Repeated Floods, Cyclones Force Odisha Farmers To Migrate For Work
Nearly one-fifth of Odisha's geographical area is flood-prone, which makes the livelihood of 85% of its population, dependent on agriculture, precarious.
Puri: Biswajeet Behera, 41, visited his one-acre farm land on the outskirts of his village for the fourth time in two days, only to return home dejected. The 2,000-odd paddy saplings that he had transplanted on his farm in the first week of August were still not thriving, after being submerged under three feet of water for over nine days since August 14. The otherwise lush green farm had turned an eerie brown of rotting saplings. Behera, a native of Bharatipura village of Puri's Pipili block, will now work as a contractual labourer to survive this season, he says.
"My farm is my source of income. There is absolutely nothing left. I had spent nearly Rs 10,000 during the sowing period. Now, I do not have the money to buy new saplings or feed my family," Biswajit says. He is the sole earning member of a family of six, including his wife, two children and elderly parents.
People are facing a similar situation across 15 districts of the state which were flooded as overflowing rivers inundated agricultural lands.
This isn't a one-off problem. Odisha has 11 river basins and a coastline of over 470 km, which is prone to cyclonic storms, and flooding, according to the state's Flood Management Manual. Nearly one-fifth of the state's geographical area is flood-prone, especially 85% of its agriculture-dependent population, the 2008 flood manual says.
Repeated flooding forces people to migrate away from their homes for casual or contractual labour in cities, while others spend extra money on new saplings, reducing their income from farming.
Repeated destruction from extreme climate events
On August 11, 10 sluice gates of the Hirakud dam in Odisha's Sambalpur were opened to release excess water. By August 16, 40 of the 64 sluice gates had been opened after heavy rains in the upper catchment area of the reservoir located in the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh, Hirakud Chief Engineer Anand Chandra Sahu said. With an outflow of 610,003 cubic feet of water per second--equivalent to water flowing from nearly seven Olympic-sized swimming pools per second--from Hirakud dam, water levels in all major rivers across Odisha rose.
By August 17, the Mahanadi and its tributaries had swelled in Sambalpur, Jharsuguda, Deogarh, Bargarh, Angul, Boudh, Subarnapur, Bolangir, Nuapada, Kalahandi, Cuttack, Kendrapara, Khurda, Puri and Jagatsinghpur districts. Biswajit's village was flooded from an overflowing Daya river--a tributary of the Mahanadi.
To add to an already grim situation, floods were triggered in northern Odisha following release of water from the Galudih barrage by Jharkhand through several gates on August 20.
"Flood situation has improved in the Mahanadi and Subarnarekha river system," said the chief engineer of the Water Resource Department, B.K. Mishra, on August 26. "But it will take a while for water to recede from low lying areas."
Around one million people were impacted across 2,489 villages of 15 districts, because of the twin floods.
This is just one in a long line of extreme climate disasters in the state.
- In November 2019, heavy rainfall induced by severe cyclonic storm Bulbul affected over 222,000 hectares of agricultural land.
- Heavy rains induced due to cyclone Amphaan in May 2020 resulted in crop loss across nearly 3,400 hectares of land.
- The same year in August, floods triggered by torrential rains affected 314,000 hectare of agricultural land.
- After cyclone Yaas, in May 2021, nearly 5,700 hectares of agricultural land was affected. In cyclone Jawad, standing crops on more than 578,000 hectare in around 131 blocks of 12 districts were severely damaged.
- The damage from the recent floods is still being assessed, but paddy has likely suffered large losses, as in the Kharif season, 65.3% of the land has paddy.
Arjun Behera's farm with a deposit of silt and soil washed away with the river water, August 27, 2022. He cannot clear the farm unless the government records this loss and processes his compensation, but this also means that he can't plant new saplings.
The recurrent floods either induced by torrential rains, overflowing rivers or low depressions and cyclonic storms, have all adversely impacted farmers and their agricultural lands.
This year, due to delayed monsoons, farmers in Odisha had begun sowing paddy saplings in the first week of August, a process that is usually complete by July, farmers said. However, within 10 days of sowing paddy, farms were flooded.
Sixty-five-year-old Jogi Pradhan of Kanti village in Puri depends on his half-acre land to look after his family. But his crop was damaged during floods in August 2020 and has again been damaged in the current floods. "My elder son is a patient living with mental illness. My younger son took up a driving job after our crops failed in 2020. I look after the farm alone. My entire crop was damaged," Jogi says. "I won't have any income from agriculture this season."
Bishnu Prasad Dalai, the sarpanch of the village, says that after an inspection by the tehsildar (a block-level government officer) on August 25, he submitted a crop damage report of nearly 500 acres and has demanded 100% compensation from the government for it.
Plant new saplings or migrate
With half the Kharif season still ahead of them, some affected farmers opted to buy new paddy saplings from other farmers' nurseries whose crops were unaffected during the floods. The costs vary from village to village. For instance, in Bharatpuri and nearby villages, a set of 80 saplings called 'pana' is being sold at Rs 400. For one acre of land, a farmer needs 20 panas--an expenditure of Rs 8,000 per acre.
