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Millions of Indian Farmers Hit by Spell of Unseasonable Rains

A farmer stands in his wheat field, which was damaged by unseasonal rains, at Vaidi village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, March 25, 2015.

Unseasonable rains and hailstorms have damaged wide swathes of crops in India, one of the world’s biggest producers of commodities such as wheat. The government has promised to enhance compensation for millions of farmers, who are staring at huge losses.

Rains lashed much of India through March -- normally the time when dry weather and rising temperatures ripen the wheat crop, making it ready to harvest.

Besides wheat, farmers growing vegetables, fruits and oilseeds also reported extensive damage due to the erratic weather.

Officials estimate that about 9 million hectares have been affected across 14 states - many of them major food-producing ones such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

In a country where millions depend on farming, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said compensation will be increased by 50 per cent and will be given to those who have lost a third of their crop, higher than earlier limits.

He said the government has directed insurance companies to extend help and banks to restructure farmers’ loans.

The Prime Minister said the problem is widespread and comes at a time when farmers were ready to sell their crops, so it is as if their incomes have gone up in flames and their labor wasted.

The Prime Minister’s announcement came as reports mount of widespread distress caused by the crop losses in rural India. Nearly two-thirds of India depends on farm incomes. Domestic news media already have reported dozens of cases of suicides by farmers in debt.

Food security expert Devinder Sharma in New Delhi said even a single crop loss can devastate rural households because a majority of farmers in India own small plots of land, which yield very low incomes.

“In India, the average landholding size is about 1.3 hectares, which means roughly about three acres. So you can imagine, 11,000 Rs ($180) is roughly what you are going to earn from that piece of land in six months, and so he is always ready to collapse given any aggregation in weather or anything else,” said Sharma.

But not all farmers are facing ruin. In the northern Haryana state, for example, some villages have begun implementing agricultural practices to protect them against the vagaries of weather with the help of the government and other organizations.

One such initiative is led by research consortium, Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.

Agriculture economist, Surabhi Mittal, who is involved in the project, explained how practices such as proper leveling of land are helping these farmers.

“The unevenness is less and so the stagnating water would be less, in terms of when there is excess water. Also the soil quality improves, and therefore the water does not stand, it penetrates down. And a lot of these farmers have been giving us feedback that they were able to see less losses relative to farmers who were either in low lying areas or in areas where they have not done these, so the water kept standing over there,” said Mittal.

Economists say that although the crop losses have been devastating for many farmers, they may not directly impact India’s economic growth because farming accounts for less than 15 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.