Wednesday July 15th 2009
An Indian farmer looks towards the sky, while standing amidst his drought-stricken crop. Photograph: Dipak Kumar/Reuters
In 1997, at the peak of my 16-year career as an electrical engineer, I left my lucrative job to perform social work. I began cultivating cotton, and quickly realised that such a life was very different from that of people living in big cities.
The survival of an ordinary farmer, on an agricultural income, depends on many factors – higher crop seed yield, procurement of superior seeds and fertilisers at subsidized rates, the availability of banks loans, cheaper repayments of interest and most of all a good monsoon.
In 1999 I started Jan Andolan Samiti, an organisation to fight for the rights of local farmers and tribal people, focusing on the issues of human rights and the environment. In 2005 I began to protest against farmer’s suicides, because those unable to pay off debts had begun to kill themselves in my region of Vidarbha.
Vidarbha has become renowned for farmer’s suicides. Farmers traditionally lead a poverty-stricken and miserable life, but this has become worse since the collapse of the area's rural economic system.
One of the most worrying factors affecting our community is climate change. The Met department had predicted an excellent monsoon this year. Now, the threat of El Nino looming large over India may prove the weather pundits wrong. Due to El Nino, central India will get only half the expected amount of rain this year. Northern India will be the worst affected by this non-activity.
Indian farmers have always been dependent on the monsoon and its benefits for the harvest. Those in Vidarbha mainly grow cotton and pulses. Crops were sown before the onset of the monsoon, so when it arrives late the seeds are damaged, slashing income. Whatever rain we do receive is scant.
Western Vidarbha, which normally gets 40mm of rain during a good monsoon, received only 12-13mm this year. Eastern Vidarbha received a poor 3-4mm against the normal 60mm. We have lost a good month of monsoon though there is another two months left to rain.
As river and dam water fall below normal levels, irrigation dries up. Lack of potable water is becoming another big problem. One of the suggestions I made to farmers is to shift from water-dependent crops, like paddy and cotton, to less thirsty crops such as Jowar and Bajri.
In 2009, Vidarbha received the smallest amount of rain in five years. On the other hand, sometimes we experience unseasonal rains during non–monsoon season which destroy our crops. Excessive rains flood our fields. During summer we see abnormal rises in the daily temperature and the heat often becomes unbearable for farmers working in open fields. Sun stroke is now common.
It is farmers in Vidarbha who will be the worst affected by monsoon failure this year. It will bring back memories of past suicides. Most farmers here have not benefited from loan waiver schemes introduced by the government, and still have huge debts to pay off. Crop failure has made them even poorer and scant rainfall has pushed the prices of all essential items extremely high. Poor farmers have no money to care for their family.
Cows are considered holy animals to a Hindu family. Lack of grass and the high price of fodder has made their rearing expensive, so farmers are increasingly selling them and using the money for household expenses. I am concerned that this grim situation will drive more to suicide.
Vidarbha has seen rampant deforestation, which I believe contributes to the odd weather. Landless farmers clear forest to cultivate crops and officials turn a blind eye to illegal lumber operations. The thinning of forest trees and plants has crippled forest density and heavy deforestation in Central India has created ecological imbalances.
Farmers using chemicals and pesticides are affecting the flora and fauna of the region. My organisation is doing its best to educate people about this but the government also has to play a role in stopping damage to our environment.
Farmers are conducting religious rites, looking up at the sky and praying for rainfall. The government is even planning to use cloud seeding. So I am keeping my fingers crossed for a monsoon revival.
• Kishore Tiwari was speaking to journalist Rajen Nair