For a rainy day

  • 30/07/2007

The onset of the monsoon is the crucial determinant for majority of farmers in rainfed areas of the country. With no access to irrigation or state support they have developed complex yet fascinating mechanisms that sustain agriculturewhether it is a birds nesting habit or the clouds. There is, however, a constant in their lives. That of uncertainty.

Story of a cow and a crow
Hajia Gomnaji, a 50-year-old Bhil resident of Devki village in Rajasthan's Dungarpur district, is optimistic about monsoons this year. The prologue to the agriculture season is long, a very long foreplay of hope and optimism. But Hajia's hopes have been high since Diwali last year. That was nine months ago. It is one day after Diwali when Bhils celebrate gai-gouriwhere a number of brightly painted cows are made to run towards temple gates from a common point. There is a method in this madness.The colour of the first cow that crosses the temple gate represents people's fortunes the following year. It is believed that if it is a white cow then the monsoons next year would be good, if a brown cow wins it represents average rainfall and a black cow symbolises drought. And in Hajia's village, a white cow beat the others in the race.

Fast forward to January 2007. The positive message needs to be cross-checked. On the Hindu new year in mid-January, villagers catch a robin, feed the bird with milk, grain and ghee before releasing it. The first tree the bird perches on signifies what the year ahead would be like. If it sits on a green tree, it signifies good monsoon and a dry tree means cloudless sky. "This year the bird sat on a young tree signifying good rains and crops," says Hajia. "The rains have always been important, what has changed over time is the dependence on them," Kalu Bhil asserts. After the district's forest cover thinned, more and more people depend on agriculture now for survival than before, though with enormous constraints. With 86 per cent of its agriculture rainfed and 60 per cent of the population dependent on agriculture, monsoons script people's lives. So hopes -- the most precious tool for farmers in Indias rainfed areas -- float whenever there is a sign of a good monsoon.

However, the constant of uncertainty comes into play again. Strongly. What if they are proved wrong? The uneasiness in the villagers' eyes is stark. "What you see around you is what there is to our lives," says Sampa, a 40-year-old resident of Gowadi village in the Saagwada block of the district. Pointing to the barren fields full of stones, she adds: "We end up migrating to Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Some men even go to Kuwait for manual labour."

Alternatives have ceased to exist. "Earlier, farmers had alternatives if rains failed. These included innovative ways of cropping, changing the crop sown to varieties that needed only a few showers to mature, like millet. But currently, due to years of stress migration, people are losing the will and the knowledge to invest in rainfed agriculture," asserts Shailendra Tiwari, head of natural resource development at Seva Mandir, an ngo based in Udaipur. "The public distribution system (pds) distributes coarse corn and red wheat to villagers, so where can we go looking for better quality foodgrain? If the government procures only corn and wheat and even though our lands do not support wheat we have no option but to grow corn. Whatever little rice that people grow never reaches the market," says Gumla Bhurji of Saagwada. This has given rise to monocropping, which in turn has enhanced the chances of crop failure in the face of scanty rainfall. This has laid a debt trap.More than 50 per cent of farmers in major rainfed agricultural states like Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra are indebted, according to the Yth round of survey by the National Sample Survey Organisation.

Cold comfort
The situation isnt much different down south. Laxamama Reni and her husband Anjeria Kumar from Nyalkal village of Medak district, Andhra Pradesh, are expectantly waiting for the monsoons to cultivate their 2 acres (0.8 ha) of rainfed land. In anticipation of the monsoons, they have finished tilling in March. Early tilling increases water retention capacity of the soil. Stakes are high for farmers like Laxamama as 70 per cent of Medak's agriculture is rainfed and rainfall has been drastically below average in two of the past five years.

Both Laxamama and Anjeria are worried about a decline in yield and income. "While the cost of inputs such as labour, fertiliser and seeds have increased drastically, the yield has been stagnant since the past five years," says Anjeria. With no irrigation facilities, the couple has been growing traditional and less water-intensive rainfed crops like sorghum, red gram and green gram. Agriculture gets them Rs 6,000 per month, subject to rains, of course. Their three children are not sure of even taking up agriculture for subsistence.

"The average groundwater table in the district has gone down from 25 meters during 1996-97 to about 100 meters during 2006-07. Farmers there are following monocrop method," says K Jagannadharao, project coordinator, Centre for Environmental Concerns, a Hyderabad-based ngo.

Eastern blues
In neighbouring Orissa, the poorest state of the country, with large agricultural areas being rainfed, the uncertainty strikes hard on farmer Ladukishor Mishra of Kudapada village in Baudh district. "Earlier, we had just the monsoon to worry about. Unfriendly government policies are an additional burden," he says. The village has long forgotten the rainfed crops and has had to switch to water-intensive crops like paddy and wheat because the market favours these.

Most farmers here do not have the capacity to suffer crop loss, and are hence cautious. "We start ploughing only after monsoon arrives," says Ladukishor. The often-reliable bio-indicators for a rainfed farmer stand redundant when there is a financial crunch. This year a crow nested in a leafy tree -- traditionally a good indicator of monsoons. But the residents are not excited. Every year, the village's priest addresses a gathering to talk about weather. Ladukishor dismisses the priest's visit as just another "ritual".

Fragile equation
For a rainfed farmer, preparing for agriculture is a fragile soil-water equation, where timeliness and precision decide on the returns. Even a week's delay in rains can spoil the harvest, for most of the rains is received within 100 hours, spread over five months. Thus, rainfed agriculture follows a complete cycle based on the moisture content of the soil.

As rainwater has to seep into soil through the surface, the land has to be kept open for receiving more and more moisture. It should also be free of weeds and levelled, wherever necessary, so that the maximum rainwater seeps into the soil. Therefore, land must be prepared before sowing to capitalise on the moisture available after the previous harvest and rain received during the off-season. Thus, tilling must begin in March. In April, the pre-monsoon rainfall is partly lost by bare soil evaporation and partly stored in the soil profile. In May, the soil has minimal moisture, enough to take some rainfed crops like bajra and mandia (a coarse millet). Crops are usually sown and grown during the next three months. The moisture levels in September and October make it unsuitable for any crop.This further deteriorates during November-January as the crops already planted consume water for maturing. In February, the soil-water storage is completely depleted and no crop growth is possible. Thus, for the rainfed areas the effective length of the growing season is five months. And these constraints make just one crop possible.

"Livelihoods in rainfed areas are complex and are marked by variability. Farmers mostly trade hunger as a coping mechanism," says Pradeep Bhargava of Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur.

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