“What should people do now that the rains are late?” I asked. In July 2014, the summer heat had not yet broken, delaying the cool relief of monsoon rains to millions of small farmers across India. “Break a coconut and offer it to God,” laughed the farmers. When monsoon rains are late, the larger cycle of planting and preparing land is thrown into chaos. Despite an array of newspaper, NGO, state extension and television outreach programmes to predict the weather and guide farmers’ choices, farmers know that every failed prediction runs the risk of wasted time and money. Many farmers attribute the late monsoons to fate, but in practice they are keeping track of a wide array of agricultural and economic variables: plant cotton or maize? Plough the field or wait to see if rains will come later in the day? Invest in pesticides and fertilisers or cut your losses and sow food crops in between the cash crops? Each option has its own risks and is based on its own set of knowledge, hope and climate change.
The anthropologist Paul Richards famously compared agriculture to a musical performance[i], in which farmers draw on a repertoire of agricultural knowledge to keep the show going despite new, unexpected problems. Small-scale agriculture, like a musical performance, is rarely planned. More often, it is composed on the spot, responding to droughts, fertiliser price hikes, labour shortages and new technology. In the midst of all of these factors, farming becomes an improvisation in terms of fertility, pests, seeds, weeds and water. Plough the soil and plant your seeds too early and the seeds fail to sprout, insects and weeds return, the soil dries, and you’ve wasted the energy and cash on renting tractors or oxen. Plough and plant too late and the crops will be overrun by insects, and they are likely to sprout late and face heavy damage during the autumn cyclones that usually pass just after the harvest. “How late is the season?” I asked one farmer. “Season,” she scoffed. “What season?” Late sowing delays the larger agrarian economy, impeding sowing, agricultural input purchases, credit extensions and eventual harvests. While the steady rise of sea water threatens coastlines and islands, farmers are struggling to adapt to the complex and synergistic changes that follow unpredictable monsoons.
One late monsoon is difficult, but increasing unpredictability in rainfall patterns has compounding effects on small farmers’ access to groundwater aquifers and the water stored in human-constructed lakes. The state and farmers’ response, drilling bore wells and providing free, if unreliable, electricity to irrigate fields[ii] has only compounded the problem of dwindling water reserves. If water reserves were reliably replenished by the monsoon rains, this increased irrigation would grant increasing numbers of small farmers greater control over their agricultural work. However, in the context of late and unpredictable monsoons, the proliferation of bore wells and subsidised electricity draws dangerously on a public resource that can take years of regular rainfall to replenish. While irrigated farmers continue to lower the water table, non-irrigated farmers, among the most vulnerable to instability in rainfall, see village pumps and wells run dry.[iii] Late monsoons delay planting, but farmers’ knowledge can adapt to these new conditions when they are consistent – farmers would have to plant and plough later, learning how to manage new late-season pests and weeds. However, the monsoon rains are not a single event for Indian farmers – they stretch to months of agricultural work. Recent climate projections suggest that farmers will have to manage monsoon seasons with fewer overall wet days, more intense storms[iv], and greater risk of local flooding.[v] While frequent gentle rains are a boon for farmers, the prospect of fewer, more intense storms have the potential to erode drought-hardened earth, destroy crops, flood villages and create ideal conditions for hardier weeds and insect pests. Unlike a new pest or weed, such extreme weather events, especially if they threaten well-adapted peasant farming methods, are difficult to adapt to – a performing musician might improvise and draw on their knowledge if a string breaks, but they cannot continue playing if the stage has been broken altogether.
[i] Richards, “Agriculture as a Performance”; Richards, “Cultivation: Knowledge or Performance?”
[ii] Mukherji, Globalization and Deregulation.
[iii] Asoka et al., “Relative Contribution of Monsoon Precipitation and Pumping to Changes in Groundwater Storage in India.”
[iv] Sharmila et al., “Future Projection of Indian Summer Monsoon Variability under Climate Change Scenario.”
[v] Loo, Billa, and Singh, “Effect of Climate Change on Seasonal Monsoon in Asia and Its Impact on the Variability of Monsoon Rainfall in Southeast Asia.”