Those who are unable to spend this money are choosing to migrate for work. "We have become so used to water logging in the farms that we do not know whether we would continue with agriculture in the coming years," says Jyostna Rani Das from Sohoda village of Bhadrak district. Her two-acre farm was inundated in August 2020 because of floods, in May 2021 because of Cyclone Yaas and in December 2021 because of cyclone Jawad, and again in August this year. Her husband and brother-in-law have migrated to Bengaluru to look for contractual construction work.
In the Jaleswar block of Balasore district, vegetable farmers have lost large amounts, they said. Chitta Ranjan Tarai of Sekhsarai village had taken a loan of Rs 15,000 at 10% interest per month to procure seeds, fertilisers and medicines for his 1.5-acre land. "Overall, I invested Rs 40,000 this Kharif season to cultivate lady finger and brinjal…I do not know how I will repay the money."
"Recurring damage to our only source of livelihood is demotivating. There are people who have to rebuild their houses, buy things again which were destroyed in the floods," says Kissan Pattnaik, a social activist from Puri working in flood-affected areas. "Recurrent flooding also impacts the quality of soil. The number of families involved in agriculture might reduce in the coming years."
The landless are especially vulnerable
The situation is especially bleak for sharecroppers and landless households, mostly from the Dalit community, who depend on daily wages to sustain themselves, they told IndiaSpend.
Madhav Malik (42) cultivates paddy on half an acre of land as a sharecropper in Khurda's Podadeha village. He is expected to share half the produce with the owner and sell the remaining for his own income. "Since the entire crop was damaged, there will be no yield this time. But I will have to pay him in cash for the corresponding loss," Malik said.
From Dalit households, while men migrate for work, women work as farm labourers on other farms during sowing and harvesting. Crop loss means less money during the harvesting season.
Prabhasini Behera, who works as a farm labourer, with her children in her village, August 27, 2022.
Farmers like Behera are not eligible for compensation from crop loss as they do not own the land they work on.
Prabhasini Behera (34) works as a contractual farm labourer, making Rs 300 per day for at least 40 days each season. "I have completed my sowing days. But I do not think there will be any work during the harvest days," Behera said, adding that she might look for work in the neighbouring districts, or join her husband at the construction site he works at.
Like Prabhasini, most women who depend on other farms for income do not qualify for government compensation.
Inadequate compensation for crop loss
A combined team of officials from the revenue department and the disaster management department estimate crop loss through field verification.
"Our survey and assessment of the damage has been completed through field enquiry. Today (August 30) is the last day to submit the report from respective districts and we will start consolidating the data to estimate the exact loss in terms of agricultural land and produce," Arabinda Padhee, Principal Secretary of Odisha's agricultural department, told IndiaSpend.
After Cyclone Jawad in December 2021, and the heavy rains in 2020, the government compensated Rs 6,800 per hectare of rain-fed land, Rs 13,500 per hectare for irrigated areas for small and marginal farmers who lost 33% of their crops, a public relations officer to the chief minister had told media persons through a message. Farmers say these amounts fall short of the income they would have received from their crop.
Farmers who can afford new saplings transplanting them after flood waters recede in Puri, August 27, 2022.
Hemant Kumar Narendra, a farmer in Arisal village, had submitted a crop damage appeal for 0.67 hectares of his rainfed land in December 2021, which corresponds to a compensation of Rs 4,600. In July this year, he received a compensation of Rs 2,700. "I had submitted images of complete crop loss on my four-acre land (0.67 hectares) with all required details. After six months I received compensation much less than anticipated. After all these months I don't have the energy to appeal against it," Narendra said. "This time I won't wait for any compensation, I took a small loan, bought short term paddy varieties which are cultivated within 120 days."
The state government however maintains that it adopts a transparent mechanism to assess loss and disburse compensation through direct benefit transfers and adequately compensates the farmers. "The compensation is always as per norms. Our field staff are advised to take photographs as evidence for the loss and also geotag the areas. The compensation also differs depending on the type of crop and whether it is an irrigated or non-irrigated land," Padhee told IndiaSpend.
"We have also done pre-positioning of other crops which can be cultivated post floods and have started apprising farmers regarding the same. We have also taken up a proposal to provide seeds for recultivation at a concessional rate, which will help small and marginal farmers."
On one hectare of land, a farmer usually grows 10 quintals of paddy. The government procures paddy at a Minimum Support Price (MSP) of Rs 2,040 per quintal, and local traders pay Rs 1,400 per quintal, farmers say. In an ideal situation if the entire produce is procured by the government on MSP, a farmer earns Rs 20,400 a hectare. If sold to local traders, a farmer would earn Rs 14,000. In either case, the income is higher than the compensation provided.
In some cases, rivers washing away farms also deposit silt and soil on farmland, damaging crops. A separate compensation is announced in such cases. Arjun Behera (50) from Kanti village of Puri district has a three-foot layer of soil on his farm, deposited by the river water. "I am waiting for the government's assessment. If I remove the soil by myself, then my claims for compensation will not be considered," Arjun Behera said. "But I am worried that if I keep delaying this I wont be able to transplant any more paddy saplings and the season will completely go to waste."
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