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‘Never seen wheat destroyed like this’ — in Punjab, a downpour leaves fields flattened & farmers despairing

Bathinda: Acres and acres of fields lie smashed, wheat scattered in the stinking mud as if struck by some hammer-blow from above. Some pale stalks still stand, but their kernels open to reveal shrivelled grain. 

“Looks like cumin, doesn’t it,” asks a farmer.  

Unseasonal rains and strong winds — and, allegedly, official apathy — have enervated wheat growers in the southwestern parts of Punjab, especially in the Malwa region. The state government estimates that around 40 per cent of Punjab’s sown area has been severely affected by the rains, and expects to see a loss of around 15-20 per cent of grains this year.

In the week before the beginning of the harvest season (24-30 March), Bathinda district in particular witnessed rainfall 3,800 per cent above the normal level, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD).  

IMD map showing seasonal rainfall in Punjab from 1 March to 6 April | Source: India Meteorological Department
IMD map showing seasonal rainfall in Punjab from 1 March to 6 April | Source: India Meteorological Department

While officials estimate that less than 10 per cent of farms in Bathinda have been severely affected, the extent of the losses won’t be known for sure until the government completes an on-ground assessment, the girdawari, which is now underway. 

As you travel through the villages dotting the region, farmers, particularly small ones, evince deep despair. They speak of unprecedented destruction of crops — what’s lying on the ground isn’t even good enough for animal fodder — and serious financial loss. Some are protesting, demanding greater compensation than the government has offered. 

These losses come as wheat prices are already running high. The wholesale price index (average price level before reaching consumers in the market) reported for wheat was above 16 per cent till February of the financial year 2022-23, according to the latest release by the office of the economic adviser. However, experts ThePrint spoke to say it’s difficult to make an inflation forecast without mandi arrival figures for the current harvest season.

Speaking to ThePrint, Ashok Gulati, Infosys Chair professor of agriculture at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), says, “As of now, one need not worry for the next three-four months…by June-end, we will know how much government procurement is. Then the government can decide about imports, if necessary.” He adds that with rice stocks at “three times the buffer stock norms”, rice can be substituted for wheat in the public distribution system.


Also read: Acres of wheat flattened by rain in Haryana. Farmers worry about aid, ICAR confident of 112 mn tonnes target


‘I’ll get nothing out of this’

“Never in my life have I seen wheat crops destroyed like this,” says Baldev Kaur, a 70-year-old small farmer in the village of Bhalaiana in Muktsar district, in the Malwa region.  

She then goes to her farm next door, where more than 80-90 per cent of her wheat harvest lies on the ground in wet mud. As you approach, there’s a nasty smell in the air — wheat fields in this low-lying part of Punjab have a water logging problem. 

Plucking one of the heads of a wheat plant, Baldev picks out the wheat kernels — showing how wet and muddy they are. “I will get nothing out of this,” she says. 

Baldev and her family own very little land, around 6 killa or 2.8 hectares. But not only have the torrential rains destroyed her fields, they’ve also wrecked her family’s dwelling — the roof of her pucca house collapsed, fortunately claiming no lives. 

Baljinder Singh at his house, destroyed by a heavy hailstorm on 24 March | Photo: Nikhil Rampal | ThePrint
Baljinder Singh at his house, destroyed by a heavy hailstorm on 24 March | Photo: Nikhil Rampal | ThePrint

“It’s not just the loss of crop — I also lost Rs 18-20 lakh of money I spent on building this house with my savings eight years ago. Agricultural produce can be recovered in the next cycle, but what about the years of savings I lost,” asks Baljinder Singh, Baldev’s son.

Travelling across Bathinda’s western villages, you see vast stretches of destroyed fields. But the wheat lying on the ground is patchy — some of the crop is still standing. 

“The crop that’s standing had a stronger stem and roots, but its head was light, so it didn’t fall. The standing crop is likely to get fewer kernels than what’s on the ground,” says Satpal Singh, a young farmer in Killi Nihal Singh Wala, a village about 20 kilometres from Bathinda city. 

In the same village, Satpal’s friends demonstrate that even though grains are visible on the wheat on the ground, the crop underneath is black.

Showing the black plant heads, Gurvinder Singh, another young villager from Killi Nihal Singh Wala who has just 3 killa or 1.2 hectares of wheat land, says, “See how destroyed it is; even animals can’t be fed this waste. The wheat grain is germinating again — which means no atta can come out of this.” 

Satpal adds that since he doesn’t expect to get fodder from his wasted crops, he’s planning to sell his cattle. “It’s too much for me to afford their maintenance”.


Also read: Inertia or economics? Why Punjab’s farmers can’t move beyond rice and wheat


Extent of loss

On 27 March, right after the torrential rains, the state’s agriculture director, Gurvinder Singh, had told the press that around 15 lakh hectares — over 40 per cent of Punjab’s sown area — had been severely impacted by the adverse weather conditions, and that the state would witness a 15-20 per cent loss of grains this year. 

This is the second time in a row that Punjab’s major winter crop has had negative impacts on its produce. Last year, a heatwave had drained out the wheat crop; this led to the shrivelling of seeds, resulting in a lower yield. But this year, the quality of the wheat is also worrying to both farmers and procurers.

“At least last year, while there was some loss in quantity, we could still get the money for the low yield we had. But this year, the crop we have is not worth taking to the market; nobody’s going to buy this waste,” says another farmer from Bhalaina, Sukhpal Singh.

