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India’s wheat farmers count cost of 40C heat that evokes ‘deserts of Rajasthan’

It was his buffaloes that he was first worried about. As temperatures in the small village of Baras, deep in the Indian state of Punjab, began to soar to unseasonably hot levels in April, farmer Hardeep Singh Uppal noticed that his two buffaloes, essential for his family’s livelihood, became feverish and unwell.

A few weeks later and the buffaloes now seem fine, flicking their tails leisurely as an icy breeze blows down from an air conditioning unit, a luxury that once sat in Uppal’s parents house but now has been installed in an otherwise run-down cowshed, running all day at great expense. “The vet told me I need to keep them cool in this heatwave otherwise they will die so this is the only way,” said Uppal.

Yet Uppal’s problems, which arose from the heatwave that has gripped India since March, the hottest month on record, only got worse from there. As he and other farmers across north India began to harvest their wheat crop in mid-April, amid temperatures that were regularly above 40C, they were confronted with damaged, shrivelled grain. Unseasonable winter rain and then a scorching summer heatwave that arrived two months early – both markers of climate change – had stunted crop growth and laid waste to his grain and therefore his livelihood.

“My wheat harvest this year was 50% less than expected, my crops have shrivelled from this heat. It’s never been this hot in March before,” said Uppal, who has 1.5 hectares of land. It hasn’t rained in Baras since January; the usual showers that traditionally come in April and May, after the wheat harvest and before they plant the rice, simply never arrived.

Farmer Hardeep Singh Uppal.
Farmer Hardeep Singh Uppal. Photograph: Hannah Ellis-Petersen/The Guardian

The wheat harvest losses, which occurred across India, have left the farmers in terrible debt, having loaned money from a middleman to pay for seeds and fertiliser, but all finding themselves with at least 50% less grain to sell. Profits from the harvest were not nearly enough to cover the money owed, and now interest on those debts is rising.

“All the farmers are very stressed, we are in bad debt. If this hot weather keeps happening then more and more farmers will be forced to sell off their land,” said Uppal.

These farmers, who are on the frontline of the climate emergency, say they have little option to adapt their way of life even as the heat worsens. They still burn their wheat stubble, which contributes to India’s terrible air pollution, as they can’t afford any other method to clear the field. They still plant rice paddy – a heavily water-dependent crop – despite warnings that the water table of Punjab is plunging rapidly, as it is the only crop they can be assured of selling at a good price.

Surjeet Singh, 65, said he had never seen temperatures like this in all his decades of farming, and had lost half of his wheat crop on his 16 hectares of land. “I have lost 700,000 rupees (£7,200) and if this happens again next season I don’t know what I will do,” he said. “It’s heating up everywhere so I am worried about the crops and about the groundwater, which is running out. Soon this land will become as barren as the deserts of Rajasthan.”

But it was not just in rural Punjab that the effects of the India’s unprecedented heatwave were felt. Last weekend, as temperatures in some parts of India’s capital Delhi hit a record-breaking 49C, the Indian government announced it was putting a ban on all wheat exports, due to the heatwave decimating India’s expected harvest. The government said it was a decision made to “manage the overall food security of the country”.

The decision sent ripples across the globe and came as a blow to the international community, who had been relying on Indian wheat exports to help fill a huge supply gap left in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Previously Russia and Ukraine together accounted for almost a third of world wheat exports.

India is the second largest wheat producer in the world, and for the 2022-23 crop season it was expected to be one of the top 10 wheat exporters, predicted to sell 10m tonnes abroad. In April, minister Piyush Goyal had made assurances that “our farmers have ensured that not just India but the whole world is taken care of” and the day before the ban was announced, the government had announced it would be sending envoys to nine different countries “for exploring possibilities of boosting wheat exports”.

But the low wheat yield had meant that the government’s own supplies have dipped to a 13-year low, and the shortage – exacerbated by alleged hoarding of wheat by private traders – led to prices in wheat and flour soaring by 40% in recent weeks. Worried they could be facing food shortages, the government made a major U-turn.

The day after the Indian export ban was announced, global wheat prices jumped a record 6%. German agricultural minister Cem Özdemir warned that “if everyone starts to impose export restrictions or to close markets, that would worsen the crisis”. The United States said it hoped “India would reconsider” its decision to ban wheat exports which “will make the current global food shortage even worse”. At the forthcoming G7 summit in June, countries are expected to pressure India to reverse the ban.

But it has nonetheless brought home the instability of global food supplies in the face of a rapidly warming planet. A study released this week found that extreme events like the one facing north India currently are now 100 times more likely and could take place every three years, rather than every three centuries.

“In a warming world, I would expect a place like India to experience these types of events as the norm rather than as an extreme,” said Luke Parsons, a climate researcher in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

As the farmers of Baras testified, the issue was not just heat frying the crops, but making agricultural labour harder and harder, as the times of day it was possible to work outdoors is shrinking fast. “In a place like India, for every degree of global warming, you get about a degree and a half in increases in human heat exposure,” said Parsons.

“As we warm the globe, not only do the midday temperatures rise, but also the heat exposure in the early morning hours and evenings, times when outdoor workers traditionally do more labour intensive tasks. Therefore we will see more people exposed to extreme and unsafe labour conditions.

Jaspal Singh Virk, 48, who has 14 hectares, was among those who suffered health problems from being out in the baking sun while harvesting his wheat. “It was terrible, being out in the heat like that for 15 days straight, but we farmers have no choice during the harvest,” said Kirk.

He is relying on rain to fall so his rice crop will survive for the next season, otherwise he faces destitution. “It’s all in God’s hands now,” he said.

Vandana K contributed reporting

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