THE SECOND-LARGEST wheat cultivator in the world is India. Wheat is also the second-most important crop here coming after rice, although in many parts of the country, it is the primary staple. What we harvest is usually good for both domestic needs and to even export the rest. Last year was something of an exception when there was a sizeable fall in output, leading to many unwanted consequences. As the magazine Down to Earth wrote then: “After consecutive record production, India produced 106.84 million tonnes of wheat in the 2021- 22 crop season—less than 109.59 million tonnes in 2021. As a result, the government procurement figures fell to a 15-year low, with farmers staying away from government procurement as they were getting high prices in private trade. So much so that the government had to revise its wheat allocation for 11 states under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, replacing wheat with rice.”
The reason for this was the heat. Last March, temperatures soared to break a previous record that had been set in 2010. Wheat yield decreases if the temperature rises beyond a point and, in recent times, this has been a recurring phenomenon. As a 2020 paper, ‘Impact of terminal heat stress on wheat yield in India and options for adaptation’, in the Agricultural Systems journal noted: “India is witnessing decrease in length of winter period and early commencement of significantly higher temperature than normal trend. Early commencements of significantly higher temperature coincide with wheat grain filling stage especially in Indo-Gangetic plains leading to terminal heat stress and reduction in yield…Simulated results showed that terminal heat stress will reduce wheat yield by 18.1%, 16.1% and 11.1%, respectively in present, 2020 and 2050 scenarios.”
This year could be equally bad. February saw heat levels like never before. On March 3, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in its summary for the previous month said it was the highest ever recorded temperature since 1901, the year they began keeping the data: “All India wise, during February, the average maximum temperature is ever highest at 29.66 degrees Celsius since 1901 and it has broken the earlier ever-highest record of 29.48 degrees Celsius that was in 2016 for the month of February for the same period.” Predictably, the wheat crop is in danger. In a report, India Ratings, the rating agency, said that total production could come down by 5 million tonnes as against earlier estimates. And this week in an interview with the New Indian Express, Food Corporation of India Managing Director Ashok KK Meena, when asked about challenges to wheat procurement, said: “One of the issues we are concerned about is climate. We hope that the heat wave would not be as intense as IMD has forecast, which may affect adversely production and grain quality, especially in Punjab, Haryana and western UP. Heat can cause the grain to shrivel and consequently reduce production by around 20-25 per cent.”
IMD thinks there is a high probability that March to May could be much hotter than usual. The National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) had a workshop in Februaryonheatwaveswhereparticipants, including bureaucrats and researchers, got together to share inputs. Heat waves are usually not countrywide at the same time but in specific regions. They are defined by IMD in different ways. If the temperature is above 40 degrees Celsius in the plains, and above 35 and 30 degrees in coastal and hilly areas, respectively, then it is labelled as one. So also if it is more than 4.5 degrees from the normal of a place on a given day. If it is more than 6.4 degrees, then it is termed a severe heat wave. In his presentation, Kunal Satyarthi, joint secretary of NDMA, had a table that showed how the issue is becoming graver by the year. In 2015, the number of states which experienced heat waves was nine and in both 2019 and 2020, it had gone up to 23, which is almost 80 per cent of the country. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body, it is only going to get worse in India because of climate change.Heat waves come with a toll on both lives and livelihoods. A study published in The Lancet last year found a 55 per cent increase in fatalities over two decades. A Times of India report on it last October said, “When doing a comparison between the figures of 2000-2004 and 2017-2021, The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: Health at the Mercy of Fossil Fuels, found that there has been a 55 percent increase in heat related deaths in India. India had reported 20,000 heat related deaths in adults over the age of 65 annually in 2000 to 2004, and the number grew to about 31,000 deaths in 2017 to 2021.” Droughts are usually thought to be a result of the absence of rainfall but studies have also found a connection to heat waves in India. One published in the journal Natural Hazards in 2016 looked at rainfall, temperature and drought in Gujarat between 1981 and 2010, and found an association. The study said: “In the Indian Subcontinent, droughts occur generally due to delayed arrival or early retreat of the south-west monsoon associated with poor precipitation. However, initiation and intensification of droughts may also result from heat waves.”
There are other fallouts. Wheat might be the immediate crisis but heat waves can affect the production of other crops too. After last year’s heat wave, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research came out with a report on its causes and effects, especially for agriculture. It said in its executive summary, “The abnormal increase in maximum and minimum temperatures during 2022, impacted crops, fruits, vegetables and animals in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra…High temperatures resulted in moisture stress, sun burn, flower drop and less fruit setting in horticultural crops such as kinnow, pomegranate, mango and lemon. Similarly, in case of vegetables, significant impact was observed especially in tomato, cole crops and cucurbits. Loss of appetite and higher body temperature was observed in milch animals which led to reduction of milk yield up to 15%. The extreme temperatures resulted in drop in egg production and increased broiler mortality.”
Heat waves also put inordinate stress on the power sector. Electricity consumption shoots up and supply is unable to keep pace with demand, leading to outages. This happened last year and Coal India, which supplies coal to the power plants in India, is trying to preempt a repeat. A Bloomberg report said, “The state-run miner is increasing coal output and building stockpiles at its mines this month to meet supply commitments, the company said in a Tuesday statement. Electricity consumption is set to jump with India’s weather officials predicting another round of scorching heat waves, which could put the power system under severe strain and threaten food supplies stockpiling.”
Climate Transparency makes an account every year of how governments are meeting climate change. Its report last year estimated the effect of heat on Indian workers and how deep an impact it had on the economy. It said, “In 2021, heat exposure in India led to the loss of 167 billion potential labour hours, a 39% increase from 1990-1999. The potential income loss in 2021—in the service industry, manufacturing, agriculture, and construction sectors—from labour capacity reduction due to extreme heat was USD 159bn in 2021 in India or 5.4% of its GDP.” This year, too, there might be a similar toll if predictions come true.
The government is planning for the coming heat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently had a high-level meeting to look into preparedness for the summer. A press release said: “He was also briefed about the impact of weather on Rabi crops and the expected yield of major crops. The efforts underway to monitor irrigation water supply, fodder and drinking water were also reviewed. Further, Prime Minister was briefed about the preparedness of states and hospital infrastructure in terms of availability of required supplies and preparedness for emergencies. He was also updated on various efforts underway across the country to prepare for disasters related to heat and mitigation measures in place.”
The Union health ministry has released an advisory, mostly commonsense measures like staying hydrated, remaining indoors, vulnerable populations being aware and alert, and so on. There is, however, no immediate permanent solution round the corner to the phenomenon. You can’t tone down nature. Its forces are usually too strong and the most that can be done is adapt.