The air was sizzling over dry rocky red soils, while the palash trees were flaunting their deep orange flowers in hot silence. Underneath, an orangish frog croaked, announcing to all an early summer.
But it was only Valentine's Day, and I was in Telangana's north-western border region around Zahirabad, in Sangareddy district, chasing frogs and farmers, scanning the trees and crops, hoping to understand changing climate. Meanwhile, heat alerts were issued in Hyderabad, and Telangana recorded one of its hottest Februarys with temperatures reaching 38 degrees Celsius.
Telangana is especially vulnerable to climate chaos – and agriculturally speaking, India and the world stand to suffer a lot more if temperatures continue to rise in the state.
Telangana currently is not just the seed production hub of India, producing about 65 percent of its seeds, but it also exports seeds to 18 other countries. It is at the centre of the current food system – which means that there is high chance that the vegetables or corn you are eating for dinner were actually developed from a seed grown in the state.
And so, if Telangana's agriculture collapses due to heatwaves, the formal seed industry could lose a major seed production hub – and India will feel the tremors in terms of food security.
I intended to spend the next few weeks and over 2,600 km traveling from the north-western Karnataka border to the south-eastern Andhra border, and then circling back to Hyderabad, Karimnagar, and traveling north, alongside the Godavari, into Warangal.
My goal throughout this journey was simple – to understand climate change through the eyes of agriculture, farmers, and biodiversity; perhaps pick up nature's signals, before it's too late.
As the afternoon sun was fading, I entered the local sugarcane-crushing Kandsari. A generator had replaced a bull for crushing. A large iron vessel cauldron was boiling fresh juice and the air smelled like molasses. It is here that we met a middle-aged farmer, Anil Kumar.
"Climatically, things have been haywire since last year. It didn't rain during the conventional time, affecting our Kharif sowing. Untimely rain also damaged the Kharif crops, and then it continued to rain till after November, which resulted in delayed Rabi sowing," Anil explained, as he offered us a bucket full of sugarcane juice.
Anil leases out 5 acres of black soil, and tells me his tale:
"When we rent good black soil land with water, it costs around Rs 15,000-20,000, and last year, untimely rains led to water logging in black soils and major crop losses. Many people lost their vegetables and other crops."
I confirmed Anil's report with other farmers in the region. They all said the same, but it was Narsamma from Chikapalli village in Sangareddy who told me something more.
"Rainfall destroyed the maize crop also last year; the heat is also increasing very fast. And we can see how earlier we used to sow Rabi crops between Dussehra and Diwali, but now Rabi sowing is possible only after Diwali. The seasons are definitely shifting," she said.
Narsamma has three acres of rain-fed crop land, and usually rain-fed farmers like her bear the worst brunt of chaotic climate. Even Narsamma had to sow twice last year.
Traditionally, Shivratri marks the shift from winter to summer for Telangana, and Ugadi, a major harvest festival, is considered as the new year. And here I was on Shivratri, sweating, travelling south-west from Hyderabad. I made a pit stop at Bhimla Reddy's dragon fruit farm. Being an old timer, he remembered his childhood.
"I clearly remember, during Shivratri, temperatures were always between 16-20 degrees Celsius, we used to sit by small bonfires with cotton biomass. But all those days are gone. Today, temperature was over 35 degrees Celsius. Heat has increased tremendously. And that is why there is heavy pressure on ground water. Earlier, the water table was at 20 ft and now it's over 150 ft," he said.
Damage to Crops
But what damage was being caused by the temperature increase to the crops? Pests and trouble, in most cases.
Along the road, I stopped at Kandukuru village in Vemsoor mandal, bordering Andhra Pradesh, and met CH Ravinderreddy, a middle-aged pesticide dealer and farmer.
"The untimely rain and heat are breeding new diseases. Take the attack of stem borer disease, this pest never attacked during this time. Now the life cycle of the stem borer begins early, and even five-six sprays are ineffective in controlling this new pest. Our area lost 30-40 percent of Rabi paddy, about 300-400 acres in the block alone," Ravinderreddy explained.
His statement was endorsed by the local agricultural officers, who have been watching climate-related problems very closely. "Last year too, in April and May, we experienced high heat, as temperature reached up to 50 degrees Celsius. And due to excessive heat, some sucking pests have developed in chilly and other crops also," said Vijaynirmala, district agriculture officer of Khammam.
As Khammam region is a major hub for chilly production, I spent two days meeting chilly farmers to understand their new problems. "Temperature has increased by 4-5 degrees Celsius in our area too. And maybe it is linked to the rise of black trips attack on our chilly fields," said Chandra Suresh in broken Hindi.
He was echoing the voice of other farmers like CH Narshimarao, D Madhu, D Yadgiri, and Nageshwar Rao from Sathaugudem Konda, who were standing beside him.
The signs were everywhere I went. Mango farmers complained of early fruiting and new pests, the palm oil planters were alarmed by the higher need of water for their plantations, conventional crops like maize and paddy were perishing under heat, drought, and sudden rainfall, while goat herders were worried about the extremely hot and dry summers.
Ramakrishna Reddy, a farmer, also pointed to climate change as a result of coal mining. "Since the mining has started, forest area has been cut down and we are seeing an increase of 5-6 degrees in the area. There is lesser rainfall too," he said.
The changing climate was definitely testing Telangana. To sum everything up, I landed back in Hyderabad and met up with Ramanjaneyulu GV, former agri-scientist and executive director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CASA).
His organisation has been working for two decades all over Andhra Pradesh and now Telangana.
"Temperature has easily risen beyond 3-4 degrees. And we are seeing the heat through the year, February was never this hot. If you look at winter, it has reduced to five-six days a year. Now in Telangana, we only have summers throughout the year. In May-June, we have severe summer, and in other months too, the summer temperatures are experienced. The rainfall is also sporadic and untimely. Can you imagine Hyderabad was flooded in the last few years too!"Ramanjaneyulu GV
The spike in temperatures has made crops more susceptible to failure.
"The crops are also suffering. Each year we are losing 20-30 percent crops to drought, floods, and extreme temperatures," he added.
The Way Forward
Speaking about solutions, Ramanjaneyulu emphasised the need for crop insurance and disaster compensation for farmers. "Both drought and floods are not covered in the crop insurance scheme. And at a time when crop insurance is most needed by farmers, it is withdrawn," he added.
Another step is to move away from excessive monocultures of cotton and paddy.
"The government should help avert risks by ensuring farmers get incomes from diversified sources, and not from cotton and paddy alone," he explained. Decreasing paddy production will also help directly impact climate change – as paddy farming "requires a lot of water" and also "increases greenhouse gas emissions."
My time was up, and learning clear – Telangana was under the climate threat, and if we don't move in with a climate mitigation plan soon, temperatures will exceed 50-52 degrees Celsius and India will stand to lose its seed production hub forever. The first victims, of course, will be Telangana farmers and women, and the state's biodiversity.
(The writer is an independent agri-policy analyst, writer, and agri-talk show host. He was also the former director of Policy and Outreach, NSAI. Tweets at @indrassingh. Views expressed are personal.)