Kutch (Gujarat): Umesh Baria, clad in jeans and T-shirt, and sporting a thin moustache, looks like he could still be in college, but he is in reality a seasoned boat owner based in the Jakhau port in Kutch, having assisted his family since childhood and now looking after their traditional business.

“People here risk going into the sea even when there is a cyclone warning, because we end up losing Rs 10,000 for every idle day,” says Baria, 25, as he walks around his boat-repair shed that is cluttered with nets and other equipment. He peeks into a pot simmering on a wood-fired chulha, to check if his lunch is ready.

“In this day and age, earning Rs 10,000 [without fishing] takes a long time, so some people take a calculated risk,” says Baria. A risk that could cost them their lives. Cyclone-related warnings have increased in the Kutch region over the past decade, he says, causing heavy losses to boat owners and fishers who are forced to stay idle multiple times in a season.

Just 20 km away in Naliya, meanwhile, farmers talk of how groundnut production has dipped 30% or more, owing to erratic rainfall year after year.

Climate is visibly changing in Gujarat’s Kutch district. Data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD) show more frequent heatwaves and more rainy days in the past three decades, affecting weather-dependent lives and livelihoods.

Ill-equipped to deal with these changes, and without adequate protection in terms of insurance or compensation, fishers and farmers now live a life of uncertainty. As part of our series on Climate Hotspots, we bring you a glimpse of how climate change-induced extreme weather is plunging those engaged in traditional occupations in Kutch into uncharted waters.

What the data show

In Kutch, data from the IMD show that between 1994 and 2010, the heatwaves in Bhuj were far apart. It registered only four heatwaves in the month of March during this 16-year span, or one every four years on average. But between 2010-2022, there were nine heatwaves in March in Bhuj in this 12 year span. Their intensity remained between two and five days each time.

Between 1994 and 2002, there were only four heatwaves recorded at the Naliya weather station in the month of March, but between 2003 and 2022, the station recorded 20 heatwaves. New Kandla weather station experiences heatwaves very frequently in the months of March and April. Between 2000 and 2010, New Kandla recorded eight heatwaves spread across six years, but between 2011 and 2019, it experienced heatwaves almost every year, totalling 12 heatwaves, with the exception of 2014 and 2017. The New Kandla area experienced heatwaves over 13 days in March 2022 and 17 days in June 2022.

Heatwave deaths have increased in Gujarat from 58 in 2015 to 775 in 2018, notes an action plan on heatwaves prepared by the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority (GSDMA).

Extreme weather has also impacted rainfall in Kutch. Traditionally, there is less rainfall in Saurashtra and Kutch compared to the other parts of the country. For example, Saurashtra and Kutch region had an average seasonal rainfall of around 674 mm in the 2004-13 period with an average 98 rainy days in the entire monsoon season. For comparison, Mumbai receives an average of around 2,300 mm of rainfall in the monsoon season.

Analysis of IMD data of 15 weather stations over the past 30 years shows that at least 11 of the 15 stations recorded an increase in the frequency of rainy days during the monsoon. For example, the Kandla New Observatory had recorded an average of 12 rainy days in the 1990-2000 decade but that number increased to 18.7 in the following decade and to 20 in the 2011-20 decade. The Mundra observatory had recorded an average frequency of 14.6 rainy days in the 1990-2000 decade but that number increased to 20 in the 2010-20 decade. The corresponding numbers for average frequency of rainy days for Naliya went from 9.81 to 14.3 in this period.

What fishers are saying about the changing weather of Gujarat also found mention in this 2013 research paper. “The increasing trend in the heavy rainfall events in the last decade was also found to be due to the increase in cyclonic activity over Arabian Sea at the beginning and end of the monsoon season,” the paper noted.

Sow, but barely reap

In Naliya, farmer Ramesh Bhanushali has lost almost 70% of his produce due to a prolonged monsoon last year. He not only did not make any profit, but barely managed to cover his farming costs. This uncertainty in the agriculture sector and the resulting economic distress has forced Bhanushali to sell around four acres of his 13.5-acre land to a builder, for the construction of a housing society.

“There is no certainty in agriculture,” Bhanushali told IndiaSpend. “Last year, 70% of my groundnut crop got spoiled because rain continued for an extra month. Every year there are some losses due to pests or weather disruption, which we are accustomed to, but last year we suffered heavy losses. While we had thought we would earn Rs 1 lakh from farming in one season, we barely covered our costs. Ek saal gaya matlab (Our year went to waste).”

