"Every time we go out for hoeing the maize saplings, the rain and hailstorms start. Till now, our net sown area of around 5 kanals of land has been devastated by unseasonal hailstorms four times," said an anxious-looking Guddo Devi.
The 26 year-old was preparing the firewood to make dinner for her three children while speaking about the calamity. She lives in the remote Pounsa hamlet in the Chenani tehsil of Jammu's Udhampur district and like her, many farmers in the surrounding areas of Udhampur have lost their crops to hailstorms.
In these winter zones, farmers often cultivate only one crop a year in the autumn and this loss has left them anxious about surviving the cold months ahead.
Usually, it does not rain in Jammu in June, but this year unseasonal rainfall and hailstorms have wreaked havoc by damaging standing crops in over hundreds of kanals (1 kanal is equal to 0.125 acres) in the winter areas of Udhampur district.
Agriculture in Jammu's hills
Unlike the plains of Jammu where maize crop is sown in May-June and harvested in mid-September, in Jammu's winter zone areas, maize kernels are sown in the month of April, on Baisakhi festival, and harvested in the month of October.
The winter zone areas include Udhampur's Pounsa, Satyalta, Malaal, Patnitop, Panchairi, Dudu-Basantgarh, Kulwanta, Pattan, Latti and major parts of Doda, Ramban, Reasi, Kishtwar, and Kathua districts.
During winters, most people in Jammu's upper reaches either grow mustard, which can withstand negative temperatures, or do not grow anything at all, since these areas receive heavy snowfall in between December and March. So, most farmers in the hills of Jammu do farming for sustenance unlike in the plains where farmers grow commercial crops twice or thrice a year on vast and fertile lands.
Since most people in Jammu's higher reaches grow only one crop in a year, once the harvesting is done in October, they take up labour work in winter in Udhampur town, Jammu, Amritsar and Delhi.
"But this year and the last, my five brothers and I couldn't even earn from labour work due to the pandemic," said Bittu Ram, 53, from Malaal area in Satyalta village. His crops suffered massive damage due to the hailstorms.
"I have around 15 kanals (1.875 acres) of agricultural land and I grow maize, rajma (kidney beans) and amaranthus seeds during Baisakh (April) month every year. Normally it rains in May-June in our hills but hail is not normal. The four to five recent hailstorms have completely uprooted the maize saplings that we had grown two months back."
There are 30 households in the remote Malaal village of Satyalta panchayat. Maize crop of all the Malaal residents got completely ravaged by the recent hailstorms.
Why the unseasonal phenomenon
According to Sonam Lotus, director, Meteorological Department, Jammu and Kashmir, the hailstorms in Jammu and Kashmir are "not unseasonal". "Rather their frequency has increased due to more local developments this year," he told 101Reporters.
Explaining the local developments, he said, "The months of April and May have been categorised as 'hot weather months' by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). In this period, India's northern region, including J&K, experiences thunderstorms, hailstorms accompanied by gusty winds due to western disturbances and local developments, particularly convection."
"This year, the frequency of these western disturbances and local convection was very high, resulting in more hailstorms and hence more damage to the crops in the higher reaches of Jammu," explained the weather scientist.
When asked if the frequency of windstorms and hailstorms will increase with the advent of monsoon in July in Jammu and Kashmir, he said, "This phenomenon cannot be predicted."
Yash Pal, the sarpanch (village head) of Satyalta Panchayat, which has a population of around 3,000, said that the panchayat has 17,000 kanals of total agricultural land. Of this, he said that maize, rajma, amaranthus, pumpkin, beans and other hilly crops are grown on about 10,000 kanals of land.
"Around 90 percent of these 10,000 kanals of agricultural land has suffered damages due to the hailstorms and incessant rainfall this year," claimed Pal.
When asked if he had approached the administration to assess the losses so that farmers could be compensated, the Panchayat head replied, "Our area is not motorable. So government officials hardly visit our hilly villages. They assess the losses on mobile phones only. I've briefed our patwari (local revenue official) on the phone. Let's see how much they pay the affected farmers."
Speaking to 101Reporters, Abdul Majid, the patwari of Patwar Halqa Satyalta, admitted that some of the hilly areas in Satyalta have suffered extensive damages due to hailstorms.
"Our teams are on their toes to assess the losses. A detailed report shall be prepared and sent to higher-ups," he said adding, "Most probably, by September, the farmers would be compensated."
Kewal Kumar, a farmer in Ramnagar Tehsil's hilly Basantgarh block said crops have been badly damaged by the hailstorms in Basantgarh, Dudu, Pachond-I, Pachond-II, and Jakhed areas. "Maize, rajma, amaranthus, French beans, squash, apricot, walnut, and apple crops have been destroyed. While vast lands in Basantgarh hills have suffered crop damages, farmers in low-lying areas are not able to sow the maize and other crops due to recurring hailstorms," he explained.
Waiting for relief
While the farmers wait for compensation, many believe it may not be able to make up for their losses.
Yash Pal believes that the compensation that would be paid to the farmers would be "insufficient" "and till that time (by September) most farmers would be in a state of financial crunch since they grow only one crop in 365 days and don't have an option to earn from labour work as well this year."
"I am of the opinion that the government should sensitise these farmers and advise them to shift to some alternative crops suitable to the climate of these hills," he concluded.
(The author is a Jammu-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)