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Monsoon, dry spell and a gamble for Maharashtra farmers

Farmers in Maharashtra are on tenterhooks. They have prepared their fields for the sowing of kharif (monsoon) crops, but a cloud of uncertainty hangs over their heads. On the one hand, on June 11, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) announced advancement of the southwest monsoon “into some more parts of Marathwada and Vidarbha” regions in the state; and on the other hand, in the same press release, the Met department said: “thereafter [after 48 hours] no further advance [of the monsoon] is likely for the next one week due to probable weakening of monsoon flow”. In short, the IMD has forecast a dry spell for least a week, beginning June 14.
Meanwhile, its multi-model ensemble (MME) extended range forecast for the next four weeks is hinting at the possibility of the dry spell extending up to June 28.
Dr M Rajeevan, secretary, Union Ministry of Earth Sciences, cautioned that monsoon would remain subdued for at least another 10 days, except over the north-east and west coast of the country. This is expected to delay monsoon over Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh. Since there won’t be a lot of rainfall over Maharashtra in the next 10 days, farmers should be advised about the dry spell, he said, adding that monsoon is expected to revive after June 25.
This impending dry spell has thrown the state’s farmers into a tizzy, who, after ‘good’ pre-monsoon showers (large excess rainfall of 60 percent or more in Marathwada and Vidarbha, and excess rainfall between 20 percent and 59 percent in Madhya Maharashtra for week ending June 6), were waiting to sow (locally known as perni) the kharif crops. But, the memory of last year’s failure of kharif sowing, due to a prolonged dry spell in the region, is still fresh in their minds. Predictably, the farmers are having sleepless nights, fearing another year of kharif losses.
According to Dr RR Kelkar, former director general of the IMD, the southwest monsoon takes at least 45 days to establish itself across the country, and dry spells are a part of monsoon. A dry spell becomes a matter of concern when it is prolonged and can lead to sowing/crop failure, which happened last year in Vidarbha and Marathwada, where a majority of the farmers practice rain-fed farming (due to lack of irrigation facilities).
Post-sowing, there is a need for regular rainfall so that the seeds/seedlings don’t dry or crop growth is not stunted. Sowing failure means farmers have to reinvest in buying seeds, fertilisers, and chemicals, which puts an additional financial burden on them. It must be noted that Vidarbha and Marathwada regions of Maharashtra are often referred to as the farmers’ suicide belt of India. As per news reports, over 2,414 farmers took their lives in the state, between January and October last year. The situation is no better this year.
Manik Kadam, president of Marathwada division of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, a state-level farmers’ organisation, claimed that in the last six months, about 1,880 farmers had committed suicide in Marathwada alone.
Whereas last year, both the IMD and the state government had failed to timely warn the farmers about a prolonged dry spell in the region. This year, an advisory on the dry spell was issued in advance. On June 7, the state government issued an advisory, informing farmers not to hurry with kharif sowing because of the impending dry spell. This has delayed large-scale sowing in the state. But, the worries of farmers are far from over who have to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Gajanan Divekar of Waghmare village in Yavatmal said that farmers were at their wits’ end. If they wait till the end of the month, they may miss the kharif crop cycle; but, if they sow now, the dry spell may lead to a sowing failure.
Knowingly, some farmers have taken the risk and gone for sowing of Bt cotton in talukas such as Arni (in Yavatmal), which have received good pre-monsoon showers. Kadam claimed that several small and marginal farmers, owning up to five-acre land, had already sowed Bt cotton crop in Marathwada. However, soybean farmers were still holding on, but for how long? Mohan Gojamgunde, agriculture officer of Latur, informed that in talukas receiving more than 100-125mm rainfall in pre-monsoon, farmers may go in for sowing, irrespective of the dry spell advisory. He also added that no formal communication regarding the dry spell had come from the Commissionerate of Agriculture in Pune. Agriculture officers and farmers had come to know about the dry spell from news reports or WhatsApp forwards.
Clearly, rain-fed agriculture is a gamble and desperate farmers of Marathwada and Vidarbha are its pawns. Officially, the southwest monsoon has already covered major parts of Marathwada and Vidarbha, barring some parts of madhya Maharashtra, as confirmed by Dr M Mohapatra, additional director general of IMD. But the arrival of monsoon has brought little cheer to the farmers who are hanging by a thread. The last one year has been a year of insurmountable losses to the state’s farmers, who lost their last kharif crop due to a prolonged dry spell. The Bt cotton crop, too, was lost to the pink bollworm attack. And, rabi (winter) crops were destroyed due to hailstorms early this year. In the last kharif season, the state government declared 14,679 villages as drought-hit, of which 9,799 villages were from Vidarbha. During the last rabi season, eight more talukas in three districts of Yavatmal, Washim and Jalgaon were added to the list of drought-hit areas. Can the farmers of Maharashtra cope with another dry spell?