"We live in the kandi belt, which is a drought-prone area of Jammu region, with no irrigation facilities. Hence, our crops and food habits are closely associated with the limited seasonal rainfall we receive," said Balbir Singh Jamwal, sarpanch of Upper Jandial village in Bhalwal taluka of Jammu district. "Kulth [horse gram] pulse is commonly grown in kandi, as it is suitable for dryland farming and requires minimal rainfall. And, we eat kulth only after the first winter rain in December," he added.
Balbir Singh went on to narrate another local custom of eating khichadi, prepared using fresh crop of rice and fresh crop of black gram (locally known as maa ki daal), on the festival of Makar Sakranti in mid-January. "But, with the changing rainfall pattern, we are finding it difficult to grow our traditional crops — a healthy mix of pulses, maize, millets and wheat," he lamented.
In the neighbouring Lower Jandial village, the sarpanch Ravinder Singh Jamwal is equally worried. "Villages in kandi are completely dependent on the rains for kharif [monsoon] and rabi [winter] crops. In the last decade or two, rainfall pattern seems to have changed," said Ravinder Singh. "Earlier, winter rains used to start from late December and continue till March in the form of jhari — continuous, slow rainfall for two to three days. Such rains are now rare, thus directly impacting our rabi crop of kanak [wheat]," he added.
According to Arvind Prakash Singh, senior scientist and incharge of the All India Coordinated Research Project on Dryland Agriculture, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Jammu, the farmers of drought-prone kandi belt are most vulnerable to erratic rainfall pattern, as majority of them practice subsistence farming and have no coping mechanism to deal with the changing climate and its impact on the agriculture. "Erratic monsoon rainfall and missing winter precipitation is impacting local crops and agriculture. But, credible field-based data on such impacts is missing," he said.
Jammu's drought-prone kandi belt
The state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has four distinct agro-climatic zones, notes 'A study of cropping system in Kandi area of Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir state' published in 2015. These are subtropical Jammu region (up to 800 metres above mean sea level), intermediate/semi-temperate mid hills (800-1,500 metres above mean sea level), temperate Kashmir valley (1,500-2,500 metres above mean sea level), and cold arid zone of Ladakh (more than 2,500 metres above mean sea level).
According to the 2015 study, only about 42 percent agriculture area in the state is under irrigation (locally known as pani lagg zameen, or land with irrigation facility), leaving the rest 58 percent at the mercy of rains. Also, about 81 percent of the land holding size in the state is below one ha.
The drought-prone kandi belt in J&K extends between River Ravi in the East and Munawar Tawi in the West. It is bounded by Siwalik mountains in the north and Sirowal in the south (see map 1 and map 2). Total area of the kandi belt in the state is about 812 square kilometre (sq km). The kandi area falls under five blocks —- Jammu (189 sq km), Akhnoor (147 sq km) and Samba (163 sq km) blocks in the Jammu district; and Kathua (158 sq km) and Hiranagar (155 sq km) blocks in the Kathua district, notes a study 'Land Use Mapping of Kandi Belt of Jammu Region' published in Journal of the Indian Society of Remote Sensing. The study goes on to state that kandi belt has undulating topography, steep and irregular slopes, erodible and low water retentive soils and badly dissected terrain by numerous gullies.
Map 1: Kandi belt spread in Jammu and Kathua districts of J&K
Source: Hydrological problems in the kandi belt of Jammu region, National Institute of Hydrology, Roorke, Uttaranchal.
Map 2: Kandi belt in foothills of Siwalik in Jammu region
Source: Report on aquifer mapping outer plains of Jammu province, Jammu & Kashmir, Centre Ground Water Board, North Western Himalayan Region, Jammu, http://cgwb.gov.in/AQM/NAQUIM_REPORT/JandK/Jammu%20Outer%20plain.pdf
Agriculture is the main occupation of people living in the kandi belt, majority of whom are small or marginal farmers. "We brave several odds. Not only are we at the mercy of rainfall, majority of the farmers are also poor with small land holdings and minimal access to modern means of agriculture," said Manmohan Singh Jamwal of Domana village in Jammu district.
