When it rains it pours

Unseasonal rains and floods have caused havoc for farmers throughout India, with one farmer in the tiny Himalayan state of Sikkim suffering her worst harvest 55 years

Divya Kolady

When it rains it pours

The landlocked Indian state of Sikkim is renowned for it’s mountainous beauty. It shares the Himalayan mountain range with Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. It’s the country’s smallest state but a magnet for tourists.

The 100 year old Geyzing Bazaar in West Sikkim’s biggest town is a recommended tourist site in the spring time. Farmers gather from miles away to sell their produce laid out on sheets fringing the main square.

You are told to expect a noisy, colourful affair with passionate haggling over mounds of ripe and robust fruits and vegetables.

The scene I came across was subdued. Only a few shoppers were circling the market, and the bargaining was hushed. The produce carefully stacked on sheets in small piles looked anemic, and the farmers - despondent.

They told me it’s been a tough winter, there was more snow than usual, and heavy rains flooded fields continuously over the past few months. With tourist season starting, this should be one of their most profitable periods. This is the time crops grown in the winter months are harvested for sale to the busy kitchens of hotels and restaurants.

Monmaya Lepsiang says she’s had one of the worst harvests in her 55 years of farming. Like most of the other farmers in West Sikkim, her plot is a small family-run affair. She tells me, her crops for the previous two seasons have failed, and she’s had to replant and experiment with other seeds to find out what would survive the unusual weather. She’s managed to feed and educate her seven children by selling her produce at the market place twice a week, but this year it may not be enough.

Tales of farmers’ woes are not confined to the Himalayan foothills. The average rainfall between March and mid-April in India was double the same period in previous years. According to the India Meteorological Department, over 80 percent of the country received “excess” rains. Across India, downpours and hailstorms have damaged crops leaving farmers with just a fraction of the produce they would have otherwise harvested. Government figures show that unseasonable rain has already damaged 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres) of crop.

MK Venu a financial journalist and Executive Editor of the Hindi broadsheet Amar Ujala publications, says it is a huge worry for the government. He’s written extensively about the issue and says the economic impact has been felt across other industries. The agricultural sector engages 49 percent of India’s workforce.

According to the government’s economic survey for 2014-15, growth in the agricultural sector languished at 1.1 percent. Government agricultural advisors are now warning that it could hit zero this year.

Farmers were tightening their belts well before the unseasonal rains and erratic weather set in. Venu says they were already reeling from the 30-40 percent drop in global commodity prices. He adds that the deluge could be the last straw for many farmers, entirely wiping out their livelihood. Venu tells Fruit & Veg World that the government’s offer of compensation is just temporary relief and they need a long-term strategy for the agricultural sector.

Tourist season in West Sikkim ends once the monsoons begin in July. Unlike the rains in the previous months, Monmaya Lepsiang and fellow farmers look forward to these downpours. They are a vital source of irrigation. Planting and harvesting take place after the monsoon season. But the skies look set to disappoint again. The government’s meteorological department is predicting less than average rainfall this summer, and so forecasting another tough year ahead for India’s agricultural community.


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