In Odisha, where late monsoons mean crop failures, poverty and even suicide, a novel scheme aims to boost water access

In the Niyamgiri hill range, a Dongria Kondh tribal woman says hill streams that used to flow until May are drying by March (Pic: Manipadma Jena)

“The farmer who is suicidal will follow the season’s calendar his father did,” says Gulpa Kadraka, sitting cross-legged on the mud floor of his tin-roofed shack in Kerandiguda, a village in the Niyamgiri hills.

This time a decade ago, Kadraka would have been weeding amid the soft summer showers, ready to sow millet as soon as the monsoon arrived in early June. Now, he doesn’t start preparing the red soil until he sees the rains, which come 30 to 45 days late.

In the eastern Indian state of Odisha, monsoon season is getting more variable with climate change – and to make matters worse, groundwater sources are in decline. It leaves farmers vulnerable to crop failure, poverty and social breakdown.

Two thirds of the state’s population depend on agriculture, but only one third of farmland has access to canal irrigation. The rest must wait for rain. This lack of water infrastructure contributes to severe food insecurity in 18 of the 30 districts.

An Odisha farmer’s monthly average income is 4,976 rupees ($77), well below the national average of Rs 6,426 ($100) and less than a quarter of the Rs 18,059 ($282) earned in Punjab, India’s richest agricultural region.

Repeated crop failure…