Missing monsoon

Published : Oct 06, 2006 00:00 IST

Assam faces the threat of a famine as monsoon failure causes serious damage to the winter paddy crop.


SAUKAT ALI of Monahkuchi village in the Boromboi area of lower Assam's Hajo revenue circle will not reap the fruits of his labour. With an unprecedented drought-like situation damaging his one and a half acres of sali (winter) paddy, Ali's family of six is now staring hunger in the face. The rice stock in his granary is depleting fast and the spectre of famine looms large.

It is a paradoxical situation for Ali and hundreds of other farmers in the village, 40 kilometres away from Guwahati. The Puthimari river, which flows by the village, had ravaged standing crops during the floods in 2004, but this year the paddy crop has withered away for want of water. The farmers have not got even a drop of water in the past 14 years from the nearby Boromboi river pumping station. Only two of the seven motors of the irrigation facility are now functional. The adjacent village receives water but it is too meagre to irrigate even 70 bighas (1 hectare = 7.5 bighas) of paddy.

As a fire-fighting measure, the State government has begun to distribute diesel free of cost to affected farmers who have access to shallow tubewells or low-lift pumps. However, only 68,613 ha of the affected paddy area has been covered under this programme.

Assam normally experiences two or three waves of floods every year. But this year the kharif season saw a drastic reduction in precipitation, which resulted in a severe drought-like situation in the State.

From June 1 to September 5, the State received only 897.9 mm of rainfall as against the normal rainfall of 1,311.5 mm during this period. Dhubri district recorded the highest deficit at 60 per cent, followed by Nagaon district with 54 per cent, and Sonitpur and Kamrup districts with 52 per cent.

Rice being the staple food in Assam, paddy is cultivated in three cropping seasons known as ahu, sali and boro. Sali paddy accounts for 80 per cent of the total paddy area in the State, that is, about 16.77 lakh hectares. The rain-fed sali paddy accounts for 28.51 lakh metric tonnes of rice. Owing to the poor rainfall, the State is likely to show a deficit in rice production this year. In recent years, the State had become marginally surplus in rice.

As sali paddy is the main kharif crop, the drought conditions will adversely affect the State's economy and also rural employment. There are 26.83 lakh farming families in the State. Marginal farmers comprise the biggest section of it, with 62.22 per cent; small farmers account for 20.91 per cent, semi-medium farmers 13.09 per cent, medium farmers 3.59 per cent and large farmers a mere 0.19 per cent.

Because of the severe drought-like conditions, no transplantation could be made on 2,72,049 ha of sali paddy area. The total estimated loss from transplanted sali crop and uncovered traditional sali crop stands at Rs.505.23 crores. The anticipated loss from drought-affected transplanted area has been calculated by the Agriculture Department at Rs.600 kg/ha (in terms of rice).

The drought conditions have exposed the inadequate and ineffective irrigation system in the State. Eight major schemes have not been completed; some of them are pending since 1975. The Irrigation Department with a mammoth workforce of 27,000 uses a good part of the funds to pay salaries. The irrigation schemes lie defunct for want of maintenance or the non-availability of power. The State has a total irrigation potential of 27 lakh ha but only 6.84 lakh ha of crop land has been brought under irrigation schemes. The Irrigation Department claims that completed schemes cover a total area of 3.29 lakh ha. But farmers' bodies such as the Assam State Kisan Sabha refute the claim and attribute the prevailing situation to the absence of a proper irrigation system and the failure of the department to supply water to drought-hit farmers.

Under the World Bank-funded Rs.566.14-crore Assam Rural Infrastructure and Allied Services Project (ARIASP) completed in 2004, 70,450 shallow tubewells were installed for the optimum utilisation of groundwater for irrigation. The Rs.1,025-crore Assam Area Competitiveness Project funded by the World Bank is currently under way for the installation of 60,000 shallow tubewells and 20,000 low-lift pumps. The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) partly funded the installation of shallow tubewells in 18 districts in 1999 under the Rs.230-crore Samridha Krishak Yojana.

The policy thrust of these programmes was the participation of farmers - the users had to share the installation cost and subsequent repair and maintenance costs. These schemes also marked the beginning of the gradual withdrawal of the state from its responsibility to finance and maintain irrigation schemes, passing the burden to farmers in the name of participatory programmes.

A Central team comprising D.R. Negi, Director (Crops) at the Ministry of Agriculture, and P. Umashankar, Managing Director of the National Cooperatives Development Corporation (NCDC), visited three affected districts - Nagaon, Morigaon and Sonitpur - on September 17 and 18 and held discussions with senior officials in the Departments of Agriculture, Revenue, Irrigation, and Panchayat and Rural Development to assess the crop damage and measures adopted by the State government to mitigate farmers' woes.

State Agriculture Minister Pramila Rani Brahma told Frontline that the State government was laying stress on the production of summer rice and rabi crops such as pulses, wheat and vegetables to cope with the crisis. The programme of free distribution of certified black gram seeds was targeted to cover 1,33,333 affected farm families in the rabi phase I. The Minister admitted that the free diesel scheme was not very successful as most farmers found the five litres of diesel too little to irrigate their fields and hence did not show any interest in the scheme. Besides, many shallow tubewells were in a state of disrepair.

Moreover, in the absence of an effective monitoring mechanism the free diesel did not reach many farmers. Ali and other farmers of Boromboi complained that they did not get their share even though their names had been collected by the respective gram sevaks. The Agriculture Department had moved the Revenue Department for the sanction of Rs.50.49 crores for the implementation of a detailed relief programme under rabi phase II in the form of input support to affected farmers by way of free distribution of seeds of wheat, Boro rice, pulses and vegetables and free tractor service. However, the Revenue Department slashed down the amount to Rs.28 crores on the grounds that some sali paddy areas had received rainfall after September 5 and the damage would be less than that anticipated by the Agriculture Department.

The Assam State Kisan Sabha has alleged that the response of the Tarun Gogoi-led coalition government to the farmers' plight has been very poor. Thousands of farmers took to the streets on September 5 across the State at the instance of the Kisan Sabha demanding immediate relief and compensation. The peasants' body has warned that the failure of the government to tackle the situation will push farmers to suicide, as in Andhra Pradesh.

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