“We have no alternative other than taking our lives,” said a despondent Manoj Laxmanrao Shembde Patil, a farmer from Khade village in Georai taluka of Beed in Maharashtra. On his 17-acre (6.88 hectare) land, Patil had planted crops such as wheat, chana (gram), jowar (sorghum) and corn. In a portion of his farm, he had also grown cauliflower, chili and some other vegetables. But, on the morning of February 11, his entire crop collapsed as he and his family watched helplessly.

Cauliflower crop destroyed by the February 11-12 hailstorms in Khade village of Beed District. Photo credit: Manoj Shembde

“Around six in the morning, winds started to blow. Then gara (hail) started falling from the sky. Suddenly, for about half an hour, we had an extreme gaarpeet (hailstorm), which in no time covered our entire village with a thick layer of gara,” Patil, whose parents, wife and two young children depend on farming for survival, told VillageSquare.in.

“For the Rabi (winter crop) season, I had invested about Rs 1 lakh in my farmland, but everything has been washed away,” lamented Patil, who is a member of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, a state-level farmers’ union. “And, I am not the only sufferer. All the farmers in Khade village, which has 3,500 hectares of agricultural land, have lost their Rabi crops in the recent hailstorms.”

Patil’s loss isn’t limited to his winter crops alone. Last year, he had planted Bt cotton on 14 acres. But a pest attack of pink bollworm destroyed his crop. “The cotton plants kept growing till 6-7 ft height, but when very few buds developed, I realized there was some problem,” he said. “On checking with the agriculture department, I realised it was a pink bollworm attack. I had to burn and destroy my crop so that the pest does not affect my next crop cycle. My investment of Rs 150,000 in Bt cotton went down the drain.”

Nearly 84% of Maharashtra’s area under cotton cultivation was hit by pink bollworm attack last year.

The story of Patil is repeated with the majority of farmers of Marathwada and Vidarbha regions of Maharashtra, who year after year are facing a series of disasters that have broken the backbone of the agrarian economy of the state. Consecutive droughts, variable rainfall, increasing debt, pink bollworm pest attack and recurring hailstorms are driving the farmers of Marathwada and Vidarbha, already infamous for high rate of farmers’ suicides, to a point of no return.

Hailstorms in Maharashtra

According to the official sources, between February 11 and 13, over 300,000 hectares in Maharashtra were affected by thunderstorms and hailstorms. The worst hit division is Amravati, followed by Marathwada region, Nagpur division and Nashik division. Overall, the crops of wheat, gram, sorghum, onion, grapes, oranges, and cotton have been affected in 19 districts of the state. To provide support to the affected farmers, the state government has given an administrative nod to release nearly Rs 313 crore from the state disaster response fund.

Incidentally, Maharashtra is no stranger to hailstorms. A countrywide analysis of hailstorms between 1985 and 2015 by the Pune office of the India Meteorological Department found Maharashtra to be India’s most hailstorm prone state. Since 2013-’14, hailstorms are striking the state every year during spring (February, March, April) when the Rabi crops are getting ready for harvest. Between 2014 and 2017, crops covering over 2.7 million ha in the state have been destroyed by hailstorms.

Winter crops in over 300,000 hectares in Maharashtra have been destroyed due to hailstorms and thunderstorms in February. Photo credit: Manoj Shembde

Forecasting hailstorms

Last year, between March 14 and 16, heavy rainfall and hailstorm had struck Marathwada and Vidarbha, flattening Rabi crops over 85,000 ha area. The IMD had failed to issue any hailstorm alert. However, this year the state government, with the help of an independent meteorological advisor, managed to alert the farmers on February 7, four days before the primary hailstorm event. Apart from listing down the districts to be affected, the state’s hailstorm advisory also informed the people about dos and don’ts to protect the crops and safeguard human lives.

