To Sow or Not to Sow: Has Climate Change Made Farming a Death Sentence in India?

Farmers are left at the mercy of climate change and this year has been a series of fatal blows.

Climate Change
4 min read

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Let us take a look at the farmer’s life in 2022.

Rabi crop lost because of one of the worst heatwaves in 122 years during the months of April and May.

Loss of sowing due to drought-like situations in many of the states during July-August.

Just when we though it was over, September brought along surplus monsoons, followed by incessant rains in October that washed away the harvest lying in fields or crops standing tall, ready to be harvested.


But What is the Big Deal?

To most farmers, crop loss means no education for their children, not even two square meals a day, a mountain of debt – poverty, pain, despair, and for some, even suicide.

We are talking about the two major crops in India–Wheat and Rice and several smaller ones in between like maize, millet, groundnuts, pulses and fruits & vegetables.  

Heatwave for most of us means higher electricity bills and excessive rainfall may mean traffic jams to work or some instances of urban flooding.

But the same words-- heatwave, excess rain, unexpected rain or no rain, can mean a fatal blow to a farmer’s entire investment, months of hard work and to their entire year’s income.

Heatwave 2022: The Worst in 122 Years

Hitting up to 50 degrees celsius in parts of India, the record-breaking heatwave of 2022, arrested the growth of the wheat grain. India’s total wheat production this season was 111.32 million tonnes, which is 3.8 million tonnes less than last year’s.

Fruits and vegetables like mangoes, grapes, brinjal, and tomatoes also saw huge losses because the heat shrivelled and killed the blossoms on the plants before they could bloom.

Smaller grains weigh less and as a result, crores of farmers said that their total harvest was less than half of the regular quantity this year.

Even as the farmers were struggling with these losses due to the heat, the next sowing season came in. Having lost money or having made very small profits after the wheat harvest, most farmers took loans to buy seeds, with the hope that the coming crop will help them recover from debt.


Erratic Monsoon Rainfall Led to the Worst Damage 

July is when most farmers start sowing paddy in North India because that’s when farmers expect the monsoon rainfall to begin. And paddy, in particular, needs a lot of rain.

But this year, the monsoon arrived too late, and with too little. There was a massive rainfall deficit from June to early September.

Over 700 blocks of 91 districts of UP, Jharkhand, Bengal and Bihar saw drought-like conditions. For instance, UP received 46% less rainfall this year. Leaving fields dry and farmers distraught.

This had a direct impact on paddy sowing and several districts in these states sowed 50 to 75% less than usual.

This indicates a major drop in rice production this year.

Rice production is expected to see a decline of approximately 6% this season.

But this was not the end of problems. Just as we thought the monsoons have gone, there was surplus rainfall in September. And then October saw incessant and unseasonal torrential rains. And this did more harm.

Whatever was left of the paddy crop -- that which had been harvested or was about to be harvested -- was destroyed by these unseasonal rains.

And this killed the farmers’ last hope for this season. Along with paddy, several other crops, such as pulses, maize, groundnuts also met the same fate. 


But Why is This Happening? 

The technical answer is La Nina and a cocktail of several factors.

A simpler answer would be climate change.

La Nina is a natural phenomenon, which has been made worse by climate change. During La Nina events, trade winds are stronger than usual, pushing more warm water toward Asia. During a La Nina year, winter temperatures are warmer than normal in the south and cooler than normal in the north.

India has seen above average rainfall during the monsoon season for the 4th consecutive year. In August 2022, India recorded the 8th highest rainfall since 2001.

This is the third consecutive year of La Nina being observed in the northern hemisphere. It is a rare phenomenon that experts call a ‘triple dip.’

This triple dip has only occurred twice since 1950.

But this problem is more complex than it might appear. Rainfall variability and the behaviour of Monsoon patterns is very challenging for scientists to apprehend.

“What we are witnessing across the country, flooding in one region and deficit rainfall in other parts, is a combination of several parameters. Persistence of intense La Nina conditions, abnormal warming of East Indian Ocean, negative Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), southward movement of most of the Monsoon depressions and lows and pre-Monsoon heating over Himalayan region melting glaciers. This is a very complex mix.”
Dr R Krishnan, Executive Director, Centre for Climate Change Research, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM).

But for the farmers left at the mercy of climate change, with little to no state support, this year has been a series of of fatal blows – farmer debts are at an all-time high and farmer suicide data? Well, the government doesn’t share that with us anymore.

The only real question that remains is: What happens then, to an agrarian nation whose farmers remain its most deprived citizens? 

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Topics:  Crop damage   Farmers    Climate Change 

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