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GLOBAL AGRICULTURE : The Weather : In India, the Top Tool Is Still Rain : In the era of agribusiness and drip irrigation, the livelihoods of more than half a billion people remain tied to the monsoon.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It happened one June afternoon this year, though it could have been any of a thousand summers since men and women began scratching and wheedling and squeezing a living from this often-stingy and khaki-colored land.

By 7 in the morning, Mansingh Yadav had a feeling in his gut that it was going to be the day. The former Indian army constable with Clark Gable-like ears mounted his blue, 24-horsepower tractor, drove across the paved strip of National Highway 8 to his fields and began plowing.

At 2:30 in the afternoon, the battleship-gray clouds that had moved in from the west in ever-thickening and darker masses released their moisture, which the people of Sidhrawali had been desperately waiting for during two pantingly hot and parched months.

For an hour and a half that memorable day, it rained hard and steadily, soaking the stubble-chinned Yadav through his work clothes to the skin and depositing up to a foot of water on the 20 acres he and his younger brother own. The farmer from north India’s Haryana state was delighted and kept plowing until 7 p.m.

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“The rain was good, better than last year’s,” he said. “And a good rain means good crops.”

That was June 12. Two months later, the stalks of millet stood up to seven feet high in Yadav’s fields and were almost ready for harvesting. As the men in this large rural village of 850 families smoked their communal, cow-dung-fired hookahs on their verandas or in the shade of a mulberry tree, the mood was happy and upbeat.

“With a fine crop, we can make money,” Pyarelal Yadav, 55, Mansingh’s uncle and neighbor, who farms six acres himself, said between puffs on the water pipe.

It’s that simple. In the era of multinational agribusiness and drip irrigation, and despite colossal investments lavished on India’s “Green Revolution” to modernize the country’s agriculture, the precarious livelihoods, and even lives, of more than half a billion Indians like Yadav are still governed by the monsoon, the seasonal but fickle rains that for 90 to 100 days each year drench the subcontinent with their life-giving and cooling cloudbursts.

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So absolutely vital has the monsoon been to the growth of civilization in this part of the world that even today the people of Haryana and other areas of north India measure the passing of their lives not in years but in “rains.”

For the ancient Aryans, the most important ritual of all was the building and lighting of an altar, the recitation of mantras and the offering of sacrifices to bring the monsoon. To the same end, Yadav, 46, dutifully paints his house each year, buys new cooking and water pots, lights incense sticks and prays to the many members of the Hindu pantheon.

For the past three years, the gods have granted Yadav’s prayers. Sidhrawali has been blessed with good rains.

In the halls of power in New Delhi, the men and women who govern the world’s largest democracy chart with no less concern the progress of the monsoon, which normally begins on India’s western shores at the beginning of June and reaches the capital, one of the last spots to receive refreshment from the sky, at the end of the month.

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So crucial is this march of the rain clouds to Indian agriculture and the country’s overall economic health that the very first entry of the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation’s annual report details the “rainfall situation.” The monsoon is the great natural machine that drives Indian agriculture, the liquid power source for the most important component of the country’s economy and society.

When the monsoon fails, the consequences can be apocalyptic indeed. In the unusually arid 1760s, for instance, a third of Bengal’s peasantry starved to death.

For seven straight years, including 1994, India as a whole has had good monsoons. Rivers, wells and tanks have been filled with precious water that must last until the process begins again the following year. Grain reserves of wheat and rice have reached a staggering 29.7 million tons, a record that is 7.4 million tons over buffer stock requirements.

Hundreds of millions of people whose lives are tied to the land anxiously watch each year, as their ancestors did centuries ago, for telltale signs that the monsoon is coming. But as farmers in this country of great and often-violent extremes have learned to their sorrow, too much rain can be as much of a calamity as too little.

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“Though we are totally dependent on the monsoon, excessive rains cause damage to our crops,” D. N. Kathe, a farmer from the west Indian state of Maharashtra, said during a visit to New Delhi.

