When The Walls Leaked

There were unseasonal, unexpected incessant rains on 20th to 22nd September 2022. It rained again, without let-up, between 8th and 10th of October.

Traditional Wall Chajjas that Protect

Our traditional farm home has two levels of Chajjas all along the length of the walls, which protect the walls from the monsoon rains. Made with stone, brick, cement mortar and mud faska, the mud plaster on the wall above the Chajjas could not withstand the slow and steady rain that came down unceasingly for 72 hours. The walls leaked. Like lizards on walls, rats in the kitchen, mosquitos in the rooms, and ants on the floors this was a message from Nature that we are not the conquistadores we believe we are no matter how much we try insulating ourselves through the means that modernity provides us.

Damp walls were, however, just the tip of the problems that unfolded. My life does not depend on income from farming, but for many of those in Northwest India who live directly off their lands – which is half of the vast population – these untimely rains were nothing short of a disaster. It is a constant wonder the Indian peasant remains phlegmatic and doesn’t rise in revolt against the industrial system that dominates them.  

Elsewhere, in adjacent urban Gurgaon, the rains were welcomed as a respite from the heat and a relief from human-created air pollution. Other than the problems of gridlocked roads and traffic snarled by many feet of water, the pleasant weather was a happy topic of discussion. Insulated temporarily from the forces of nature, the issues of food and farming were farthest from our urban minds. Maybe it’s time for us to listen to the gathering voices of Prakriti. As Wendell Berry, the American agrarian philosopher, famously once said – ‘eating is an agricultural act’.

Had these rain spells come in July and August, peasants too would have welcomed them with open arms. But the monsoon this year, like the previous year, was erratic and less than normal. It’s not only the quantum of rain but its spread over three months that matters to agriculture. This year, the monsoon’s onset was delayed after a promising start in July – it then hibernated, before giving us less than normal rain over the coming 2 months. My small farm, situated in village Mangar, district Faridabad in the south of Haryana, had a rainfall deficit till September; as did Northwest India. These few days of rain in September and October, the latter one of the wettest Octobers in the last century, changed the status to excess.

The scientific temper of our peasant ancestors, itself born out of careful and long-term experimentation, has led to a very specific system of cropping in harmony with the seasons. The peasant knew better than to go against Nature. Rains start in Asadh (July), there are downpours in the months of Sawan and Bhadon, with a slow-down and occasional showers in Kwar (October).  It’s amazing how the planting of certain crops – bajra, gwar, til, rice to name a few – match with the onset of the monsoon and are harvested not long after its withdrawal. These traditional systems remain ingrained in farmers’ mindsets from time immemorial when crops grown were mostly rainfed and only a privileged few had rivers, canals or surface wells to irrigate their crops. Of course, rains failed and led to droughts, and excess rains often caused floods. But the period of its onset and withdrawal, for hundreds of years if not longer, were pretty much contained within the period of a week. This seems no longer true, in this Anthropocene the ways of nature seem to be overcome by modernity – at least for now.

“Over the last few decades, the arc of the Great Acceleration has been completely in line with the trajectory of modernity: it has led to the destruction of communities, to ever greater individualisation and anomie, to the industrialisation of agriculture and to the centralisation of distribution systems. At the same time it has also reinforced the mind-body dualism to the point to producing the illusion, so powerfully propagated in cyberspace, that human beings have freed themselves from their material circumstances to the point where they’ve become floating personalities ‘decoupled from a body’. The cumulative effects is the extinction of exactly those forms of traditional knowledge material skills, art and ties of community that might provide succour to vast numbers of people around the world – and specially to those who are still bound to the land – as the impacts intensify. The very speed with which the crisis is now unfolding may be the one factor that will preserve some of these resources.”

The Great Derangement. 2016. Amitav Ghosh.

What will do peasants do now if the rains linger 40 days after they were expected to be over? Entire crop plans over these vast land areas and populations cannot be changed, neither can the kind of crops, and their seeds. The crops cannot be planted before the start of the monsoon as it’s simply too hot in the plains of the northwest, they will wither and die if planted too early – unless supported by underground water irrigation. Could we see a rise in early planting and an increase in the exploitation of already rapidly depleting groundwater aquifers? If the rains come down in late September and October, the ripening crops will be decimated again. Will unpredictable and unseasonal rains become a standard feature?  Next door to us, Sindh & Baluchistan were devastated by unprecedented rains and floods in June 2022, lives of 33 million have been impacted, livelihoods of 3 million have been destroyed, and the fertility of the soil has been lost for generations. Could this happen elsewhere?  I can’t say, but here is what happened at Aman Bagh this season.

