It’s another dry day in Paluvai village in Palnadu district of Andhra Pradesh. Four farmers, all between 45 and 60, sit in the shadow of a whitewashed church building and look up at the sky that’s now overcast, hoping for rain. They chat about everyday things, but the deep furrows in their foreheads show that they are worried. Karuvu (dry spell) is a word that appears frequently in their conversations, followed by a collective sigh. Their unopened umbrellas find a place on the steps leading to the heavy wooden door of the church.
They think about D. Veeraswamy, 40, a tenant farmer, who sowed cotton seeds in May across 3 acres. The decision was not easy for this father of two school-going children, after the family incurred huge losses in the last three years due to floods. He, like 60 other farmers who dared to hope, went ahead after they received unseasonal rainfall in May.
Cotton is usually sown in the first week of June, says Durga Prasad, a functionary of Rythu Swarajya Vedika, a farmers’ rights organisation. “The unseasonal rain in May gave them false hope,” he says.
But two months after sowing, their worst nightmares came true. The temperatures soared towards the end of May and in the first two weeks of June. As a result, the plants dried up. What remains now is barren, red, uneven land. “I had to remove all the cotton plants as they developed a red tint due to lack of rain,” says Veeraswamy, his voice dull, devoid of emotion. He had spent nearly ₹75,000 per acre of cotton. The pesticides cost ₹25,000; tenancy ₹20,000; labour ₹15,000, and seeds ₹15,000.
Paluvai, a drought-prone village of Rentachintala mandal in Palnadu district, is famous for chilli and cotton crops. Heavily dependent on rain for agriculture, the village receives water from the Nagarjuna Sagar Right Canal for irrigation. But this time, with scanty rainfall that only came in the fourth week of July, the dam is yet to fill.
As per a report on the A.P. Agriculture Department’s website, all major reservoirs had 253.93 tmcft as of July 19, 2023. Last year, the level had stood at 543.31 tmcft.
There has been good rainfall in the State over the last few days, bringing some cheer among farmers, but the damage is already done. Most know that the stunted cotton crops will now be prone to pest attacks.
Loss and longing
Now, Veeraswamy, weighed down by debt, sees no hope of sowing cotton again. There has been no rainfall here since the beginning of the monsoon in June, the villagers say. “The ground needs to be wet to sow cotton seeds. Once the crop reaches a good height, it will need more water,” explains Veeraswamy.
Delayed rainfall has got farmers of not only Palnadu district, but also of Rayalaseema and some other parts of the State worried. S. Karunasagar, scientist-C at the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Amaravati Centre, attributes the delayed monsoon to the severe cyclonic storm over the Arabian sea and the pre-activity of El Nino, which was not established in June. “This suppressed the convection process (transmission of heat via vertical flow of liquid or gas),” he adds.
The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) declared July 4 as the onset of El Nino, a natural climatic pattern wherein warming of surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean happens. The event, which occurs every four to seven years, is natural.
But climate change and landscape disruption by humans have impacted the seasonal patterns and aggravated the drought-like situation that is created during the period, says Abinash Mohanty, a climate scientist on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and sector head, Climate Change and Sustainability at IPE-Global, an international organisation that provides advisory and implementation services across sectors.
“If we look at the rainfall pattern in the last century, most of the droughts in the country have occurred during the El Nino phase. The brunt of it is borne by the marginalised community like farmers, who depend on agriculture for both their sustenance and livelihood. While the impact of El Nino has just begun to be felt across the world, it will be pronounced during the next few months,” says Mr. Mohanty, adding that the governments must take a ground-level approach to provide a solution to the affected.
Agriculture in Andhra Pradesh depends heavily on southwest monsoon, which forayed into the State a week later this time. But until July 24, 17 of 26 districts in Andhra Pradesh reported a rainfall deficit ranging from 21.1% to 51.1%, according to data on the A.P. State Development Planning Society website. Palnadu, with a 27.6% deficit as on July 24, is one of them. The State had from June 1 until July 24 received 164.33 mm rainfall, against the norm of 217.4 mm.
