Mercury rising: How to protect crops from extreme heatwave

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Mercury rising: How to protect crops from extreme heatwave

A larger paradigm shift from subsidised, revenue-eating agriculture to a more natural, ecologically resilient, and nutrition-based system of agriculture is required

India should get ready for a heatwave coming. The first signs are already felt across the country, as March temperatures in Chandigarh and Delhi were very high. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had also issued early alerts of an imminent heat wave until June. And the matter is urgent, as recently the prime minister also chaired a high-level meeting to review the preparedness for the heat wave. But the big question is: How does this affect our agriculture?

Before we answer this question, let’s take stock of the situation. We begin from the south, as it is the worst hit, with Telangana reporting 44.5°C in April. IMD also issued special alerts for Kerala and Tamil Nadu, with temperatures reaching four degrees above normal. If we look at Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra, they have been severely impacted by the heat wave too. Assam and Odisha in the east and Rajasthan in the west haven’t been spared either, as all these states are reporting extremely hot days, and the worst of the summer months—May and June—haven’t even started.

There is also a storm and rain warning issued in the northern parts. As a natural climatic reaction to extreme temperatures, this may also lead to local hail and strong winds, which are detrimental to the standing wheat crops. The high heat and humidity are the perfect combination for plant diseases and pests.

Both of these factors trigger abnormal plant growth and early pest birth cycles. If the rain, humidity, and high heat continue to harvest crops on the fields, like mustard or even wheat, they may be caught up by fungal and other diseases, and we may have higher post-harvest losses too.

An example is best observed in the Himachali apple; this year again, Himachal’s apples may suffer due to erratic weather. A warmer winter has caused many apple regions in Himachal to report less flowering and more vegetative (leaves and plant body) growth, which is bad for farmers.

But it’s not only apples; the months of November–December, which are generally considered the early Rabi growing season, saw higher temperatures, leading to worse germination in seeds and impacting plant growth. Farmers in Yavatmal reported 60-70 per cent losses in wheat. Central India, stretching from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh to UP, and some parts of Bihar have all been impacted by a warmer Rabi.

Now, if the IMD is right, even by a conservative margin, we are looking at a damned wheat harvest from the north and central parts, but the larger danger looms for Zaid (March to June) crops. These include summer fruits like summer vegetables, fruits like watermelon, melon, and other fodder crops. The high temperatures will stress plant growth, and crops will also require more water for the growing season. Some conventional seeds may also fail the heat test under these vagaries of the weather. During the election season, Zaid crop losses can spoil the mood of a significant electorate too, if preventative measures are not taken.

Cooling the heatwave

So the climate has been changing in India for some time now, and we are caught up in the transitionary period. If we reflect on the climate and agriculture data for the past five years, all the signs are clear. What we must do now is have an extensive adaptation strategy.

The first immediate step is to have a special heatwave cover under the crop insurance program. Heatwaves should be included in the insurance coverage for farmers. IMD is also issuing region-specific alerts; the crop insurance schemes should be linked to IMD data to begin with, and farmers in these parts should be protected. This will provide a cushion for farmers, and the government will also fulfil its role in averting a major crop-climate disaster.

The Zaid farmers also need coverage under this programme because, although a small percentage of farmers have irrigated lands, their produce each year adds to our thalis and also provides income for rural India. The government, through a pilot project in affected areas, has a special programme to provide a safety net for them.

The worst of the heat waves will be suffered by farmers and agricultural workers harvesting mangoes and other summer crops. Rural medical centres need to provide hydration kits and other information for protecting farm workers from high heat exposures. Local Sub-Divisional Magistrates were to report to the state government on the agriculture labour requirements and movements during the heatwave period.

The final step is a larger paradigm shift from subsidised, revenue-eating industrial agriculture into a more natural, resilient, ecologically resilient, and nutrition-based system of agriculture. There are enough ground reports and scientific evidence to confirm that nature-based farming involving native seeds, multi-cropping, natural fertilisers, and pesticides is far more resilient against the climate threat. Organic farms have lower input costs and more stable yields during extreme climate events. The government ought to galvanise the organic farming mission and ensure that rain-fed areas and vulnerable pockets are trained and equipped to tackle the erratic weather using natural techniques.

If these simple steps are followed, Indian farmers and the government both hope to prosper even in troubled times.

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