The phone calls began to pour in mid-April, bringing grim news every time. With each conversation, Onkar Singh would hear of one more farmer in northern India’s Punjab state who had died by suicide.
As a farmer in Punjab himself, Mr. Singh understood their pain: A record-breaking heat wave that started sweeping through large parts of India last month has led to a devastating crop loss. It also exposed hundreds of millions of people to dangerous temperatures and sparked critical shortages of water and power.
Mr. Singh, general secretary of Bhartiya Kisan Union, one of the largest farmers’ representative organizations in Punjab, knew his team had to send out the message to stay resilient.
“In April alone, 21 farmers in the state killed themselves because of low yield and mounting debts. The loss of income due to the heat sent them over the edge. We are now trying to appeal to farmers to ride out the challenges and continue to demand support from the government,” said Mr. Singh, who is based in Patiala.
The unprecedented heat wave sent temperatures soaring past 45 last month, causing dozens of people to die of heat stroke. The brunt of it is now being borne by thousands of farmers across central, northern and western regions, who report a crippling drop in harvest – by as much as 50 per cent in places. Punjab, one of the biggest suppliers to India’s national crop reserves, along with Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, are among the worst-hit states.
According to the India Meteorological Department, central and northwest parts of the country experienced the hottest April in 122 years. A combination of local atmospheric conditions – including anticyclones and a lack of sudden rain storms known as western disturbances – led to the early and extreme heat wave, IMD officials said.
The hit to agriculture puts a question mark on whether India will have adequate supply to export wheat – badly needed to make up for some of the global shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Those two countries are some of the world’s biggest suppliers of wheat.) At a meeting to review wheat supply and exports last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “quality norms and standards” must be maintained, “so that India evolves into an assured source of food grain and other agricultural products.”
But in light of widespread shrivelling of wheat grains, Punjab’s Chief Minister, Bhagwant Mann, has demanded that the Modi administration relax grain specifications and ease wheat procurement norms, which would protect farmers’ incomes by fetching them a fair price for their produce.
“When the harvesting of wheat on my fields began mid-April, I saw that the yield was only 15 quintals per acre, as compared to the 20 quintals of wheat per acre I usually get. The grains had shrunk to half the usual size. The heat had made them weak,” Mr. Singh said.
Though warnings of the dangerous rise in temperatures had been issued to farmers in the biggest wheat producing states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, agricultural experts said not many were able to immediately implement recommendations such as supplementary irrigation.
“We have demanded cash relief and free power to ease the pressure on farmers. Most farmers have suffered a 40 to 50 per cent loss in yield. They are unable to pay back their loans,” Mr. Singh added.
Many fear the worst is yet to come.
“The increasing number of suicides is just the beginning. We expect the crisis to continue for a while,” said Satnam Singh, a farmer in Mandour village, near Nabha town in Punjab.
“It has already come as a blow to daily expenses, and will affect our health, children’s education, our future. The problem is climate change as a whole. The heat affected wheat productivity, which in turn has caused a shortage of animal fodder, the wheat straw. Fodder has become more expensive. But we can’t do without it.”
Punjab has recorded its lowest per hectare wheat yield in 15 years, a fall of 29 per cent from last year.
“When temperatures suddenly rose in March, four degrees higher than usual, crops got less time for grain formation. So they shrivelled up,” said Pavneet Kaur Kingra, professor of agricultural meteorology at Punjab Agricultural University. “At the same time, earlier this year we saw fewer sunshine hours due to a longer period of low temperatures and unseasonal rains in January. So there have been large and extreme variations in the climate.”
Though India does experience periods of intense heat every summer, this year’s scorching weather is markedly different. “It is unusual because of the magnitude of the increase in temperature. It is much greater this time, the highest since 1970,” she noted.
After a brief dip, another heat wave began this week. Farmers such as Satnam Singh are bracing themselves for a long summer ahead, with the season’s hottest phase yet to come.
“I also suffered a low potato yield this year, with a 30 per cent crop loss, because of unseasonal rain in January and a longer spell of cold. When the weather changes so drastically, farmers feel its full impact in the long term on multiple fronts,” he said.
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