Monday, May 4, 2015

Choked and chilled!

Unseasonal Weather is being unreasonable for farming in Sikkim


The weather has remained unseasonably wet and cold this year. The comforting warmth of Spring has given Sikkim the skip thus far, and while the ferocious daily downpours, the hailstorms and the persistent chill might be inconveniencing the urban dwellers, the loss is much more significant and material for rural Sikkim where agriculture has taken a severe hit. Farmers have already lost the winter crop to hail and the chances of recovering the season have been sabotaged by the continuing rains and cold which have waterlogged the fields and chilled the earth. The approaching paddy season, if projections of the Met Office are to be believed, also appears uncertain since the monsoon has been predicted to be below average this year.  So, while Sikkim may have breathed a sigh of relief for having escaped the Nepal Earthquake with only a minor bruising, the constant unseasonal rainfall of the past one month has the farmers in serious worry. The situation, like it is across North India, in grim; so much so that the Principal Director-cum-Secretary, Horticulture and Cash Crop Development Department, Khorlo Bhutia, while speaking to NOW!, cautioned that the ongoing phase of weather and the inadequate rainfall predicted for monsoons could affect the farmers adversely this farming cycle.
He informed that because of the sudden change in the weather, the land, which should have become warmer by this time, remains unseasonably chilled, creating germination problems for the seasonal crops and vegetables.
And the impact is apparent at farmlands in East and South Sikkim.
Pema Bhutia, a marginal farmer from Khamdong in East Sikkim, informs that his maize crop was completely destroyed by the 01 April hailstorm. While the Department did supply him with maize seeds in a bid to salvage the season, most of them either did not germinate and some came out like thin grass. For Pema Bhutia, the crop is lost now.
Not only maize, seasonal vegetables like cucumbers, squash, beans, lady fingers, coriander etc. are also not germinating properly this year because of the continuing chill in the air [and earth].
Needless to add, farmers, especially those from east and south districts, who lost crops and vegetables, including orange orchards, to the hail of early April, are growing increasingly worried as they watch the re-cultivated fields refusing to sprout.
Why is this happening?
The technical term of this problem is ‘Water logging’ which occurs when the soil, the root zone to be specific, becomes saturated. This happens when more rain falls than the soil can absorb or the atmosphere can evaporate. Excess rain and cold weather means that the fields are getting inundated and because not enough evaporation is taking place, the fields have become slushy bogs. The resultant lack of oxygen in the root zone of plants causes their root tissues to decompose. Usually this occurs from the tips of roots and causes roots to appear as if they have been pruned. The consequence is that the plant’s growth and development is stalled. If the anaerobic circumstances continue for a considerable time the plant eventually dies.
“This year, farmers have to be cautious because the weather is not in their favour,” Mr. Bhutia says, adding that his Department is all set to assist help them tide over this challenge in every manner possible.
According to him, the Department is adequately stocked with seeds, manure and ready to extend technical assistance as the case may be.
Earlier, Mr. Bhutia had informed that his Department has already supplied the necessary seeds and other materials required for re-cultivation in fields damaged by hailstorms. The final assessment of the damage has been completed by the Department and the report submitted to the Land Revenue and Disaster Management Department for further considerations.
As per the assessment reports, crops and horticultural products cultivated in an approximate area of 5,069 hectares have been damaged, the valuation of which has been assessed at Rs. 581 lakhs.
A total of 11,070 households, mostly in East and South districts, were affected by the hailstorms.
The over-abundance of rain at this time of the year plays out as a cruel irony for what is expected for the actual monsoons, The India Meteorological Department has predicted below normal rainfall for the upcoming monsoon season with a 33% probability of rains being less than 90%, a situation officially referred to as a drought. In Sikkim, monsoon starts in June and lasts till September.
The elder farmers attest to as much, as they inform that if the current spate of unseasonal rainfall continues, farmers who depend on monsoon rains for paddy cultivation will be adversely affected because past experience shows that monsoons are weak when the pre-monsoon showers are intense like they have been this year.
“If the months of June and July remain dry, majority of the rice growers including me will suffer badly,” said Padam Tamang from Lingdum near Gangtok who grows paddy on 4 hectares of leased land.
Not only this, he cultivates maize on the same paddy fields and would have, under normal conditions, harvested maize by June-end or latest in early-July so that he could plant paddy just as the monsoons had set in.
“If this weather [cold and rain] continues, the re-planted maize will not be ready for harvest in time and I will be forced to cut them down as fodder to be able to prepare the fields for paddy in time,” he said.
But what if the monsoon in below normal? Padam Tamang, like other farmers, would have wasted his maize crop only to find paddy put at risk as well.
This possible situation with paddy is so dicey essentially because farmers still rely almost completely on rains, and have not adequately explored other irrigation options. Agreed, such options are limited in hilly terrains, but are not impossible to engineer.
Sikkim has a total of 74,303 hectares of cultivable land. As per data abstracted from the census of the Irrigation Department, the total area irrigated in 2000-01 was barely 14,421 hectares. Minor irrigation canals have been setup by the Department of Irrigation and Flood Control.
This potential is obliviously not enough to irrigate all cultivable lands if the monsoon runs dry. Also, most of the water sources for even these canals are rain-fed springs and small rivulets. If monsoon fails, all these sources will also dry out. And hence, the spring rejuvenation project makes so much sense.
Another reason why the existing irrigation system does not help farmers is the fact that there are 1,076 irrigation canal schemes in Sikkim out of which 832 are Government-owned and only the remaining sliver is owned by farmers, panchayats etc. Further, most of them are left unmaintained or damaged especially due to the various road construction projects or natural calamities.
Meanwhile, the Sikkim Irrigation Water Tax Act, 2002, which is meant to ensure effective utilization of irrigation water has been passed by Sikkim Legislative Assembly and the same is under the process of implementation.
The Act came about as a result of the Central Government’s direction for raising revenue from all government channel structures constructed for the benefit of the public. Over a period of time, due to severe budgetary constraints, the ratio of financial outlay for irrigation sector to the total outlay has decreased despite increasing demand all over the State for providing irrigation facilities. Under such circumstances, investment by the government on operation and maintenance of the old structures was found to be difficult, reads a paragraph in the website of the Irrigation Department explaining the reason behind implementation of the Act.

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