HARSULIYA, INDIA // Radhe Ram's rickety tea stall is normally empty at this time of year. The farmers who make up the bulk of his customers here in western Rajasthan are usually busy preparing their summer crops of millet, ground nuts and sesame for harvest following the annual monsoon rains. This year is different.
Every day, a dozen farmers lounge in his shady stall nursing endless cups of sweet milky tea. They have little else to do - the rains have failed and their crops are all dead or dying in India's worst drought for almost 40 years. "I spend my days sitting here drinking," said Ram Karan Saini, 48, a farmer who ekes out a living for his extended family of 15 from just 0.1 hectares of parched, sandy soil.
"The drought is all we talk about. If the rains had come we wouldn't have any time to sit and talk." Mr Saini and his fellow tea drinkers are among an estimated 700 million Indians - more than 60 per cent of the population - who rely on agriculture as their main livelihood. With little or no access to irrigation systems, they depend on the monsoon, which sweeps across the country between June and September, providing 80 per cent of India's rainfall.
The monsoon began well this year, even arriving a few days early in southern India at the end of May, prompting farmers across India to begin sowing. The rains, however, soon petered out, and the month of June was the driest in more than 80 years, with rainfall 54 per cent below average, according to India's Meteorological Office. Many of Mr Saini's newly planted seedlings simply shrivelled up. In recent weeks, the rains have returned to some parts of the country, but too late for many crops, which need constant irrigation to survive the sweltering summer.
Even factoring in the recent rains, precipitation across the country is still 28 per cent below average, and in areas such as Mr Saini's, the shortfall is more than 50 per cent. That makes this the worst drought since 1972, posing the most serious domestic challenge yet for the new government, led by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh. "It's a severe drought," Mr Singh declared on a recent visit to Rajasthan - one of India's worst affected states.
"We will ensure that people below the poverty line are not hit." The government is forecasting a drop in agricultural output of around 20 per cent this season and production in Rajasthan could be reduced as much as 50 per cent. It has lowered its GDP growth forecast for 2009 to six per cent from seven per cent last month, blaming the global economic downturn and a faltering agricultural sector. But some economists say the drought alone could shave one percentage point off GDP growth, and some compare it to 2002, when rains were 19 per cent below average, and GDP growth dropped from 5.8 per cent to just 3.8.
Officials say they have ample food reserves to weather the storm, but many economists warn that the leaner harvest could push up already rising food prices. "If you take food prices, we are already on an inflationary track, and this year we'll see prices rise further," said CP Chandrashekhar, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "The poorest will be affected." With prices for staples rising rapidly - sugar is trading at 30-year highs - the government has already been forced to launch raids on food hoarders.
The bad monsoon may also have knock-on effects on hydropower, which accounts for a quarter of the country's electricity. Many of the reservoirs are less than 75 per cent full, according to government statistics. "If the winter rains are inadequate, we'll see problems with the generation of hydroelectricity," said Vijay Shankar Vyas, an economic adviser to the prime minister. "It's very worrisome."
A sudden drop in power generation would be a crippling blow for a country already facing an electricity shortfall of 11 per cent. The government hopes the crisis will soon abate, as late rains are replenishing reservoirs and encouraging farmers to plant more winter crops such as wheat and mustard seed. That is a small comfort for Mr Saini and other farmers in the worst affected areas, who are unlikely to plant winter crops as the late rains have yet to arrive.
Instead, they plan to cut down on expenditure and turn to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) - a new rural job scheme - to make ends meet. The problem for Mr Saini is that only one person per household can get work under the scheme, which guarantees 100 days' work a year at 100 rupees (Dh7.6) a day. "There are 15 of us: how can we survive on 100 rupees a day?" said Mr Saini, who has two brothers, each with wives and children.
If he works for the full 100 days he will receive 10,000 rupees, compared with the 100,000 rupees he would have got from selling the harvest. The NREGA wages would not even cover the 30,000 rupees he spent on seeds for millet, sesame and ground nut this year. Without crops to feed his buffalo, he is having to buy feed, which costs him double what it did a month ago. He has also taken a 40,000 rupee loan against next year's harvest to pay for his children's education.
"I pray there'll be enough rain next year to pay it back," he said. Faced with debts like this, many farmers choose to take their own lives: up to 15,000 have committed suicide in the last decade because of debts, according to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Others are forced to sell their livestock before the animals die of starvation. Meanwhile, many of the younger generation - such as Mr Saini's son, Kajar Mal, 20 - are turning their backs on farming.
"I could not afford to live if I was a farmer," said Kajar, who is studying to be a teacher. "The plot is too small to support us. I want the security of a government job." Millions of others are now making the same decision, choosing to migrate to already overcrowded cities in search of higher paying work. For Mr Saini, however, that is not an option as he is too old to start a new life. So he continues to spend endless hours in the tea shop, waiting for the life-giving rains.
"I feel hopeless," he said. "Some people will die just from the worry." firstname.lastname@example.org