"The Jammu region has canals such as Ranbir canal, Pratap canal, etc in lower kandi area. But, a large part of kandi remains without irrigation. Also, these canals go dry by early January, and water is released in them only from Baisakhi festival in April," said Ravinder Singh (see map 3).
Map 3: Canals in kandi belt of Jammu regionSource: Hydrological problems in the kandi belt of Jammu region, National Institute of Hydrology, Roorke, Uttaranchal.
According to Manmohan Singh, traditionally, all villages in kandi used to have large ponds, which were the only source of drinking water. These ponds were dug at such locations were run-off from the local streams used to feed the ponds. "Local people used to protect these village ponds by keeping a caretaker. There were strict rules around usage of pond water," he added. But, with the advent of piped water supply in 1960s, most of these ponds have been abandoned or encroached upon, lamented Manmohan Singh. As per 2000 data, there were 406 ponds in kandi belt Jammu.
Apart from lack of irrigation, the soils in kandi area are also of poor quality. According to the Soil Survey Organisation of the Department of Agriculture of J&K state, the kandi belt has 11 soil series, most of which have low fertility due to deficiency of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and organic matter.
In spite of these challenges, kandi farmers have traditionally been growing bajra [pearl millet], maize, pulses [kulth and black gram] and oil-seeds [sesame] during the kharif season, and wheat in the rabi season, informed Arvind Prakash. "But, due to the changing climate, rising heat, erratic rainfall and a shift from traditional agricultural practices, the cropping pattern in kandi has changed, which is a matter of concern," he added. Majority of the farmers now grow only maize in kharif and wheat in rabi.
Changing rainfall pattern
The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has carried out long-term analysis of rainfall data across the country, including J&K. As per the met department's 2013 monograph, 'State Level Climate Change Trends in India', which is based on long-term changes in surface temperature and precipitation in the country between 1951 and 2010, average annual rainfall in J&K shows an increasing trend of 2.13 millimetre (mm) per year. This increasing rainfall trend in the state is recorded in the winter season (December, January and February months) —- an increase of 1.88 mm per year, too.
But, interestingly, month-wise rainfall analysis in these five decades, as documented in the 2013 monograph, shows that rainfall is decreasing in all the ten months of a year in J&K except January and July months when it is showing an increasing trend.
Season-wise, except winter season, the other three seasons — summer (March to May), monsoon (June to September) and post monsoon (October to December) — show a decreasing trend of minus 1.07 mm per year, minus 0.16 mm per year and minus 0.37 mm per year, respectively.
Another 2011 study by Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Jammu has reported "downward trend in rainfall at the rate of 2.0mm to 8.4mm per year in rabi season across the Jammu region. No trend was noticed in kharif season. Also, the temperature across the Jammu region shows an increasing trend at the rate of 0.3 to 0.6 degree Celsius per decade.
The National Institute of Hydrology's report, Hydrological problems in the kandi belt of Jammu region, notes that erratic rains in June leads to delay in kharif sowing in kandi area. Breaks in rainfall and dry spells cause stress to the crops. Early receding of monsoon causes acute soil moisture stress and impacts rabi sowing. It also reports that "drought is frequently experienced during rabi season crops, i.e. during October to December and March to April."
Farmers at the receiving end
The changing pattern of rainfall is impacting agriculture in the kandi belt, as farmers practice rainfed farming on small parcels of infertile lands. "We sow wheat crop in December after one or two rain events. Then, in January and February, there are rains on and off, which support our rabi crop, and harvesting is done in April around Baisakhi," said Balbir Singh. "But, now we rarely get any rains in December. And, even later, rainfall is erratic," he added.