Bajra (Pearl Millet) Dry Stalks
30% of what they usually are

Bajra is an amazingly nutrient-dense, energy-rich millet that grows with the onset of the monsoons, in very little water and without fertiliser. Harvested in September, Rotis made in winter months of this tasty grain is a part of rural culture of large swaths of Northwest India. The stalks of the crop are dried standing after harvest; and are fed to the cattle as an adjunct to hay from last year’s wheat crop or often as the primary dry fodder in areas where wheat is limited or not grown. This monsoon, the bajra grain was ripening on the stalks when it rained in September – this excess moisture delayed the maturing process. Later, as the harvest was underway, the October rains came. The bajra grains were partly or fully harvested and were lain on the ground, so were the bajra stalks. Over the coming week, we lost 60% of the grain and the 70% of our stalks to moisture rot.  

The other long-standing and silent rural story is that of a desperate shortage of fodder, this year it has got that much worse due these rains. A large number of rural homes keep cattle and sell their milk. Most agricultural homes have insufficient land, many have none at all, thus many buy green fodder and dry hay from the market. Due to the rains and delayed rice harvesting in the Northwest, the Rice parali (straw), a low cost and hence favorite dry fodder, has been late to the market. Some of what is coming is blackened and yet damp. Yet, it is selling for 350 rupees a maund (40 kg), compared to last year this time when it was 130 rupees, as desperate cattle owners scramble for the reduced supply. Wheat hay is 550 rupees a maund, it was 400 rupees a maund. Green Jowar fodder is 400 rupees a maund, last year it was 200 rupees. The price these peasants sold their milk was 50 rupees a kilo, and is now 60 rupees. In short, in economic terms, massive input cost inflation and moderate product price increase.

Arhar (Pigeon Pea) Stand
No Flowering this season.

The Arhar or Toor crop was next. Planted in April, this is a 8-month leguminous crop that flowers in Kwar (September), fruits in Kartik (October) and is harvested in Aghan (November) before the planting of wheat. It is very sensitive to irrigation, like most crops, and inappropriately timed watering induces green shoot growth and flowering is delayed. This time, with two period of unseasonal rains within 16 days of each other, my entire crop shot up in height and the flowering has delayed indefinitely. As we need to plant wheat in early November, for home consumption and for farm animals, the Arhar stands have been cut down and are being fed to the animals. Nothing natural is ever a ‘waste’ at a farm. But certainly no Arhar this year.

Til (sesame) plants are traditionally planted interspersed as a companion crop with bajra, they commence flowering in early Kwar and ripen by the end of Kwar or early Kartik (October). The rains put paid to the ripening of the seed that needs sun, and a dry season. All our Til plantsdied a natural death.

Finally, there was rice! My farm has a small piece of clayey-soil land – about 3,000 square feet – where we planted rice this year hoping to get 15 kg for our consumption. The crop was almost ready with the grains well-formed on all the plants and that wonderful rice smell when the October rains decimated the entire crop. All the grains were shaken to the ground due the incessant rain. As usual, there is no such thing as ‘waste’, so the green rice stalks reached the cattle.

The lives of our rural and agricultural population have always been uncertain with an economic, social and political system stacked against them, geared by modernity in favor of the urban and industrial. This is nothing new, many know this reality. Chaudhary Charan Singh, a pre-eminent agrarian intellectual and public figure in India, wrote extensively and repeatedly against the unfairness of the dominance of urban interests. I manage the Archives in his name and I know his position intimately. People of his generation, especially in India, didn’t see the impact of climate change like we can now after three decades of rapid modernization and wealth creation for some. Climate change in its new intensity and unpredictability – and in our physical proximity – is altogether new to Indians. It is, in fact, just starting with billions of people in Asia, Africa and the Americas in the queue to gain the lifestyles and material benefits you and I possess, which we in turn look to imitate from the fossil-fuel addicted economies of the West.

If indeed Prakriti comes to actively oppose agriculture because of our thoughtless actions, what then is left? Political positions on climate change, ideological arguments for and against industrialism and agrarianism etc. will stand for nothing if there won’t be food to eat. I am overstating the case to make my point, but it’s not that unreal as you may think. If my story from southern Haryana sounds rather benign, do remember Sind.  

About Harsh Singh Lohit

How to live a life in harmony with your self, nature and other living beings.
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