B. Kondal Reddy, State committee member of Rythu Swarajya Vedika, says the delay in the monsoon has hit tenant farmers the most. “Tenant, small and marginal farmers borrow money on interest and prepare the land. When there is no rain, even for a while, they start worrying about tenancy rates. The government does not provide any compensation to them in the event of delayed rain. Many must have sown seeds in June, expecting normal rainfall. Their plight remains unknown. Besides, the market value for their produce falls and they may not get minimum support price,” he says.
Dasari Bujji, 36, another tenant farmer, who has refrained from growing cotton or chilli this year after suffering huge losses last year across 6 acres, is now waiting for his daughter to finish her Class X exam, so the family can migrate to Vijayawada, 155 km away, or to Guntur about 110 km away, for a job. “I have a debt of ₹3 lakh that I need to clear,” he says, of the immediate future. In the long run he feels farming is not a viable profession. He knows he may have to take up a job as a watchman and his wife will have to work as a house help. As he speaks, he breaks down, past suffering and future uncertainty hitting him hard.
In the last three years, 10 debt-ridden tenant farmers have died by suicide in the village alone and about 30 have left for bigger towns and cities for jobs, says Bujji, who lost his cousin last year.
“Government officers ask us what they can do if it does not rain or if it rains in excess. But where should a farmer go?” says Koteswara Rao, a local farmers’ union leader.
Mandal Agricultural Officer (Rentachintala) Brahma Reddy says a compensation of ₹1,320 was given to every farmer who incurred losses last year. “The main reason for crop damage in previous years was infestation of pink bollworm, excess rain, and indiscriminate spray of pesticides. There is no denying that the rainfall this year is deficient, but had they not opted to sow early, the extent of losses would have come down,” he says, blaming the farmers.
In another part of the State, farmers find themselves in a similar situation. Chinna Danamaiah, a resident of Budidapadu in Kurnool district of Rayalaseema region, sowed cotton across 14 acres last year. But the seeds turned out to be spurious, and he incurred losses, which amounts to ₹10 lakh. “I am alive because I have to look after my three daughters and a son. We cannot afford to suffer another setback,” he says, adding that life seems purposeless.
With changing weather patterns, farmers also fear future catastrophes. In Gudivada of Krishna district, M. Prasad Babu, who owns 8 acres, is worried about the delay in sowing the kharif crop, planted at the beginning of the rains and harvested in autumn. “If sowing does not begin on time, harvesting will be delayed, pushing it to January. If, like every year, it rains in November-December, the crops about to be harvested will all be damaged,” he says, adding that the stress will build up over the next four months.
Farmers in his region are having to face another problem due to delayed rainfall, he adds. Here, while some farmers have borewells, those who cannot afford them depend on the Bandar, Eluru, and Ryves canals originating from the Krishna river. But the garbage in them has disrupted the flow of water.
“It only reaches our fields when it rains heavily. Since it has not rained properly, we have not got the water. In this case, many of us lift water through motors [using the lift irrigation process], which costs us extra, as fuel prices are soaring,” he adds. A paddy farmer needs 20 litres of fuel a day to lift water required for an acre. Depending on rainfall, he may have to repeat the process once every week or a fortnight until the crop reaches the harvesting stage.
The total area sown in the State is 5.79 lakh ha, (17%) as against the normal area of 34.39 lakh ha., as per the report published on July 19 by the Agricultural Department. Deputy Director of Agriculture Swarna Vijaya says the area under cotton and groundnut had come down this time. “In addition to seasonal changes, farmers shifting to other crops could be a reason,” she adds.
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“If we look at the rainfall pattern in the last century, most of the droughts in the country have occurred during the El Nino phase. The brunt of it is borne by the marginalised community like farmers”Abinash Mohanty, climate scientist
“Tenant, small and marginal farmers borrow money on interest and prepare the land. When there is no rain, they start worrying about tenancy rates. The government does not provide any compensation to them in the event of delayed rain.”B. Kondal ReddyState committee member of Rythu Swarajya Vedika