Last month, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) issued a press release stating that the maximum temperatures are likely to be above normal by three to five degrees over much of India’s Northwest, Central, and Western parts in March.
“This higher day temperature might lead to an adverse effect on wheat as the crop is approaching reproductive growth period, which is sensitive to temperature. High temperature during flowering and maturing period leads to loss in yield. There could be a similar impact on other standing crops and horticulture,” the press release said.
Last year, March was reported to be the hottest in past 122 years, leading to severe heatwaves impacting food production in India in multiple ways.
“The heatwave affected most of the Rabi crops. For wheat, the output went down by 10-15 per cent and the output was so deficit that the government banned exports last year to maintain domestic availability,” says Arindam Banerjee, Associate Professor, School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi.
This year, the rising temperatures in the first week of March itself has made it a critical season for wheat production in the country. Farmers, such as in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, are tense regarding the predicted heatwaves and their effect on the overall wheat production which is expected to be harvested soon.
“The heatwave ruined the entire wheat production last year as the crop fell flat. Generally, four bighas of land should yield at least 10 sacks of wheat. However, we could hardly manage three-four sacks last year and not even 25 paise of profit. If the heat increases this year, we will be in a terrible condition,” laments Mujeeb, a 38-year-old farmer from Uttar Pradesh’s Karaundi village.
Rain-deficient land worsening the situation
Due to shortened winter season, a large share of wheat production has already been affected in many parts of North India. Wheat has not matured as it was expected. Farmers rely heavily on rain for irrigation and in case of low rainfall, they will be compelled to resort to manual irrigation which costs at least Rs 800 per day.
Mohammed Rafi-Uz-Zaman, 44, a farmer from Bihar’s Qusmi village in Saharsa, said “I had to invest a lot more in irrigating the fields this year as compared to previous ones. Due to rising temperatures, more and more water is required and the crop growth has also stunted acutely. If it doesn’t rain on time, the produce will go down. No matter how many chemicals and fertilizers I use, I cannot compensate for the lack of nutrients that come from natural rain.”
The human cost of heatwave
A report by the World Bank on ‘Climate Investment Opportunities in India's Cooling Sector’ predicted that India could soon become one of the first countries to experience heatwaves that will break the limit of human survival, thus exposing 75 per cent of India’s workforce that’s dependent on heat-exposed labour.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says about India: “The extreme heat also (sic) came earlier in the year than normal, covered a huge landmass and persisted much longer than typical heatwaves. The high temperatures have disproportionately affected farmers with little shelter from the heat and whose crops have wilted in the scorching sun.”
The rise in severe heatwaves across the country have disproportionately affected farmers in the past few years. A report by Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) titled Heat Wave 2022: Causes, Impacts, and Way Forward for Indian Agriculture, says “The abnormal increase in maximum and minimum temperatures during 2022, impacted crops, fruits, vegetables and animals in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra.”
As per the report, heatwave falling in parallel with the developing stage of wheat, forced maturity resulting in 15-25 per cent reduction in yields.
“We are already in the midst of a climate emergency. What happened last year was a wake-up call as the heatwave severely affected the wheat production in the country and also brought drought in regions of Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh, and parts of Bengal and Jharkhand,” says Devender Sharma, a Delhi-based agriculture expert.
In 2022, International Food Policy Research Institute’s Global Food Policy Report cautioned that 90 million Indians might be pushed towards hunger by 2030 due to climate change-induced decline in agricultural productivity and the disruption in the food supply chain.
“In India, agricultural production data (1967–2016) for several crops show that average land productivity decreases as average temperatures increase and this impact accelerates at higher levels of warming,” the report added.
No support from government
While the government has continually assured it would provide social security to farmers, the situation seems to be a far-fetched reality, particularly in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Farmer Zaman from Bihar says, “There is no government help provided to us. Even if we manage to get some compensation, it is nominal and only for the namesake.”
When asked about the government surveys or officials inquiring about the condition of farmers in his Saharsa district, Zaman denied any such thing happening in the area. Similarly, Mujeeb also cited the lack of proper support from the government as compensation for the affected crop.
“Lekhpal visits for surveys, but we never get anything. Even if the compensation is provided, it is not more than a nominal amount of Rs. 100-200 per bigha. The rest is just provided on papers,” Mujeeb further added.
Bheem Singh, a farmer from Ayodhya’s Mastapur, says, “If one looks at television and news reports, there are a lot of schemes coming from the government. But there is none that actually reaches the farmers here. The people that sit between us and the government do not care about the villages, farms, and farmers. They just sign papers, but we get nothing.”
The road ahead
Delhi-based agriculture expert Sharma says, “Much of what is required needs to come from the government and it must take some initiative. The IMD should come up with a temperature forecast in the month of January every year, so that the farmers can prepare accordingly and the government’s contingency plans and policy initiatives can be formed in advance.”
Although the Government of India has launched the National Program for Climate Change and Human Health in 2019, its efforts are yet to take effect. Experts have also suggested a policy change in the farming practices of the country.
“Today, we have crop varieties that are not indigenous. They are not adapted to local climatic conditions. These are the times when we have hybrid seeds. We have foreign companies coming in for designing and curating seeds for us, which are not accounting our climatic conditions. The yield has to be impacted in this case. To maintain it, you need more fertilisers and more chemical inputs into it, which has been happening across the North. Now, the point is, when the soil health is bad, the feed is not up to the climatic conditions of the region, how do you even think that these crops might be able to survive the heatwave? They will not,” says Rohit Kumar, Senior Agriculture Campaigner at GreenPeace India.
He adds: “When the heat increases, you are out to lose the water that you already have. It is an intimidating crisis that is coming our way. If the heat is increasing, and heatwaves are frequent in the country, you are going to lose water. India has a rain-fed agriculture. If rain cycles and rain patterns change, that will destroy your crops. All these factors are impacting agriculture."
“The government must create adequate infrastructure and facilities to provide organic and natural food to all the people in the country. The transition is necessary and must be carried out judiciously,” he says further.
(Nuzhat Khan is a student of Convergent Journalism at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.)
(Faizan Salik is an independent journalist from AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia. He covers matters related to environment, social justice, and religious minorities.)