During the last kharif season, Ravinder Singh lost major part of his maize crop due to untimely heavy rainfall. "I have lost 75 percent of my maize crop this year due to heavy downpour. And, keeping in mind, we live in the kandi belt, there isn't much hope from the rabi crop of wheat," he lamented. According to him, more than 95 percent farmers in kandi belt are subsistence farmers; they grow crops only to feed their families.
Farmers complain that agriculture in kandi has become so unprofitable that many landowners are giving their farmland on rent to landless people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh for farming. "We give land on rent for six months at a price of Rs 400-500 per kanal to landless farmers from other states," said Ravinder Singh.
According to Arvind Prakash, rainfall variability is increasing and so is the frequency of dry spells, which has a direct impact on the crops. For instance, maize, the main kharif crop in kandi belt, is very sensitive to moisture. "Maize needs water during critical growth stages of the plant, such as silking and tasseling stages. If the dry spell extends beyond 10-12 days, there is a substantial decrease in crop productivity," he explained.
Because of delay in winter rains, sowing of wheat is getting pushed to January. And, since the wheat crop has to be harvested by Baisakhi, it has shrivelled grain and low productivity, added Arvind Prakash. Pulses and oilseeds are on a decline, whereas majority of the farmers have limited themselves to maize and wheat crops.
Supporting dryland farming
Agriculture sector experts believe that farmers in kandi belt are highly resilient and over the centuries, they have created a repository of traditional drylands farming practices that can be revived and supported to help farmer cope with the climate change.
Way back in 2000-01, a survey was conducted in kandi under Krishi Vigyan Kendra to document some of these traditional practices. Inter-cropping of maize and ginger is one such practice in which dry leaves, farm wastes and crop residues used under the feet of the cattle as "beds" in the cattle-shed were applied in the agricultural fields as mulches, which made soil fertile and helped maintain soil moisture content.
Similarly, several farmers in kandi belt of Akhnoor taluka used to sprinkle ash in their fields, which used to meet potash deficiency in the local soils. It also used to help control pest attacks. As part of water and soil conservation works, farmers used to regularly do contour bunding and terracing of their farms. Traditional ponds were protected to meet drinking water needs, recharge groundwater and limited irrigation demands.
In his article on agricultural diversification, R D Gupta, former associate dean-cum-chief scientist at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Jammu writes: "Before green revolution in a number of sub-mountainous areas of Siwalik lying in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir, farmers usually used to grow pulses. Some areas of kandi belt of Jammu… were once great producers of gram, moth and kulth, but now a days these are no more grown." According to him, going back to growing pulses can help in agriculture diversification and spread the risks for farmers. Pulses being leguminous crops will also fix atmospheric nitrogen in soils and increase soil fertility.
Arvind Prakash lists down some steps to promote and support dryland farming in the kandi belt to help farmers adapt to climate change. Firstly, crop diversification and a mix of different crops to main soil and ecological balance. "At present most farmers grow maize and wheat, both of which belong to the cereal family and have similar nutrient needs from the soil. This leads to mining of nutrients from the already infertile soils," he warned. Crop diversification can also act as an auto-check on pest dynamics.
Secondly, promote agro-forestry so that farmers can grow local species of trees on their farm boundaries that provide both fodder and fuelwood. This will also stop soil erosion. Thirdly, as part of soil and water conservation, farmers should be trained to undertake compartment bunding so that run-off is captured and water can be used later by the crops. Using green manure can also help maintain soil moisture content. Village ponds need to be protected and maintained. Minor irrigation and rainwater harvesting also needs to be implemented.
There is also a need to revive pulses and oilseeds crops in kandi, as these are relatively drought-tolerant. "But, these crops are prone to pest attacks and resource-poor farmers of kandi have no coping mechanism to deal with them," added Arvind Prakash.
Nidhi Jamwal is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. Support for this story was provided through a fellowship under the DFID-funded Informing Change in the Indus Basin Project led by the International Water Management Institute(IWMI). The views expressed are solely those of the author and in no way reflect those of IWMI or DFID.