Staring at looming drought, Jharkhand farmers ask: What will we grow and what will we eat?

LAST TIME, Shriram Mahato harvested about 30 quintals of paddy from his 3.5-acre field in Jharkhand’s Bokaro district, with the income enough to meet his family’s needs for a year. The crop’s byproduct, straw, was used to feed the cattle.

On Tuesday, the 65-year-old stood near his empty land in Sadma Khurd village, a folded umbrella tucked under his shoulder, staring at the sky. He has not yet been able to fully plant his crop and has already spent about Rs 10,000 on seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, and Rs 4,000 on ploughing a small portion of his field. The rice from last year’s harvest will keep his family of eight going for “about 15 days more”. “There has been no rainfall, what will we grow and what will we eat?” he asked.

A drought is looming over Jharkhand this year.

According to senior state government officials, Chief Minister Hemant Soren raised the issue at the NITI Aayog meeting chaired by the Prime Minister last week. Jharkhand’s Agriculture Department has launched a statewide survey to “understand the depth of the drought” and the condition of farmers.

Agriculture Department Director Nisha Oraon said the government will offer packages to farmers after the survey report is submitted “by August 18”. “We will work on two fronts: how to compensate farmers and ensure a contingency plan for the drought; and how to tackle food shortage due to the drought. We will extend all help possible to the farmers,” she said.

“Every three years it is the same problem, and then there is a food crisis,” said Mahato, the Bokaro farmer. He says the family’s “only hope” is his son Raj Kishore who works for daily wages as a painter in Bokaro city.

According to the India Meteorological Department, Jharkhand received deficient rainfall between June 1 and August 11 this year. While the state’s average rainfall for this period is 616.5 mm, it received only 348.3 mm this time — 44 per cent less. As on August 11, some districts, such as Chatra, Godda, Jamtara, Pakur and Sahibganj received less than 40 per cent per cent of normal rainfall while Bokaro received less than 65 per cent.

Abhishek Anand, scientist and officer in-charge, IMD Ranchi, said: “The onset of monsoon was in June but the rainfall was very less because conditions such as low pressure and depression were not formed during June and July, barring twice or thrice, in the North Bay of Bengal, which typically affect Bihar, Jharkhand and other regions.”

At the fields, meanwhile, there is already fear of farmers falling into debt traps.

“The last time when rains were less, in 2019, we were able to sow some crops. This year, the problem is much more because there was not enough rain for the entire sowing season. We have already spent Rs 13,000, and if it does not rain we will fall into another round of loans and debt,” said Mahato’s neighbour Nilawati Kumari, who works on fields owned by her husband’s family.

“We do get ration rice but the card covers just three of us, which means about 15 kg every month. We also get 5 kg of rice extra per person per month after the (Central) government announced it last year,” Mahato said.

Mahato, who holds a Priority Household (PHH) ration card for rural families, was referring to the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), launched during the Covid lockdown. The scheme, which provides 5 kg of free foodgrains additionally per month to each beneficiary covered under the National Food Security Act, will end on September 30.

“My family will be in severe crisis if this scheme is discontinued,” Mahato said.

Officials point out that the impact of deficient rainfall over the years in Jharkhand is seen in the shrinking area of paddy cultivation. In 2016-17, the area under cultivation was 17,06,000 hectares. This dipped to 13,57,000 hectares in 2019-20. In 2021-22, the cultivation area increased to Rs 17,50,000 hectares, which produced 51,16,000 tonnes of paddy. In 2021-22, crop was cultivated in only 17,11,000 hectares, generating 44,60,000 tonnes of paddy.
At the NITI Aayog meeting, officials said Soren sought a “drought relief package” from the Centre, pointing out that this year “Jharkhand has received less than 50 per cent of rainfall and the sowing (of paddy) have been done in less than 20 per cent of the land” so far.

According to officials, he also said that the state “bears the brunt of drought every three-four years since there are no irrigation facilities”.

Official data shows that about 80 per cent of the state’s population, residing in around 32,500 villages, depend on agriculture and allied activities for livelihood. It also shows that for farming, 85 per cent of groundwater is underutilised.

“The agriculture economy in Jharkhand is mostly rain-fed cultivation with a single crop — paddy. Wells are the main source of irrigation followed by tanks and canals. This system is heavily dependent on rainfall,” said an official.
The Economic Survey of 2021-22 points out that better irrigation facilities and “a judicious mix of water and land management can improve agricultural productivity” in the state.

Taking a cue, officials said, the Water Resources Department has started restoration work in 192 ponds, dams and other water bodies at a cost of around Rs 144 crore.

Agriculture Department director Oraon said that scientists have suggested ways of diversifying crops, such as sowing cereals. “We have placed orders for 60,000 quintals of seeds of cereals for the late kharif crops. We are also working on early rabi crops, which can be sown by the farmers. This is to avert a food crisis,” Oraon said, adding that she was on her way to Khunti district “to assess the situation”.

However, the disconnect between official plans and ground reality was visible when a state survey team visited Mahato’s village in Peterwar block.

“We are in deep trouble. Why don’t you tell us about schemes such as PM-KISAN?” Mahato asked the team angrily, referring to the Centrally funded scheme under which Rs 6,000 is transferred in three equal installments to eligible farmer families in a year.

“Nobody had informed us about this scheme. When we got to know about it, block officers told us that registration had stopped. It’s not a significant amount but this is the time we need money,” said Mahato’s neighbour Nilawati Kumari.
When contacted, Agriculture director Oraon said “new registrations may have been halted to do the E-KYC of all farmers”.

Jharkhand Kisan Mahasabha working president Pankaj Roy, who is from Peterwar and had come to meet the distressed farmers when the survey team arrived, asked: “Why is the Agriculture department not thinking of providing irrigation facilities when the Tenughat reservoir is barely 10km away? Why can’t check dams be built and rainwater stored?”
A member of the official team, which included district and state-level agriculture officers, replied that the visit was “only for the survey” and that farmers need to “visit the block office for any details”.

Watching the heated exchange from a distance was Koplesh Kumar Mahato, a local school teacher. “My students are unable to pay tuition fees because of the delay in sowing. Here, everything is linked to paddy,” he said.

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