While farmers in India look forward to rains every year, the ongoing unseasonal downpour across West and North India has come as a bane that has damaged crops and disrupted the harvest season.
The harvest of staples such as wheat and mustard and summer delight mango stands disrupted amid unseasonal rain, hailstorms, and high winds. Moreover, the wheat crop has faced the additional brunt of unnaturally high temperature that immediately preceded unseasonal downpour.
Before the downpour began earlier this month, India had already experienced the hottest February in over a hundred years. That was critically damning to the wheat crop. No respite is expected for at least next two weeks, according to India Meteorological Department (IMD).
The IMD forecast says, “Scattered to widespread rainfall/thunderstorm, lightning/gusty winds very likely over the [Northwest] region during 30th March-01st April.
"Isolated hailstorm over Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi and East Rajasthan on 30th and 31st March; over West Rajasthan on 30th March and over Uttar Pradesh on 31st March. Isolated heavy rainfall over Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, Gilgit-Baltistan & Muzaffarabad, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand on 31st March.”
The IMD forecast also says that isolated to scattered rainfall with thunderstorms is expected in Western Himalayan region in the second week of March.
As the current days are critical to wheat harvesting and the maturing of mangoes, the rains and accompanying high winds and storms bring misery to farmers, who see their investment and hopes withered in their fields.
Double whammy of rain, early summers
The temperatures have started breaking records this year and it’s not even April yet — the month that traditionally marks the summer season. While February was recorded as the hottest since 1901, March was dominated by rainfall, hailstorms, and high winds.
While occasional bursts of rainfall are not that much of an issue, the continued rainfall along with high winds has damaged crops across West and North India. These rains came right after premature hot temperatures. The combination is very damaging to wheat.
In Bulandshahr and surrounding areas in Western Uttar Pradesh, wheat and mangoes are the major crops affected from unseasonal rainfall, with mango produce in some areas suffering up to 80 per cent damage, says Manmohan Sharma, a farmer with fields near Siyana in Bulandshahr.
He says, “Rain and high winds have flattened the wheat crop in fields. Once the crops are flattened, decay is likely to set in. This flattened wheat was also affected by high temperatures earlier this year. High temperature before harvesting results in wheat grains becoming lighter and inferior that consumers don’t want to buy. Therefore, both the quality and quantity have been affected this year.
Noting that mangoes, which are commonly grown in the region, are also affected, Sharma tells Outlook, “Just like high winds have flattened the wheat crop, the buds of mangoes have also been damaged that would have flowered into fruit. At some places, smaller mangoes have fallen before maturing into full-grown mangoes. We also saw disease setting in earlier.”
Sharma, who has been a farmer for over two decades, says such unseasonal rains have increased in recent years.
“This is climate change. What is this if not climate change? We would not see such weather earlier,” says Sharma.
Unseasonal rainfall like the one currently seen has increased in the last few years, says Satyam Pandey from Bihar's Rohtas district, currently working in Rajasthan as a social worker.
He says, “Crops like wheat and mustard are most affected currently in my area. When it rains, the wheat plant falls on the ground which means it cannot be easily cut manually. In areas like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab where harvester machines are used, machines cannot be used on loose and wet soil. So harvesting also delayed.”
Besides wheat and mustard, crops like cucumber and pumpkin are also affected in current unseasonal weather conditions, says Pandey.
During the period the farmer waits for the field to dry so the crop could be harvested, the crop is lying open in the field and further damage happens if a hailstorm hits the region like it has happened in the last few days, says Pandey.
Heatwaves to increase, disease possible: Experts
Extreme weather has a direct impact on plant disease, but the current weather conditions are unlikely to cause a disease outbreak as crops have either been harvested or are in the process of being harvested, says Kamal Khilari, Professor and Head, Department of Plant Pathology, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel University of Agriculture & Technology (SVPUAT), Meerut.
He tells Outlook, “Disease outbreak depends on appropriate weather conditions. Powdery mildew disease in mango was not seen earlier in this season as weather was not appropriate for the disease. But if the current weather conditions would have been there earlier, then the disease would have set in. Now the damage to mango will be from high winds that will lead to small mangoes falling without maturing. This will damage a lot of mango produce.”
Similarly, damage to wheat will be from either the falling or premature hot weather, but not from disease, says Khilari, adding that premature hot weather would result in wheat grain getting squeezed.
If current weather conditions continue, then tomato crop could be affected later, says Khilari.
He says, “If current weather conditions continue, then blight might set into the tomato crop. Such a situation could happen if current conditions continue and moisture continues to remain.”
Extreme weather conditions have increased in the past 50 years and are expected to further increase in the next 50 years, says Rajesh Kumar Mall, Professor and Head, DST-Mahamana Centre of Excellence in Climate Change Research Institute of Environment & Sustainable Development, Banaras Hindu University (BHU).
He tells Outlook, “Research has shown that heatwaves have increased in the past 50 years. They are further expected to increase in the next 50 years. Moreover, in the past 20 years, we have seen new areas experiencing heatwaves, such as Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Odisha, which did not have heatwaves earlier. These areas have emerged as a new heatwave hotspot.”
While rain causes physical damage to the crop, premature hot weather in February and March affects the grain-filling period of wheat, says Mall, adding that this could harm up to 10 per cent of the entire produce.
Mall further says that temperature change has not been homogenous.
He says, “Both maximum and minimum temperatures have witnessed the rise, but minimum temperatures that occur during night have risen faster than the maximum temperatures. Similarly, winter temperatures have risen faster than the summer temperatures. Such higher winter temperatures in January harms the wheat crop.”
About mitigation strategies, Mall says while you cannot do anything to protect crops from hailstorm, varieties resistant to excessive water or more heat are being worked on and can be a solution.
When asked about the effect on food security of the country, Mall says there will not be much effect as weather conditions have a limited geographic impact.
He tells Outlook, “India has 15 agro-climatic zones. There are sub-zones too. Unseasonal rainfall or even droughts are limited to some of these areas and the overall food security is not affected as the impact is limited.”
However, farmers on the ground remain grim, particularly in regions affected by extreme weather. A farmer from Western Uttar Pradesh, who does not wish to be identified as he holds a contractual government job, says the government comes up with policies but these are either too late or are wrapped in bureaucratic hurdles that smaller farmers cannot navigate.
“By the time government policies come into effect, the small-scale farmer has already sold the crop at low rates because they need money and they need it quickly to cover the costs and prepare for the next cycle. The government needs to come up with timely policies so that small-scale farmers can also benefit and not just bigger farmers with resources and capacity to sit on their crops until policies come,” says this farmer.
Pandey from Bihar’s Rohtas says crop failure to a farmer is like the death of a child.
He says, “Crop failure is like the death of a child for the farmer. The crop is sown and nourished like a child. There are similar hopes too, such as the crop sustaining the farmer like a child would sustain their parents in old age. Therefore, crop failure hits farmers hard like the death of a child. How do you deal with that?”