Rural distress could worsen in India’s food bowl states, which have been hit by droughts in the past two years, thereby leading to lower yields. As a result, rural income could fall, which, in turn, might trigger mass migration to urban areas.
“Farmers in Bundelkhand area of the state might soon pack their bags and move to towns in search of livelihood,” said Sahiblal Shukla, a farmer in Chitrakut in Uttar Pradesh. “The two successive drought years have left very little water in the reservoirs and that will not be sufficient for farming. The moisture content in the soil has also depleted due to less rain; this has compressed the sowing area.”
Sharing the same concerns, Akhlesh Singh of Banda in Uttar Pradesh said the rural employment guarantee scheme could barely provide for a family during such precarious situations, and so the movement to towns was the only option.
There have been several cases of farmer suicides in the northern states in the current year. According to experts, such incidents might rise and the slow progress of rabi sowing is an indication of the repercussions of the widespread drought.
Officials in the Uttar Pradesh agriculture department say rabi sowing so far this year could cover only 25 per cent of the area, compared with 47 per cent last year. The state has 84 per cent of its total wheat sowing area under irrigation, which leaves 1.5 million hectares non-irrigated.
Pulses can be an alternative rabi crop, since they need less amount of water compared to wheat, but lower yields in the past two years owing to droughts have left fewer seeds available for sowing. If all farmers start sowing pulses, the demand cannot be met, said a senior official.
Uttar Pradesh has the largest area under wheat. It was 30.3 million hectares in the rabi marketing season of 2013-14. This dwindled to 20.05 million hectares in 2014-15. If sufficient rain does not fall in the month of December, farmers will have to sit idle, the official added.
The Madhya Pradesh agriculture department is projecting a shortfall of 500,000 to 600,000 hectare in the state’s wheat sowing area this year. Last year, six million hectare was covered under wheat; this year, it might not cross 5.4 to 5.5 million hectare. The state government has decided to offer farm loans at zero interest, but experts say not many farmers would avail of the loan since they fear they won’t be able to repay the principal.
Ajayvir Jakhar, chairman of the non-governmental organisation Bhartiya Krishak Samaj, finds the situation precarious in pockets that are totally dependent on the rain. He expects a 20 per cent decrease in sowing in rainfed areas.
The sowing area in Punjab and Haryana might not vary much since the farmers in these states manage to irrigate the field at any cost. But the rural indebtedness escalates every year, with the cost of cultivation increasing at a higher proportion than the return on investment.
“Saving the crop is Punjab farmers’ priority even if he burns his fingers and is forced to commit suicide later,” he added.
The Food Corporation of India has an estimated target of 25 million tonnes of wheat.
For policy makers, this is the time to go beyond the statistics on food grain stocks. Industrial growth has been crawling, so urban migration might not be the panacea for rural distress. Job creation in the rural areas and integrated farming can bring some hope for the languishing rural economy.