Farmer Ramesh Bhanushali lost almost 70% of his crop due to a prolonged monsoon last year. The uncertainty of agriculture forced him to sell four acres of his 13.5-acre land for construction.

In 2022, unseasonal rain during the Kharif season hit Gujarat hard. According to IMD, the Saurashtra and Kutch regions of Gujarat had seen a ‘large excess’ in rainfall last monsoon. More than 2,500 villages in 14 districts, including Kutch, were then affected by the aforementioned unseasonal rain. The state government announced a relief package of Rs 630 crore, which is supposed to benefit 800,000 farmers in these districts, but Bhanushali said he did not qualify for this compensation.

“A few years ago, when Naliya suffered drought, everyone received compensation of Rs 13,500. This year, we did not fit into the criteria,” said Ramesh Bhanushali.

IndiaSpend wrote to Gujarat’s Department of Agriculture asking what are the criteria for determining compensation where farmers have faced crop losses due to erratic weather and also why Ramesh Bhanushali did not receive compensation. This story will be updated when they respond.

Farming in Naliya is monsoon-dependent, as hardly 5% of farms are irrigated, farmers told IndiaSpend. They cultivate moong (green gram), bajri (pearl millet), cotton and groundnut in the main, or Kharif, season, while some grow wheat in the Rabi season.

“For 2 kg seeds, we used to grow 40 kg groundnut in the past but now we are able to grow only 12-14 kg,” said Pravinbhai Bhanushali, another farmer from the Naliya region. “Heat, cold, monsoon, everything is extreme now, which affects our yield.”

IndiaSpend reached out to Gujarat’s Directorate of Agriculture, Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare with queries on why such a small percentage of area in Naliya is irrigated and whether the government plans to increase the area under irrigation in the future. This story will be updated when we get a response.

Failing crops and rising heat have caused people to migrate out of Kutch, a group of farmers in Naliya told IndiaSpend. Increased costs of fertilisers, pesticides, seeds have all affected farmers’ profits. The stress on the land and the resulting migration has meant that there is a shortage of labour, which in turn has driven labour costs up to Rs 400 a day. Earlier it would cost around Rs 250 a day. In comparison, the wage rate in Gujarat for unskilled manual workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is Rs 256 per day.

All these factors coming together makes it difficult for farmers to make ends meet.

Mahesh Thakkar, head of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at KSKV Kachchh University, agreed that the general graph shows weather becoming increasingly erratic in Kutch.

“This is happening in particular since 1991,” said Thakkar. “Rainfall has become so erratic that some years we have 200% rain and other years we have drought. While India’s meteorological abilities have improved a lot and dissemination of information is being done, farmers don’t have adequate resources to save their crops from the vagaries of weather.”

This was also reflected in the above mentioned research paper from 2013. It found that the average seasonal rainfall had “increased appreciably” in the decade 2004-2013 in Gujarat. Also, the frequency of heavy rains (>65 mm) has “increased significantly” in this decade (2004-2013) in all observatories of Gujarat state, the paper noted.

Cyclone warnings cripple fishers

Fisherman Narsi Lalloo reminisces of a time when going into the sea for 4-5 days was enough to get catch for one visit but now, boats ply for a minimum of 15-20 days for the same quantity of fish.

Narsi Lalloo, 61, had just bedded down for a siesta when we knocked on his door. Hastily pulling on a shirt, the experienced fisher sat down to talk about the weather. “In the past,” he said, “summer was summer, winter was winter. Now anything happens in any season.”

Originally from Valsad, Lalloo is a boat owner who brings his vessel to Jakhau for the fishing season from August to May. He brings labourers from Valsad because “Jo yahan milta hai wo hamare jaisa dhandha nahi kar sakta hai (the labourers here don’t have business sense like us).”

Lalloo reminisces of a time when going into the sea for four to five days was enough to get catch for one visit but now, boats ply for a minimum of 15-20 days for the same quantity of fish. Also, catch such as lobster, pomfret and prawns are guaranteed to fetch good rates for fishers but now, their quantity has dwindled. If lobsters or pomfret fetched fishers between Rs 150-300 per kg a few decades ago, they now fetch a higher rate, that is, between Rs 1,500-2,500 per kg but their quantity has dwindled a lot, making the guaranteed profit rare.

“We are staying home a lot now,” Lalloo says. “Every one or two months, there is a weather warning. Our men’s salaries have to be given during the season. I have 10 men on my boat. We pay them between Rs 8,000-12,000. It is a big cost.” This daily cost is locally called ‘verantage’, and is high on every boat-owner’s list of challenges.

