NEW DELHI, India — While Californians facing serious drought are hoping for storms and floods sent their way by El Niño, on the other side of the planet the infamous Pacific climate cycle is bringing severe dry spells, too. And for some of India’s poorest people, that’s a matter of life and death.
The Indian Meteorological Department has worrisome news for the country’s farmers — 2015 will be India’s second consecutive drought year for the first time in three decades, because of the effects of El Niño on this year’s monsoon season.
As warm currents in the Pacific Ocean cause pressure changes that suck the moisture out from over India, the June-September rainy season ended this year with a 14 percent deficit in rainfall. Parts of the country have had less than half their usual rain.
Meanwhile after unexpectedly abundant rains in June, north and northeastern regions are suffering from flood damage. Both situations can prove fatal to the crops of millions of Indian farmers.
According to a 2013 survey, roughly 500 million Indians, or 40 percent of the population, depend on agriculture for at least part of their livelihood. For 27 percent, it’s their main source of income. Yet the sector generated just under 14 percent of India’s GDP in 2013-14. The average farm household makes less than $100 a month.
For farmers already living hand to mouth, the second drought year in a row stands to have devastating effects. Only around a third of India’s agricultural land is reliably irrigated, and farmers who depend on rain-fed fields will suffer from serious economic losses and hardship.
The area with the highest rainfall deficit, Marathwada district of west-central Maharashtra state, has missed out on 52 percent of its rain this year. Crops of soya bean and sugarcane have been lost entirely, and over 70 percent of monsoon crops are expected to fail. In Karnataka state in the south, where rainfall deficit is up to 45 percent in the worst hit areas, some districts are seeing crop losses as high as 85 percent.
Changes in farming practices have made farmers even more vulnerable to drought.
Marathwada, for instance, is a "rain shadow" area which typically gets less precipitation — but, like most other regions in the country, it has moved toward “cash crops” like sugarcane and cotton which demand more water than pulses and grains.
“As a result, the same water deficiency is causing more impact than in the past,” says Dr. Bandi Venkateswarlu, vice chancellor of Vasantrao Naik Marathwada Agricultural University.
Losing crops means losing money, and not just for the people who own the fields they’re grown in.
“There will be a shortfall in the income of the farmer, and landless laborers who depend on them for daily wages will also lose work,” said Venkateswarlu.
“This forces them to migrate to the cities.”
Rural migrants in India’s metropolitan areas typically look for work as day laborers and domestic helpers, and are often forced to live in slums or on the roads until they find work.
Irrigated farmland is not immune to a bad monsoon, either.
“We have had to draw more ground water, and the water levels have gone down further,” says Bhupinder Singh Mann, the national president of the Indian Farmer’s Union. Even in the prosperous and well-irrigated farmlands of Punjab, Mann explains, a bad monsoon means expensive construction of deeper wells, and more borrowing to meet these costs.
With many farmers already compelled to take on debt to cover rising costs, crop price shocks and pest attacks, another loan can prove expensive. According to official data, more than half of all agricultural households in India are in debt. Once government and formalized bank loans are exhausted, money lenders become a last resort. They tend to be less forgiving about repayment.
Precarious income, hardship and debt are some of the reasons cited for a shocking statistic about India’s ailing farmers: in the last two decades, some 300,000 of them have committed suicide. In Marathwada, ominously dubbed the farmer suicide capital of the country, as many as 628 farmers killed themselves between January and September this year.
While no official statistics are available to show a correlation between drought and suicides, experts say that poor rains contribute to the burden of indebtedness, which is considered the leading cause of India’s farmer suicides.
In Marathwada, more suicides have already been reported this year than in the whole of 2014. With the figure triple the number of cases in the year before that, this drought may have already claimed more lives than the authorities acknowledge.