On February 8, the IMD issued a hailstorm advisory warning that hailstorms were likely at isolated places in Vidarbha, Marathwada and Madhya Maharashtra. The February 9 Agromet Advisory Service Bulletin for the state of Maharashtra, which is based on the IMD advisory, did not mention Marathwada as one of the regions to be affected by the hailstorm on February 11. But, several districts in Marathwada, including Khade village, lost their crops due to hailstorms and thunderstorms on February 11.

“Different sets of advisories only confuse the farmers. Marathwada and Vidarbha are huge regions and saying isolated places in such large zones makes no sense,” said Gajanan Jadhao, an agriculturist from Aurangabad.

The state’s advisory did help some farmers who managed to save some of the crops, but the agricultural losses in the recent hailstorms remain high. “This time we were aware of the approaching hailstorms and had also warned the farmers. But, there is little that can be done to save the standing crops from hailstorms,” Mohan Gojamgunde, an agricultural officer at Latur, told VillageSquare.in. “Rabi jowar is four to five months crop. Wheat is also five months crop. Only gram takes 120 days to mature. A farmer cannot harvest immature crops.”

According to Gojamgunde, harvested crops can be saved from hailstorms and thunderstorms provided the government creates large crop storage spaces. At present, the farmers cover their harvested crops with plastic sheets.

Some progressive farmers use anti-hail net to protect their crops, but the usage is limited. “Only rich farmers in Nashik who are into export of horticulture crops of grapes, pomegranate and banana can afford to use anti-hail nets,” informed Jadhao.

“Farmers in Marathwada and Vidarbha are committing suicide by the dozens. They have no money to invest in anti-hail nets. And, the government isn’t interested in addressing their concerns,” said Vijay Jawandhia, a farm activist in Vidarbha.

Accurate forecasts needed

The first step to dealing with hailstorms, a natural disaster, is accurate and timely forecast that not only can help save crops but also save lives. But, hailstorm forecast by the IMD remains a weak link. After the February 11-13 hailstorms, the IMD issued another hailstorm advisory on February 20, which warned of thunderstorm accompanied with hailstorm at isolated places over north Madhya Maharashtra on February 23 and isolated places over Marathwada on February 24.

By the next day, February 21, Vidarbha and north Madhya Maharashtra were added to the weather warning for February 24. The meteorological department also warned of thunderstorm accompanied with hailstorm likely at isolated places over Vidarbha, Marathwada and north Madhya Maharashtra on February 25.

The sorghum crop in Beed district was completely destroyed due to the February hailstorms. Photo credit: Manoj Shembde

However, in the February 22 evening bulletin, thunderstorm and hailstorm warning for February 23 and February 25 was dropped. Thunderstorm and hailstorm warning remained as it was for Vidarbha, Marathwada and north Madhya Maharashtra for February 24. But, in the next 24 hours, all hailstorm and thunderstorm warnings for the regions of Maharashtra were withdrawn by the IMD.

“For the hailstorms between February 11 and 13, we managed to issue a hailstorm alert four days in advance,” KS Hosalikar, deputy director general of meteorology, Regional Meteorological Centre, IMD Mumbai told VillageSquare.in. “We had to withdraw the latter hailstorm advisory for Maharashtra due to the weakening of trough in easterly. The same was communicated to all the concerned departments.”

But, the panic was already unleashed among the farmers, several of whom worked day and night to save their crops from the anticipated second round of hailstorms in the state. According to a Times of India report, Grape farmers in Nashik, who export their produce, were “losing sleep with harvesting being done round the clock to avoid loss of crop”.

“Because of past experiences, farmers any case do not take IMD warnings seriously, and such false alarms will only make management of natural disasters more difficult,” Manik Kadam, a farmer from Parbhani and president of Marathwada unit of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, told VillageSquare.in. “A farmer in Beed has already filed a police complaint against the meteorological department for faulty weather forecast. Unfortunately, the case is moving at a slow pace.”

