Droughts, an integral part of India's geophysical profile, have registered a steep rise in frequency and ferocity during the past 50 years. To its credit, the scientific community has kept pace by conducting research that can minimise the impact of dry spells. But the government has done precious little to utilise this flood of information for the benefit of the worst affected sector -- agriculture.
That the menace has acquired alarming proportions is evident from facts and figures: on an average, 1,000 square kilometres of land (about the size of Mumbai) is declared drought-prone every year. And around 6,000 million tonnes of topsoil, containing rich plant nutrients vital for the fertility and moisture content of the land, is washed away annually. Droughts are usually categorised under three heads: meteorological, triggered by insufficient rainfall; agricultural, caused by lack of adequate soil moisture to sustain crops and hydrological, a result of severe depletion in water table. India is currently reeling under a deadly cocktail of all these conditions.
To be sure, preventive measures are at hand. For over 10 years, the Hyderabad-based National Remote Sensing Agency (nrsa) has been monitoring the spread of drought into hitherto unaffected regions through the integrated National Agricultural Drought Assessment and Monitoring System (nadams). L M Pandey, head of agriculture and soil division of Indian Institute of Remote Sensing in Dehradun, says: " nrsa scientists are identifying new areas under the dry spell." Despite this, implementation agencies in various states have not paid heed to advance warnings emanating from such set-ups.
Karnataka, for instance, is the only state that has established an autonomous body for drought monitoring. The drought monitoring cell (dmc) has tied up with nrsa to keep track of the phenomenon from the state to the taluk level (see map: Gloomy picture). The dmc , notwithstanding, Karnataka became the second state to declare itself drought-affected this year.
dmc director V S Prashad clarifies, "We carry out only monitoring and disseminating tasks. Data usage depends on the district officials." Usually, no suggestions come forth from the concerned departments for the farmers. Neither are warnings issued to those cultivating water-intensive crops against expert advice. M D Nanjundaswamy, president of Rajya Raitha Sangha, a group of farmers' associations in Karnataka, says ruefully: "The government does not make any use of the data." Prashad admits that the response system is poor. It is also felt that the presence of several players who are not well-versed in the use of scientific reports impedes the process.
But there was a saving grace in the case of Karnataka: though it could not prevent the crops sown well before monsoon from getting damaged, yet the dmc has been able to influence a change in cropping patterns and save new, short duration crops.
Keeping tabs Karnataka could partially stave off the crisis only because it did not ignore the advance warning completely. Unfortunately, this was not the case with other drought-affected states in spite of nadams cautioning them on the severe moisture stress as early as October-November 2001.
nadams essentially deals with monitoring vegetation status. It achieves this by merging us-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (noaa) advanced very high resolution data with ground-based weather reports (see flowchart: Reality check). To use the noaa information, vegetation index (vi) maps are prepared. These are based on the concept that vegetation vigour is an indicator of moisture availability.
By measuring the intensity of radiated and reflected light from the visible as well as the invisible spectrum, the image indicates the health and condition of the vegetation. The difference between the radiated and reflected light represents existing vegetation, whose information is used to construct a vi. The lowering of the vi reflects moisture stress in vegetation, resulting from prolonged rainfall deficiency. Combined with a surface water index, the vi provides a clue to the onset of hydrological and agricultural droughts.
A constant watch can be kept over developments, with the nrsa issuing a biweekly drought bulletin and publishing monthly reports. The project falls under the department of agriculture and cooperation (dac), Union ministry of agriculture.
nadams currently provides crop and seasonal condition reports at the district and sub-district levels to agriculturally important and drought-prone states. The assessment for the districts is based on a comparative evaluation of satellite-observed green vegetation cover (both area and greenness) during a specific time period, with that of any similar period in previous years. The satellites cover any part of the country in one to two days.
Recent maps reveal that India's maximum land area is severely stressed. According to nrsa, 75 million hectares (mha) are drought prone. M V Krishna Rao, head of nrsa's agriculture division, reveals: "The data is procured by state agriculture departments and relief commissioners so that they can gear up for such spells of weather." In practice, however, government departments rarely refer to them. "These are very organised data and can be used widely, but officials are not interested," laments N C Saxena, ex-member secretary of the planning commission.
The responsibility to deal with natural disasters such as droughts lies primarily with the Union government. The dac is the nodal department for all relief-related activities. The state crisis management group plays the trouble-shooter's role by formulating action plans during contingencies. And at the local level, the district collector is the focal point for handling relief measures.
It is ironical that even though a multi-tier system has been put in place, states fail to act in time to save the crops. Nanjundaswamy says, "Officials visit affected villages only after the drought sets in." It is also inexplicable why the nadams is put to limited use.
An overview of the situation shows that the country is gradually turning into a parched and unproductive land mass. It seems that the policies and programmes initiated by successive governments to combat the malady have failed to have the desired effect. In 1974, when the Union government initiated the Drought-Prone Area Programme, 50 mha of land was under drought. In the 1990s, it increased to 80 mha. This year, the government is still trying to assess the extent of the damage, but conservative estimates put it at an additional 7-10 mha of moisture-strained land.
The rot can, however, be stemmed. " nrsa provides a good feedback through which a contingency plan can be drawn up," opines Gurbachan Singh, assistant director general with the Indian Council of Agriculture Research. There are enough indicators of an impending drought -- both meteorological as well as agricultural. R Nagarajan, drought expert with the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, has a suggestion: "Agencies dealing with regulation of water should heed to drought alerts and rearrange the schedule accordingly."
Along with extrapolation of data, a people-oriented drought-proofing policy is the need of the hour. "The people's participation in decision-making and implementation of guidelines should be mandatory," avers Nagarajan. Such a move would raise the local communities' awareness about the coping mechanisms for impending disaster. At present this is not so, though droughts usually occur in well-defined areas.
Villagers need to be empowered, where they decide on the best practices for natural resource conservation. In other words, tradition and science should be merged at the grassroots level to banish drought.