Drought but why: How poverty is aggravated

Study shows during drought years in Rajasthan, the vulnerability of rural households to poverty increases

By Purnamita Dasgupta, Smita Sirohi
Published: Friday 15 March 2019

Narratives of agrarian distress in economies that depend on agriculture to a great extent have unfortunately become familiar. India has 86 per cent small and marginal farmers, who own less than 2 hectares of farmland. More than 60 per cent of the country’s population depends on agriculture and allied activities for livelihood. Though there are multiple drivers of risk in such a situation, it has become apparent that the fate of Indian farmers is linked to the vagaries of nature. In particular, the occurrence of drought creates social and cultural disruptions across farming households, and brings about huge economic losses.

A vulnerability study conducted in Rajasthan provides interesting insights into the relationship between poverty and drought in rural India. This highly climate-sensitive state is hit by severe drought every three out of five years. Most of its districts have experienced anything between two to five moderate droughts, while some have witnessed four to six severe ones in the past 30 years. Significant variations are also observed in the year-on-year deviation in rainfall during kharif season. To measure vulnerability, we developed indices using the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change approach that combines exposure levels with sensitivity and adaptive capacity. As expected, vulnerability is high in places where there is high exposure in terms of declining trends in rainfall, as well as high variability in rainfall, and/or high sensitivity (Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Dholpur, Barmer and Dungarpur). If we divide the state vertically into two halves, most of the eastern part has low exposure in terms of climatic variables. However, in terms of vulnerability, almost all the districts of Rajasthan in this half experience high (Karauli, Alwar, Chittorgarh and Banswara) to moderate (Churu, Bharatpur, Kota and Jhalawar) levels of vulnerability.

Measuring poverty in drought years

Empirical evidence from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data for Rajasthan has been used to explore this idea. The conventional approach of benchmarking poverty on the basis of daily per capita intake of 2,400 kilocalorie is usually adopted. A comparison of NSSO consumption expenditure data for two years, one in 2009-10, a drought year, and the other in 2011-12, a normal year, reveals that the incidence of rural household poverty stood at 34.4 and 22.3 per cent respectively. Decidedly, poverty increases across regions in a drought year and this phenomenon was universal in four of the five agro-climatic regions in which the state was divided during the study. In the state’s western region, which comprises the Thar desert, the difference in poverty percentage between a drought (31.5 per cent) year and a normal (23.7 per cent) one was 7.8 per cent. While in the north, which has a good network of irrigation canals, the poverty incidence was higher by 14.8 per cent points in a drought year, more than double the proportion in a normal year. In the mid-eastern and south eastern parts, the magnitude of household poverty was higher by 19 per cent and 17 per cent point in a drought year.

During drought, the number of poor increases substantially in areas where poverty is relatively low in a normal year. In a drought year, the share of those, who are infrequently poor and are vulnerable to poverty, increases from 19 per cent to 27 per cent, apart from a doubling of those, who suffer from chronic poverty. This is observed in both agricultural and non-agricultural households. Drought-hit regions have developed coping mechanisms to cushion the worst impacts. For instance, in some of the southern districts bordering Gujarat, road and transport connectivity are good and remittances have contributed to asset building. In a drought year, established ways of coping are quickly adopted.

The existence of a direct synergy between the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 related to zero hunger and adaptation in cropping, livestock, and food systems that are designed to maintain or increase production is recognised. Achieving and sustaining SDG 1, that is eradication of poverty, is also linked to the well-being of the agrarian sector. Poverty reduction strategies would work well to strengthen coping capacities and build resilience to reduce future vulnerability to poverty.

Identifying groups and areas most vulnerable to climate change can help formulate targeted policies to alleviate current challenges and reduce future risks.

(Purnamita Dasgupta is head, Environmental and Resource Economics Unit, Institute of Economic Growth. Smita Sirohi from the National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal, is currently posted in Brussels as adviser to the Indian High Commission)

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