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Why Climate Change Is Forcing Manipur’s Farmers To Give Up Agriculture

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The heavy smell of petrichor wafted in the midsummer air as I met with an ill-timed shower on my way back home. I was walking through the fields of a village not far away from the Imphal city. I stopped my scooter and ran for cover cursing the downpour.

As I took refuge under the heaving branches of a Peepal, I saw hordes of children running out of their homes to play in the rain; an old farmer went hastily to his fields to check if he had tilled the field enough to soak in the rainwater; little calves pranced in the open grounds; fisherwomen came out with fishing nets. I realised that what I was selfishly cursing came as a blessing to many. The monsoons had arrived!

For people in the city, monsoons are escapades from the blazing summer heat. For farmers in the fields, monsoons are matters of sustenance and livelihoods. I recall an encounter with Dorendo, a farmer from Ngairangbam, Manipur. As we spoke on the condition and situation of farmers in Manipur, he let out a heavy sigh and said: “There are nights I toss and turn in my bed thinking ‘Should I shift my trade to something that will keep my pockets full?’. But then I realise that I have been farming for the last 22 years and don’t know much about other trades.”

With the UN estimating that the world population will reach 8.5 billion by 2030, and 9.8 billion by 2050, there is a requirement of a 70% increase in the global food production.

Dorendro expressed openly what most farmers in Manipur are thinking these days – with little support from the state government, untimely monsoons and an ever-growing need to support their family, many are contemplating quitting agriculture to take up better-paying jobs and trades. Sometimes I think, what will happen if farmers in Manipur quit agriculture?

There’s obviously much more than centuries of tradition at stake here. With the UN estimating that the world population will reach 8.5 billion by 2030, and 9.8 billion by 2050, there is a requirement of a 70% increase in global food production. Farming will become the most important career on the planet because of the many mouths to feed.

The total area of Manipur is 22,327 sq km. and the population of Manipur in 2021 is estimated to be 3.1 million (31 lakhs). The total land under agriculture accounts for only 6.7 % of the total geographical area, but it provides livelihood to more than 52% of the state population. Manipur has around 20 lakh farmers, including those who grow fruits and vegetables or indulge in fisheries and veterinary.

Agriculture contributes a major share to the total state domestic product all the while providing employment to about 22.13% (according to the 2011 census) of the total workers in Manipur. It’s clear that agriculture is the backbone of the economy of Manipur. But due to decreasing farmers income and the rising numbers of other agricultural problems, many Manipuri farmers have voiced out their opinions on quitting agriculture that has been sustaining Manipur for generations.

And climate change is turning out to become a major cause of the exodus here. Let me give you an example. The most important crop of Manipur is paddy, cultivated in the Kharif season. The state’s paddy cultivation is critically dependent on seasonal monsoon rains. From 1954 to 2011, the average annual rainfall varied from 935 to 2636 mm. Adding to this, unpredictable monsoon onset and frequent breaks in rainfall have been playing spoilsport in peak farming seasons for the past many years with uneven rainfall distribution in time and space, or even too much rain leading to failed harvests.

The probable impacts of climate change on the agricultural sector are many. The Manipur State Action Plan on Climate Change (MSAPCC), March 2013, had projected a higher inter-annual variability in crop yields due to increased frequency of extreme precipitation events and for crop yields to decrease by 10%. There were also projected increases in the incidence of pests and diseases and increased soil erosion with degradation of soil nutrients and exposing roots. All these can lead to a decreased income from poor crop production and food security and nutritional issues in an agrarian society such as Manipur.

Manipur’s agrarian society is dominated by marginal and small farmers who farm to sustain their families and maybe sell the little extra for little to no profit, which will also be used in farming inputs for the next season. They depend on the State Agriculture Department for subsidized Urea and other chemical fertilisers. However, even this fertiliser distribution system had faced flak recently for faulty and delayed distribution, when farmers of the state were assured to be provided with fertilisers.

For land that depends on the bounty of the monsoon for collective survival, providing food with a conscience and farms with a future is a challenge. Yes, climate change is real and it is affecting the agriculture community of Manipur at the seams.

Climate change is ‘changing’ Manipur, slowly but steadily. According to the MSAPCC, in March 2013, the state was projected to experience an increase in temperature above 1.7°C and an increased precipitation rate, with some parts prone to flooding. Crucial sectors such as agriculture are very likely to be affected by climate change. Also, due to poor institutional mechanisms, increasing population, decreasing land productivity and lack of access to adequate resources, the vulnerable population of the state is unable to cope up effectively with the adverse impacts of climate change. Now the year is 2021 and all these were projected eight years ago.

Needless to say, unless effective strategies are devised, the farming community in Manipur is going to be deeply impacted.

While talking about the issue of climate change, I often hear people say: “I don’t need to worry as technology will find an answer;” “Why are you asking me? I didn’t cause this.” We all acknowledge climate change as a reality, but also avoid taking any responsibility for the issue.

I feel all of us need to start talking more about the issue, how it impacts us and especially those who are most vulnerable to its impacts. We need to think more about our farmers. Somewhere in our lives, we have started devaluing farmers, taking them and the work they do for granted. Their career is the gift of food that is feeding the planet. A simple monsoon shower might be trivial to us. Yet, it can also mean the world to the Sons of the soil and their near and dear ones.

This was the subject of the ‘new’ lesson taught to me by that capricious midsummer evening.

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