Don't blame it, on, nature

 
Published: Monday 15 June 1992

THE misery caused by this year's drought was unnecessary. Typical of India's weather, rainfall in several parts dipped below the normal last year but these fluctuations were small. Yet we failed to deal with the problems caused by this shortfall in rain.

It is obvious that as India's population grows, its water and biomass-related needs of food, fodder and firewood will also grow. This calls for better and better management of our land and water resources so that good years can harvest a good surplus and bad years bring out all the coping mechanisms. While India has made steady progress in agriculture, even though it is limited to a few areas and productivity in these areas is dependent on heavy inputs of chemicals, water and new seeds, there are numerous other areas where the government has failed to improve productivity. Grassland productivity in most areas of India is a fraction of what nature can provide. Most forest lands are lying in a state of heavy degradation. India's traditional system of small water harvesting has been practically destroyed.

In other words, the life support systems are almost in a state of collapse in the dry areas of the country. The result is that even a minor dip in the weather chart results in an emergency on the ground. For instance, fodder is in short supply even in the best of years and in a drought year it immediately lakes on the form of an emergency. India's grasslands and forests are degraded. Drinking water too is a chore to get in normal circumstances but when the weather turns adverse, it takes on the form of a crisis.

The government of India has tried to deal with the drought problem by relying on the food stocks it collects during good years. These surpluses are collected from the so-called green revolution areas. To empower the people to purchase this grain during a drought year the government organises massive relief works. The poor then get some money to buy the grains they need for their survival. This strategy helps to prevent famine but it does little more than that. It only meets a part of the people's need - fodder for animals and water to drink are still not available to them. Transport of fodder and water poses serious problems. Migration con tinues to feed animals if not to feed human beings. And &Oress sales of cattle cannot prevent impoverishment an already poor people.

In any case this strategy of trying to concentrate all eeforts for agricultural development on select areas of 6e country while the rest degrade year after year but am fed and sustained through relief efforts cannot be agified on any count. Each *area must be producing bbomass and storing water to the best of its natural potential.

Every time there is a drought, state governments clamour for more drought relief At a time of heavy distress, only a callous Centre can deny the states financial assistance. But relief during drought cannot easily be turned into relief against drought. It can, but only if adequate thought and planning has gone into the problem in normal years. But states don't do that and neither does the Centre. The relief money provides politicians with a glorious opportunity to extend their patronage and together with bureaucrats get a share of the booty.

The answer obviously lies in reviving the life support systems and developing equitable management of natural resources. The village ecosystem is a complex and interactive composite made up of grasslands,, forest lands, ckoplands, water bodies like wells, ponds and tanks, and livestock. Each element interacts with the other and supports it. Good land use and water use sys- tems are essential to tie this integrated character of the village together to provide sufficient resilience to the village economy to deal with weather aberrations.

On the contrary, we have done everything to tear these interactions apart. In dry areas, we have promoted water guzzling crops like the sugarcane. This was the first lesson that the pioneeriilg pani panchayats learnt in Maharashtra during the 1970s. Social worker Anna Hazare has also never permitted sugarcane in his village Ralegan Siddhi, which has so admirably with stood the impact of drought, and instead promoted dry crops and fruit trees. All grasslands and forest lands also need to be brought back to health. But precious little has been done to develop laws and institutions that will give villagers the right to manage their natural resources. Rajiv Gandhi's promise in his first lecture to the nation that a "people's movement will be launched to reclaim wastelands" never became a reality.

The trees that have been planted across the dry areas of India are all non-fodder species. Nearly 90 per cent of the trees planted belong to the eucalyptus, Prosopis juliflora, teak, casuarina and Acacia auriculiformis species, all of which are non-browsable.

The planted trees as a result fail to help with fodder supply when the drought strikes. But planting fodder species on public lands is'not possible without people's participation. People musi'keep'their animals away if the trees are to survive, which they will do only if they are convinced that they will benefit from these trees.

Similarly, we have paid little attention to small water harvesting systems but we have promoted groundwater exploitation in a big way. The recharge has,..,#iminished while the discharge has greatly incioksed. The result is overdrawal of groundwater, declining water tables, poor people's dug wells going dry, and steady privatisation of an essentially common property resource. And yet groundwater is the water of last resort and should be used carefully and sparingly, On the contrary, dependence on it is heaviest in the dry areas of the country.

This year's drought in Kerala shows that even a high rainfall region, which has had a good monsoon, cannot escape drought if the ecological balance is not maintained. Rivers are short in Kerala and run rapidly into the sea. People depend heavily on ' groundwater recharge and wells for their drinking water needs, Human interventions that disturb rechave rates will have an adverse effect along this new strip of land between the high Western Ghats and the Arabian sea.

There is no reason to believe that India cannot reduce the susceptibility of its people and its economy to droughts. But this will call for two things: -efficient and ecological ly-sound management of the natural resource base which maintains the fine-tuned ecological balance, and legal and institutional mechanisms which encourage people to manage their resource base. If not, droughts are here to stay.

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