This summer, that is exactly what happened in the states of Gujarat, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, with devastating effects. Overflowing rivers and roaring floodwaters drowned more than 600 people and thousands of head of cattle, destroyed huts, crops, buildings and bridges worth tens of millions of dollars and rendered more than 800,000 people homeless.

By the standards of rural India, Yadav is a prosperous, even rich, man--one of this village’s 10 biggest landholders. He and his 33-year-old brother own an Indian-made tractor and have three tube wells, large concrete pipes sunk into the ground with motorized pumps to suck water to the surface. Yet even so, 80% of their crops depend on the rains, he says.

So the ex-constable is only a little less dependent on the monsoon than were subsistence farmers in Aryan times, despite the fact that 7,500 miles of irrigation canals have been dug in Haryana in recent years, by World Bank count.

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The first monsoon downpours quench the earth’s great thirst, reviving flatlands nearly killed by the stifling and unrelieved heat of summer. The spiky grass and shrubs in and around Sidhrawali have turned impossibly green on ground that had been brown or barren just weeks before. Violet- and daisy yellow-hued wildflowers have sprouted. Peacocks preen and butterflies flutter over the lush fields.

Women, who do much of the menial labor on Indian farms, cut ripened sorghum with their sharpened sickles, or trudge out to the highway with high stacks of the cereal grass grown as animal fodder balanced on their heads.

Yadav grows a monsoon crop of millet, sorghum, barley and sesame, and a separate April harvest of wheat and mustard seed. It is the latter crop that is the more valuable. With this year’s good monsoon, Yadav reckons that by the time he carts his springtime harvest to market, he may clear more than $2,000.

In 1977, a tremendous monsoon flooded the farmlands of Haryana and washed away the crops. Yadav and his family had to eat the emergency stock of winter wheat he had stored in the granary of his house. Poorer people had to go look for work in factories or with road crews.

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Conversely, in 1980, 1981 and 1982, the villagers sweated through dry years. Yadav was only able to farm three acres--two of sorghum to feed his water buffalo and other livestock, and one of millet to be pounded into flour for the flat bread called roti.

A recent visitor asked Om Parkash, the village sarpanch , or leader, why a system of wells couldn’t replace such a capricious water source as the monsoon. He smiled indulgently.

Five hundred tube wells have already been dug in the area and are being operated with electric pumps, he explained, but the water table has been dropping since the flood of 1977. It’s now somewhere around 60 feet below the surface, whereas before one could reach into a well with a cupped hand to drink.

The fault, says Om Parkash, may lie with reduced overall rainfall to the region since 1977 or, more plausibly, with a moat that government officials dug around Sidhrawali to prevent a recurrence of the flooding but that may have reduced replenishment of the aquifer in the process.

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If villagers keep sinking tube wells, he said, the water level will keep dropping.

“We need one or two rainy seasons with floods for the water level to remain at the present level,” Sidhrawali’s sarpanch said. “Only God can help us.”

God and the monsoon--the two most awesome forces in an Indian farmer’s world.

MONSOONS: WINDS OF CHANGE

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Monsoon climates of the world include nearly all of the eastern hemisphere tropics and sub-tropics, which make up about 25% of the surface area of the Earth. Two areas of maximum precipitation are within the domain of the monsoons--the central and south African region, and the larger, south Asia-Australian region.

India is a classic example of a monsoon climate region, with an annual cycle that brings southwesterly winds and heavy rains in the summertime. JULY

Winds from cooler oceans blow toward heated continents in summer, bringing warm, unsettled moisture-laden air and the season of rains, the summer monsoon.

JANUARY

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In winter, winds from the cold heartlands of the continents blow toward the oceans, bringing dry, cool and sunny weather, the winter monsoon.

Sources: McGraw-Hill Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science and Technology; The Times Atlas of the Oceans.

Compiled by Times Researcher LAURA A. GALLOWAY.


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