Gujarat has 218,000 active fishermen and 36,980 fishing boats, according to data from its department of fisheries. Kutch has 4,553 fishing families. Gujarat’s absolute fish production (marine and inland) has increased from 2017-18 to 2021-22 except for the dip during the pandemic year of 2020-21. But the increased production numbers don’t reflect the costs that are incurred by those working in Jakhau.

Area fishers point to the increase in the number of boats (which means less fish for each individual boat), more mechanisation of fishing, increased costs of diesel, ice and labour as reasons for their losses; another major reason they mention is the increased number of cyclone or weather-related warnings.

Second-generation fisherman Umesh Baria says that fishers often risk going into the sea despite weather warnings because idle days cost them around Rs 10,000 a day.

In May 2021, Cyclone Tauktae affected several states of India and particularly Gujarat, following which the Union government announced a package of Rs 1,000 crore for the state’s relief work. Baria, the fisher, says that since Cyclone Nilofar in 2014, the region has begun to see more cyclone or weather warnings.

“This year [2022] there were more weather warnings in September,” Baria says, pointing out that September is right in the middle of the regular fishing season. It is a Catch-22 situation for the fishers. If they stay back home when such warnings are issued, they have to pay labour without being able to catch fish. “And if you go into the sea without a permit when there is a cyclone warning, the authorities can penalise you. Despite that, some fishers still take a risk and go because of the fear of losing verantage,” said Baria.

Fishers say that while the fishing season used to be throughout the nine months from August to May, unseasonal weather and repeated cyclone warnings have shrunk this window to six or seven months.

“This is the condition everywhere, be it Okha, Veraval, Diu or Jakhau. Fishing as a profession is much more difficult now as compared to my father’s time,” said Baria. Most fishers in Jakhau sell their catch to various exporters who have their offices in Kutch or Veraval. Boat owners like Baria now see losses in some seasons and in others, annual profit can be as meagre as Rs 1.5 to Rs 2 lakh.

One large fishing boat needs lakhs in capital to go into the sea. For example, it needs around 3,500 litres of diesel per trip costing around Rs 3.5 lakh and 50-100 blocks of ice.

Jayesh Torania, Assistant Director of Fisheries at the Gujarat Fisheries Department, agreed that fishers now have to go into the sea for longer durations.

“Fishing trips are now as long as a month,” said Torania. “Diesel is a major cost for fishers. Right now, diesel prices have touched Rs 100. One fishing boat needs around 3,500 litres of diesel per trip, which means the cost is around Rs 3.5 lakh. Besides, it needs 50-100 blocks of ice. Thus, a big boat needs lakhs in capital to go into the sea and in comparison, profit margins have thinned.”

Torania said that the government has insurance schemes for fishers that cover death and injury, but there is nothing to cover fishing losses.

“Kisan Credit Card (KCC) gives credit up to Rs 2 lakh, but that will not even cover diesel costs. Fishers demand that KCC should provide cover up to Rs 10 lakh instead,” explained Torania. “But banks hesitate to give loans to fishers in the first place, because there is no guarantee of repayment. That’s why there is no multinational corporation in this industry so far, because there is no fixed revenue in this.”

Torania was referring to the KCC scheme that helps fishers meet their working capital requirement. In the case of new card holders, the credit limit is Rs 2 lakh at a 7% lending rate.

On this January afternoon, Baria walks up to the pier to get his photograph clicked, along a route that is lined with debris. The local authorities had recently undertaken a demolition drive against illegal sheds, offices, hutments and other structures in the port area. Many of these belonged to labourers from different parts of the country, who will return once the fishing season picks up (winter is a comparatively lean period).

Insaan dariya me jaayega toh do paisa kama lega, khaali baithke kya hoga, nuksaan hoga (If fishers go into the sea, they are confident of earning something but it is the idle days that cost us),” said Baria, of the risk involved in venturing into the sea despite warnings.

In our travels in the region, we repeatedly heard such stories of distress, all of which falls into familiar patterns: Fish catch is decreasing, crop yield is less; costs are higher and earnings lower; these exigent circumstances are driving traditional fishers and farmers to migrate--in the process, exacerbating the already dire situation.

And at the heart of these stories there lurks the common factor: climate change, the effects of which are quantifiably, visibly, increasing with each passing year.

(Ritika Chadda, Rakshitha Narasimhan and Pavan Thimmavajjala, interns with IndiaSpend, contributed to this report.)

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