Akshay Deoras, independent meteorological advisor to the Government of Maharashtra, said that the conditions projected by the weather models keep fluctuating before a weather event occurs. “In a tropical country like India, and in the case of thunderstorms or hailstorms, these fluctuations are higher compared to the forecast of a tropical cyclone or weather in any European nation,” he said. “Hence, a strategy and close co-ordination with the government is needed in a big state like Maharashtra. Factors like rapidly changing the advisories and false alarms not only confuse the people, but also reduce their trust on the advisories.”

Compensation and insurance

“Compensating for crop losses and crop insurance could help farmers cope with the hailstorms,” said Gojamgunde. But, both the instruments are unable to keep pace with the recurring disasters in the state.

“Panchnama of the crop damages due to hailstorms has been done. But, we haven’t received any compensation. We haven’t even received any compensation for the pink bollworm pest attack last year,” complained Patil, who claimed he was neck-deep in debt.

The norms for crop compensation for the period 2015-’20 are no good. Under the National Disaster Response Fund, crop loss compensation, which is officially termed as input subsidy, is limited to Rs 6,800 per ha in rain-fed areas, Rs 13,500 per ha in irrigated areas, and Rs 18,000 per ha for perennial crops, but limited up to two ha land only. “On an average, a farmer invests Rs 40,000 per hectare. What good is a compensation of Rs 6,800 per ha or Rs 13,500 ha?” questioned Jawandhia. The Maharashtra government is expected to approach the NDRF with a request for financial assistance of Rs 313 crore.

“Beed district faced hailstorms on February 11 and 12. I have already prepared a report on hailstorm losses and sent to the state government,” said MD Singh, collector of Beed. On being questioned about the compensation for pink bollworm pest attack, Singh said, “That report is also with the state government and I am waiting for a revert.”

To help farmers cope with crop losses, the Government of India launched its flagship scheme Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, starting from the Kharif (summer or monsoon crop) season of 2016. Loss and damage due to hailstorms is covered under this scheme.

Last year, New Delhi-headquartered Centre for Science and Environment conducted an independent assessment of the scheme and reported that though the new crop insurance scheme was better than the previous schemes, its implementation was weak.

The Centre for Science and Environment study found that the coverage of agricultural insurance had “increased significantly” in several states, including Maharashtra. As against 89.39 lakh farmers insured in Kharif 2015, the number had jumped to 110.21 lakh farmers in Kharif 2016. But, several problems remained. “In Beed district of Maharashtra, the cost of cultivation for moong in 2015-’16 given in the Maharashtra State Agriculture Price Commission was Rs 34,147 per ha. However, Maharashtra State Kharif 2016 notification of Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana kept the value of sum insured at just Rs 18,000 per ha – about 53% of the cost of production,” noted the Centre for Science and Environment report.

It also reported manipulation of crop cutting experiment data for Kharif 2016 in Maharashtra. “Insurance companies made huge profits on crop insurance during Kharif 2016...(but) there is no mechanism through which certain parts of the profits can be given back to the farmers or the Central or state government. So, under Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, profit is private but liability is public,” reads the Centre for Science and Environment report.

The Centre is expected to issue a revised set of guidelines to address challenges in the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana. Meanwhile, as per news reports, several farmers hit by the recent hailstorms cannot avail crop insurance because as per the crop insurance eligibility criteria for fruit crops, a minimum of 20 ha area is required to be cultivated in the revenue circle for the crop to be notified. There are farmers in Marathwada who lost grapes and papaya crops, but because that particular fruit crop does not add up to 20 ha in the revenue circle, they cannot claim crop insurance.

“Keeping in mind the recurring nature of natural disasters like hailstorms and droughts in the state, there is an urgent need to update the compensation package and the crop insurance criteria in favor of the farmers,” said Jawandhia.

But, if the Indian government’s new drought manual , which has tightened the norms for drought relief, is something to go by, then there is little hope for the farmers. “No government can understand our pain,” said Patil. “Unfortunately, even the nature had turned against us.”

Nidhi Jamwal is a journalist in Mumbai.

This article first appeared on Village Square.