A twin calamity has struck farmers in Odisha in recent weeks. A moderate to severe drought has affected paddy crops on more than 3.1 lakh hectares of land in over 6,000 villages across 15 districts. In addition, an attack by brown planthoppers – insects that feed on rice plants – has destroyed paddy fields on 1.7 lakh hectares in 8,211 villages across nine districts. The damage has been aggravated by a severe shortage of pesticides.

According to official reports, at least eight small and marginal farmers across the state have killed themselves since the season’s first suicide death was reported from Bargarh district on October 25. Known as the “rice bowl” of Odisha, Bargarh accounted for six of the deaths. The people who killed themselves are thought to have suffered crop losses and had significant debts.

Agriculture is the main occupation for more than 75% of people in Odisha. Of them, 85% are small and marginal farmers with average landholdings of one acre to three acres.

The drought prompted state revenue minister Maheswar Mohanty to announce relief measures on October 25. These included crop loss assistance of Rs 13,500 per hectare for irrigated areas and Rs 6,800 per hectare for non-irrigated areas. He also waived loans for the kharif (summer) crop and tuition fees for students in affected areas while promising fresh loans for the rabi (winter) season that commenced on October 1.

Last Monday, he announced the same relief package for farmers who had lost their crops to the attack by brown planthoppers, along with subsidies on the purchase of pesticides, sprayers and pump sets.

In addition, agriculture secretary Sourabh Garg wrote to the collectors of 22 districts directing them to take up pest control measures. “Wide publicity on pest management measures to be done in local radio and print media,” he said. “Farmers may seek advice from Kissan Call Centre and seek specialist advice from experts of the directorate of agriculture.”

A farmer displays burnt brown planthoppers, a species that feeds on paddy. (Credit: Umesh Biswal)

Lack of preparedness

But these measures have come a little late.

After a poor monsoon, the state government was prepared for drought. Officials from the revenue, agriculture and other departments were sent to villages to access the situation. But it was not prepared for the pest attack – although this is not an uncommon phenomenon in Odisha.

Many farmers claimed they had reported to agriculture officials in their areas as early as the last week of September that the insect attacks were spreading. They were then told that there were no stocks of pesticides.

Last week, agriculture minister Damodar Rout told reporters that agriculture department officials had been asked to procure pesticides three months ago. His statement came after a 52-year-old farmer, Brunda Sahu, consumed poison and died in Bargarh on November 1 allegedly as a result of his paddy crop being wiped out by brown planthoppers – locally called chakada.

An agriculture department official in Bargarh said that the government had this year, for the first time, entrusted the distribution of subsidised pesticides to a company that had failed to deliver on time. Consequently, farmers were forced to buy pesticides from private shops. The official said that as the pest attack spread and the demand for pesticides went up, private operators started selling adulterated pesticides that failed to kill the insects.

Many farmers in Bargarh district are reported to have set fire to paddy crops damaged by the pest attack. (Credit: Arabinda Mahapatra)

Blow to farm economy

The crop loss from the drought and pest attack adds to the overall burden on farmers in the state, many of whom have seen their profit margins shrink in recent years.

This is because many of them, with the government’s encouragement, have switched to a high external input-based system of farming that promises a higher yield and greater earnings. However, while cost of production has increased year after year, incomes have not shown a corresponding growth. Moreover, farmers said that the vast quantities of chemical fertilisers demanded by the soil have robbed their fields of much of their fertility.

While several official surveys show farmers in Odisha did double their income in the last 10 years, the National Sample Survey Organisation points out that they earn an average of Rs 5,000 a month, less than the national average of Rs 6,426.

According to Ashok Pradhan, convenor of the Western Odisha Farmers’ Coordination Committee, the income of marginal farmers who grow paddy exclusively is even lower.

Pradhan’s organisation, the Western Odisha Farmers’ Coordination Committee, calculated the investment required for paddy cultivation on an acre of land. It found that it came to more than Rs 22,000 in a non-irrigated area and Rs 27,000 in an irrigated area in a kharif season with normal monsoon conditions. Considering that the yield is 15 quintals on non-irrigated land and 24 quintals on irrigated land, and the minimum support price for paddy is Rs 1,550 per quintal, the margin of profit is very small. This gets even slimmer for farmers who sell their produce at rates lower than the minimum support price – a government mechanism to insure cultivators against a sharp fall in prices.

Consequently, farmers depend on loans for every crop cycle. But small and marginal farmers struggle to get loans from nationalised and even cooperative banks, and end up turning to private money lenders who charge a monthly interest rate anywhere between 2% and 10%. When the crop is lost to natural calamities like drought or to pest attacks, their economy is devastated.

A farmer shows his damaged crop to a government official in Odisha. (Credit: Arabinda Mahapatra)

Climate challenge

Climate fluctuations have become more frequent in recent years and Odisha has witnessed several climate change-related disasters, including pest attacks.

The late onset of monsoon leads to caterpillars breeding in the millions in rain-fed areas while the late arrival of winter brings swarms of brown planthoppers to irrigated paddy fields. “The late arrival of seasons provides a conducive atmosphere for pests to stay in the fields and breed thousands of times faster than they would in case of timely arrival of rain or cold,” said environmentalist Ranjan Panda.

It is not that the Odisha government is not aware of the adverse impact of climate change on agriculture and farmers. Its Disaster Management Plan for Agriculture, 2013, states: “The pest scenario and its incidence in the state vary from crop to crop and season to season because of erratic weather conditions. In case of paddy, there were two major pest incidents in the last five years – swarming caterpillar and brown planthopper, which resulted in devastation of thousands of hectares of wetland paddy.”

The plan creates a roadmap for making agriculture climate-resilient, promoting organic farming in view of climate change and encouraging farmers to take up crops that would withstand weather fluctuations. But it does not seem to have taken off so far.