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Himachal Farmers Pin All Hopes On Rain Showers Amid Disrupted Climate And Dry Spell

With 80 per cent of the total cultivated land being dependent on rain, the weather holds the key to Himachal Pradesh’s agricultural economy and livelihoods.

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Representative Image- Apple orchard, Shimla
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Due to an overall rain deficiency of nearly 36 per cent in January-February this year and almost a 100 per cent rain deficit in December 2022, Himachal Pradesh is witnessing disrupted weather to its disadvantage, except for sudden unusual rains in the plains and snowfall in high mountains.

As the northern states have reported substantial damage in their standing crops—Rabi and cereals, there is a mixed crisis for the farmers and fruit growers of Himachal Pradesh. Yet they are pinning their hopes on MeT’s fresh advisory suggesting another light to moderate rain/snow along with thunderstorms and hailstorms from March 30, and subsequent 3-4 days with peak intensity on March 31 and April 1, 2023, in the state.

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The latest IMD forecast said there could be a fresh spell of rainfall and thunderstorm in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana, West Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Vidarbha, and Chhattisgarh. “Strong wind/hail may damage plantation, horticulture, and standing crops,” the IMD said in its advisory to farmers on Wednesday.

“Barring some parts of Una and Kangra, particularly Nurpur and areas bordering Punjab have reported certain damage to the standing crops due to rains and wind storms. Last week's rains have been very beneficial to the crops. Our food grains production may exceed the targets if the weather remains friendly in the coming weeks,” says Chander Kumar, Himachal Pradesh minister for agriculture.

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Till last week’s rains, which were usually regular, the agriculture department had reported 10- 15 per cent damage to Rabi crops due to inadequate/ deficient rains. The maximum damage was up to 33 per cent in rain-fed areas. The partially irrigated or fully irrigated areas were better.

Higher altitudes and tribal areas received another mild spell of snow. Kadhrala and Gondla received three cm and one cm of snow, while mid and low hills were showered by light to moderate rains. The prolonged dry spell between December and February not only delayed the sowing in some districts like Una, Hamirpur, Sirmaur, Solan, and Kangra but also affected agricultural growth. Thus, rains are seen as beneficial to the wheat crop, vegetables, and cereals.

Himachal Pradesh’s wheat cultivation is done at 3.30 lakh hectares and the production target for the year is assessed at 6.17 lakh MT (metric ton). The agriculture department has also proposed to cover 82,000 hectares.

A shift in weather and economy

“Himachal Pradesh's economy is quite dependent on agriculture as it directly employs and sustains almost 57.03 per cent of the state's entire workforce. We have small landholdings, unlike Punjab. Now that extreme weather conditions have become more frequent and there is also a rise in temperature (minimum temperature particularly), the mountains of Himachal Pradesh are heading for very critical times. We need to have adaptation measures in place,” Principal climate scientist at the Department of Environment and climate change, Dr Suresh Attri told Outlook.

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The average land holding size in the state is 0.95 hectares. As per the agriculture Census, small and marginal farmers own 88.85 per cent of the total holdings. Semi-medium and medium farmers own approximately 10.85 per cent of the total holdings, and large farmers own about 0.30 per cent. The area used for food grain production is shrinking gradually with many farmers deserting cultivations and shifting to other ventures.

The conditions are different in the fruit-growing areas and higher mountains, where the horticulturists, having enjoyed the fruits of prosperity, feel climatic conditions are an opportunity to bring in new fruit varieties that don't require high chilling hours.

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“The apples are highly dependent on favourable weather like snowfall, rains, and even bright sunlight at different stages. Any slightest disturbance, which is quite frequent now, could wipe out the crop in lower and mid-hill areas,” orchardist Joginder Chauhan at Kotkhai says.

The question of adaptation

As to Environment scientists, mountains have become highly vulnerable to climatic changes over the past years. It has most notably impacted crop patterns, availability of water at natural sources, and also the forests.

“The overall rain has not crossed 150 mm in the past three-four months. This is almost 33 to 40 per cent of what we used to see three decades ago. Timely snow and sufficient freezing in the fruit belt had sustained our fruit and crops. However, now we do not have those advantages of being in the hills,” said Dr S P Bhardwaj, a senior horticulture scientist and former professor at Dr Y S Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, Solan. 

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The usual rains have benefitted the apple orchards at higher hills, while its impact on the flowering of the stone fruits was felt when rains coupled with thunderstorms and four to five spells of hail showered in the region. Nevertheless, the apple growers say the orchards are looking set for bloom if the rains don't prolong.

On the proposed long-term adaptation measures, Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu said "In the very first budget I proposed an area-based Integrated and comprehensive agriculture development scheme, Him Unnati. This scheme will be run following a cluster approach. Clusters will be identified in the entire state in the first phase. About 40 bighas of land will be included in each cluster depending on the local climate, geographical conditions, soil type, etc."

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This will help the farmers to adapt to new ways of taking-up separate clusters of milk production, pulses, millets, vegetables, fruits, flowers, cash crops, and natural farming. There will be a budget of Rs 150 cr available under this during the year.

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