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A farmer’s encounter with climate change

This year has been a rude awakening. Generations' worth of knowledge was not enough to prepare us for the climate crisis in my village

New knowledge to confront the billions of excruciating interdependencies of climate change challenges needs to be collated and tested in the fields. (Representational/File)

My grandfather, Balram Jakhar, was amongst the pioneers of citrus plantation in North India in the mid-1950s. In 1972, when he first became a member of Punjab’s legislative assembly, he had promised to transform the bleak near-arid, barren sand dunes into California. As his days came to a close, he loved to talk of the promise and similarities of the much-diversified farming in the area, when asked about it. We farm in village Maujgarh, in the Khuian Sarwar block of Fazilka district in Punjab.

In the block, of the 1,50,000 acres of land, about 37,000 acres are under perennial kinnow citrus plantations, while another 5,000 acres are cultivated for other fruits and vegetables. Approximately 1,00,000 acres of wheat is grown in the rabi season and 75,000 acres of cotton and 28,000 acres of paddy in the kharif season, probably making it amongst the most diversified agricultural landscapes in Punjab. Yet, this region is crying for another transformative vision, confronted as it is by the spectre of climate change. The lessons from this one speck of India, where my son and I farm, surrounded on three sides by Rajasthan, Haryana and Pakistan, are massive and frightening to those who care to know.

Come extreme winter, the flaky ice coating on the top of plants provides a lovely sight for city folks. It spells doom for farmers because that pretty coat of ice is frost and it literally burns the plants where it forms. By the time the January frost set in this year, 40 per cent of last year’s kinnow crop had been harvested and sold. The remaining fruit suffered from a frost attack, more vicious than ever before. About 20 per cent of the fruit was destroyed in a week and of whatever did survive, the damaged fruit needed to be harvested immediately, for it too started to deteriorate fast.

In mid-January, farmers would normally have had another two months of the harvesting window till mid-March. But the frost shortened the harvesting season to one month. Further, the quality of the fruit had deteriorated to the point where its shelf-life was reduced to a few days. This double whammy meant that the kinnow could not be transported to the traditional far-off markets of south India. Thus, geographically, the market for the kinnow was reduced to Uttar Pradesh. As a result, there was a glut of the fruit in the market. Consequently, the farmgate price — which had initially been hovering at a historical high of over Rs 23 per kg — fell by over half, amounting to a loss of over Rs 300 crore to the farmers of just one administrative block in India.

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Having come out of a particularly harsh winter with the long spell of January frost devastating hopes and the citrus crop, the first week of March brought hope for a new beginning in the spring. The tens of thousands of citrus orchards provided a magical sight — trees with millions of sweet-smelling white flowers and ripening wheat fields turning a golden hue, ready for harvest in April. But, within a fortnight, in the third week of March, an unexpected blistering heat wave set off uncertainty, gnawing at every farmer’s mind. It was not unusually hot but it was particularly hot for March. The farmer’s world was coming undone — wheat kernels would not fully ripen and the citrus flowers would not mature into fruit. Sure enough, the wheat yield plummeted over 20 per cent and the loss to farmers growing wheat was about Rs 100 crore. All the crops got impacted, and half the citrus crop was lost. Even by the most conservative kinnow price of 13 /Kg, approximately Rs 300 crore worth of kinnow crop was again destroyed. The resilience of the farmers has reached a breaking point.

My father, who has been living on the farm for 80 years, does not recollect suffering two extreme events within 60 days. Agriculturally, the 49 villages of the block are amongst the least prone to risk as they receive an assured supply of canal water for irrigation. In living memory, the area has never been wrecked by natural calamities like floods, cyclones, drought or earthquakes. But, with a slight variation in temperatures, it suffered an estimated loss of about Rs 700 crore. Everyone lost out in the process — including the farm workers, small shopkeepers, tailors, etc — not just the farmers. The economy was devastated. Children’s weddings are being postponed at one end and medical operations for the elderly at the other. Let that sink in for a moment.

Climate change is not a distant nightmare that will unfold when the earth crosses a statistical threshold of no return of 1.5°celsius. We are living in an era of a fast-changing climate, but just do not grasp it fully enough to be scared. Generations of knowledge were not enough to prepare us for the climate crisis in the village. Indeed, much of what we have been taught over the last few generations will need to be unlearnt. This year has been a rude awakening. New knowledge to confront the billions of excruciating interdependencies of climate change challenges needs to be collated and tested in the fields.

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Martin Wolf recently wrote: “… given the immense political and organisational challenges, the chances that humanity will prevent damaging climate change are slim.” For all practical purposes, I am convinced that irrespective of what we do in India — which is precious little anyway — the process of climate change is irreversible. The terrifying aspect is that in India, not only are we unconcerned about preparing for the inevitable (2-degree Celsius rise in 50 years), we have absolutely no clue about how events will unfold and impact us. There seems to be no substantive policy for preparation as the country enters a dark zone of political bankruptcy, bureaucratic stagnation, public ignorance and corporate trickery of garnering climate change incentives. We don’t choose the times we live in, the only choice we have is how we respond to the circumstances. And we are failing miserably at it. Our worst nightmare is yet to appear in our dreams.

The writer is chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj

First published on: 01-07-2022 at 07:37:53 pm
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