Farmers show shrivelled grains from the residual crop standing in the field | Photo: Nikhil Rampal | ThePrint
Farmers show shrivelled grains from the residual crop standing in the field | Photo: Nikhil Rampal | ThePrint

And it’s not just the loss of produce. Farmers are unanimous in emphasising how the village economy runs on receipts from grains.

“If the farmer doesn’t get the money from his produce, he can’t make payments to his aadhati (local creditor) for the input loan he took on the promise of the harvest. The farmer also can’t pay his labourers for their work. People in Punjab are dependent on agriculture; if they don’t have the money, there will be no people visiting markets, and consumption spending declines,” says Sukhjeevan Singh, a local farm leader based in Bathinda. 

But according to government officials who wished not to be named, less than 10 per cent of farms in Bathinda are likely to have been affected by this adverse weather.

“There are about 270 villages in Bathinda and about 20-25 of them have been impacted severely. Another 19-20 have minor impacts. But overall, in about 80 per cent of the remaining areas, the crop is still standing,” an official told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.

However, how much crop loss has really occurred will be clear only once the girdawari is completed. This is a process in which the patwari, a local revenue official, visits villages and estimates the losses. CM Mann announced on 27 March that he had issued directions for a special girdawari to be carried out to assess the damage to crops.

Girdawari

The patwari of Killi Nihal Singh Wala spreads his canvas map on top of a car, marks his route with traditional pinpoints, and sets off. Farmers follow, as does ThePrint.  

He stops at a farm, looks out across the fields, and flips open a huge notebook. Questions follow: Who owns the farm? Is it cultivated by a tenant and if so, what’s their name? He jots down more information about the farm and the wheat lying on the ground, and swiftly moves on to the next.  

The patwari of the village Killi Nihal Singh Wala using a canvas map to lay out his route for the girdawari | Photo: Nikhil Rampal | ThePrint
The patwari of the village Killi Nihal Singh Wala using a canvas map to lay out his route for the girdawari | Photo: Nikhil Rampal | ThePrint

It’s the patwaris who carry out this vital exercise — but Punjab currently has a shortage of such officials. According to a report by The Tribune, the Bhagwant Mann government slashed around 1,000 patwari positions last year. And about 50 per cent of the remaining sanctioned posts are reportedly lying vacant. 

When asked how the administration is dealing with this HR crisis, Showkat Ahmad Parray, the deputy commissioner of Bathinda, says the district administration is rationalising its human resources to assist girdawari in the worst-affected areas. 

“We have asked the patwaris of the village circles where there are relatively less affected areas to go and conduct girdawari in areas where the crop is heavily destroyed. We also have around 60 patwaris who are under training, who can go to assist these patwaris and gain real-life experience,” says Parray. 


Also read: SKM facing factionalism, rebellions in unions. What it means for farmers’ movement


Farmers’ protest

As ThePrint is speaking to the deputy commissioner, there are about 200-300 farmers from the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan) or BKU holding a dharna outside his office. The union had played a leading role in the protests at Delhi’s borders against the three controversial farm laws in 2020-21.   

The farmers complain that the girdawari isn’t being carried out in a timely and swift manner. 

“When they have to fine us for stubble burning, they use satellite imagery, they come in no time to hand out notices. Our crop has been lying on the ground, we are devastated — and no official is coming in time,” says Harinder Kaur, who’s in charge of the BKU Bathinda women’s wing. 

Wheat crop lying on the ground after incessant rains and hailstorms | Photo: Nikhil Rampal | ThePrint
Wheat crop lying on the ground after incessant rains and hailstorms | Photo: Nikhil Rampal | ThePrint

Later, these farmers give the deputy commissioner a list of their demands, including a provision that the affected parties must be paid at least Rs. 50,000 per acre as compensation for their loss. 

What the Mann government has offered is Rs 15,000 per acre — that too for those that have suffered 100 per cent loss. The farmers say this is too little considering the devastation the season has caused. On average, they say, they used to report a yield of about Rs 40,000 to 60,000 per acre. In addition, there’s the issue that smaller farmers, who run on very low capital, are indebted. 

It’s not just farmers in Punjab. On Monday, the Union government said crop damage had been reported in about 5.23 lakh hectares of land in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. But agriculture commissioner P.K. Singh told PTI last week that despite these losses, the government hopes for a bumper harvest of 112 million tonnes in this crop year, ending in June. 

In many of these states, however, the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) — a partly centrally sponsored crop insurance scheme implemented in 2016 — provides a cushion for farmers. But thus far, Punjab isn’t part of this programme. 

When the scheme was introduced in 2016, the then Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government rejected the idea owing to the extra costs it would incur. According to reports, the Mann government is now working on implementing the scheme starting this kharif (monsoon) crop season. 

Will it be enough?

“Year after year, the farmers are facing both the wrath of nature and the government’s apathy. Sometimes, the locust eats our cotton crop, sometimes heat waves destroy wheat — and now unseasonal rains. We want the government to think about a proper agricultural policy, to ensure farmers’ rights are protected,” says Basant Singh, a BKU spokesperson at the protest site in Bathinda.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)


Also read: ‘No other option’ — as its fields turn black & skies smoky, why Punjab won’t stop burning stubble


Source: The Print

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