Climate Change
6 min read

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Cameraperson: Athar Rather

Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam

A mere one-degree rise in temperature is posing unseen challenges for the farmers of Himachal Pradesh.

As we traveled across the state to eat some local food and immerse ourselves in its culture, we stumbled upon the story of how the biggest crisis of our times is affecting those who live at the very heart of it — climate change and its impact on the farmers who depend on it.

But the story doesn't end here, because if rising temperatures are impacting apple orchards, the apple that you eat is under threat too.

We trace the journey of the apple you buy from your supermarkets to the orchards of Himachal Pradesh where it is grown. We spoke to the farmers who grown them to understand the changing nature of climate, that is, hailstorms, rain, and snow among others, and what it means for them and their crops.

Apples heavily contribute to the economy of Himachal Pradesh.

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The Journey Begins

We started our trip in Tanni Jubbar near Narkanda at a local mela. We had some Siddu, a local Himachali delicacy that is steamed and looks like a bao.

The local mela near Narkanda.

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At this mela, we bumped into a young farmer, Jaidev, who promised to feed us cherries, some local food, and some information on how climate change has been adversely impacting the lives of farmers like him.

"It's good, come, have fun, but don't leave behind a mess for the next generation to deal with," he said.

Trash being burnt

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He showed us around his orchard which now has new varieties of apple trees because the old, traditional trees are not as productive in this environment anymore.

Jai walking in his farm.

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Jaidev even gave us a box of freshly plucked cherries from his trees as we sat down to chat a little.

Ripe cherries on a tree branch.

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'Earlier We Knew When It Would Snow, Now It's Unpredictable'

Talking about his childhood while growing up in Narkanda, Jaidev told us how winters used to have a fixed time. Snowfall would begin at the same date almost every year. That, however, is not the case anymore.

He informed us about the unpredictability of the weather, pointing out that in the past, 25-30 feet-sized glaciers could be seen at the bottom of Hatu Peak. The snow that comes down now, however, doesn't turn into ice, but into liquid form. Due to this, the soil is losing its water retention capacity.

Shot of the valley with anti-hail nets covering the trees

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Jaidev then goes on to talk about hailstorms and asserts that even 20-25 years ago, people did not require nets to deal with hailstorms. But their usage has become common and almost mandatory in the last 10 years. It is as indispensable as a glass of milk for a child, he said. After all, "hailstorms cut the hands and legs of a plant."

He added that while hailstorms obviously damage the fruit, they also damage the plant for years to come. Nets, therefore, protect the farmers' crops, such as their apple orchards, from hailstorms which could feature hails of the size of tennis balls. "It’s not just one year of damage, but two or three years, depending on the size of the hailstorm," Jai explained.

A man preparing to put anti-hail nets on apple trees.

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The Importance of Himachal's Apple

Farming and specifically horticulture, to put it mildly, is an important profession in Himachal. Thousands in the state, like Jai, can trace their roots back to farming and most within them to horticulture.

Ever wondered why Himachali apples are so famous?

A semi-ripe apple.

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More than 30 percent of India's apples are grown in the state, and apples account for over 80 percent of the Himachal Pradesh's total fruit production.

Like Jai, thousands in Himachal Pradesh can trace their roots to farming and most of them to horticulture.


Jai's Story and Struggles

Unlike most farmers, Jai talked about agriculture in a very scientific language. He said it all started when he left his home town in 2013.

"After my education, I went to Chandigarh and worked in the corporate sector. Then I moved to Delhi to work for Wipro. A year in, work started to feel monotonous. Same keyboard, same processes, everything was the same."

A photo of Jai with his colleagues from his older days

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Jai, therefore, decided to return to his home state and do what his family had done for generations — farming.

Upon his return, however, he realised that whatever traditional practices and methods of farming that existed till now had become nearly useless and non-profitable.

Jai telling us about his journey with horticulture.

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He decided to do away with the traditional methods of farming. "I chucked out the traditional trees and redeveloped the land. I invested money in my orchard and raised capital," he explained.

Jai applied all his knowledge and savings into revamping his farm and making it more climate resilient "We're doing good, I'd say."


The Real Challenge: Climate Change

The biggest challenge that Jai faces is the unpredictability of weather, that is, he doesn't know when will it rain, how much will the temperatures rise in summers, how much will it snow in winters, and so on.

"There is no textbook solution to this that we can mug up. We have to adjust according to the climate. What the climate will be? No one knows. Climate is becoming increasingly unpredictable."

A shot of the mountains.

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Data tells us that Jai's challenges are the challenges of most farmers in the mountains.

A year's climate pattern and its impact on farming can not be predicted, and hence, the practices that farmers need to adopt to deal with it are also absent.

Anti-hail nets on apple trees. 

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The production of apples has gradually increased in Himachal. The productivity of trees, however, has fallen at a rate of 0.016 tonnes per hectare and nearly 25 to 40 percent over the last decade. Climate change is among the major productivity-reducing factors responsible for decreasing production of apples.

Anti-hail nets.

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"Earlier, you would plant a seed, It would grow on its own and bear fruit, all the farmer had to do was pluck the fruit and sell it in the market," said Jai. "Now because of climate change we have to rear the trees like children."

Jai's personal experiences are shared by many. According to data, 80 per cent of farmers have noticed an increase in temperature and uneven, insufficient rainfall during monsoons.

Over the last twenty years, the average increase in temperature was about 1.5ºC, while rainfall reduced by 2-10 per cent in the state.

These phenomena have pushed several farmers out of their farms and many have started migrating to cities because farming has become unprofitable.

Apple trees.

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The Journey Ahead

Asked about solutions that local farmers can resort to in order to take care of their crops, Jai replies with the following three:

  • Irrigation

  • Soil management

  • Climate resilient technology

Water management systemto ensure proper irrigation in the orchard.

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For us, meeting Jai was an absolute eye-opener about the travesty that farmers have had to face due to subtle changes in the climate.

If climate change and its impact were as bad as Jai claimed, we wanted to know more about the farmers whose very livelihood was dependent on what they farmed. In the second story of this series we speak with smaller farmers to understand there challenges. Coming soon!

(Our on-ground climate journalism needs your insights, ideas, and financial support - as we cover the biggest crisis of our times. Become a Q-Insider so we can bring more such stories to light. )

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