NITI Aayog meeting: PM finally comes around to the existence of water, agrarian crises

These issues existed before elections and persist now. Difference: nobody from the government was owning it up and now they are recognising the problems

By DTE Staff
Published: Sunday 16 June 2019
Prime Minister Naredra Modi addresses the Niti Aayog Governing Council meeting on June 15, 2019. Photo: Twitter/Niti Aayog__

It is better late than never. Or is it? Indians have been undergoing unprecedented crises:

1. Water, one of the most basic necessities, has been in short supply for some time now. Nearly 250 districts — a third of the country’s total — are staring at the prospective of a fifth consecutive below-normal monsoon and drought-like situation.

2. Agriculture, which employs a bulk of the people, has been reeling under a variety of issues. Other than droughts, farmers across the country have been complaining of not earning enough despite the Narendra Modi government claiming otherwise. Add to that the cattle crisis, which is a direct fallout of the policy choice by a series of governments in the country.

3. Then there is the spectre of unemployment that is hounding millions of job seekers. It is now official that unemployment is at its peak ever since records started being kept, almost half a century ago. This joblessness cuts through a cross section of demographic groups.

The Prime Minister seems to have now woken up to such issues after a boisterous electoral victory when his electoral campaign was more about presenting a picture of a shining India. The first step to tackling these issues and their gravity is to address them, which happened on June 15, 2019.

Modi, on Saturday, opened the Niti Aayog Governing Council meeting, saying that with elections now over it was time for “everyone to work for the development of India”. He urged the delegates, including the chief ministers of states, to stage a “collective fight against poverty, unemployment, drought, flood, pollution, corruption and violence etc (sic).”

Tackling water crisis

There was a visible thrust on ‘water’, which came up second only to “the goal to make India a 5 trillion-dollar economy by 2024” in the order of things in Modi’s speech. This was promised: He had, during his Lok Sabha poll campaign in Mandsaur, said he would dedicate his next tenure to water.

He took a step towards it when a new ministry called Jal Shakti was launched. In the meeting, he referred to the ministry and said it was a symbol of his commitment towards resolving the country’s water crisis.

Ground water levels have dipped in almost all regions of the country. The crisis is severe in states such as Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Telangana and Maharashtra. Several of these states have also been the hotbeds of farm suicides, the data of which the government has now stopped publishing.

Only last week the Central Water Commission reported a dip in the reserves of 71 of India’s 91 reservoirs. This is when the monsoon is yet to pick up force.

“The aim is to provide piped water to every rural home by 2024,” the PM said. The erstwhile Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation launched Har Ghar Jal in 2017 to provide safe drinking water to all households. Less than a fifth of rural households, however, were connected (according to records up to April 1, 2018).

Apart from potable drinking water, this also assumes significance as the unavailability of water can unhinge the much-touted success of Swacch Bharat toilet campaign. But, it seems like supplying water to rural areas has taken a back seat.

There was a general consensus among all chief ministers, lieutenant governors of Union territories, Union ministers and senior government officials present at the meeting that reducing water wastage and promoting efficient water conservation practices are the best ways to solve the water crisis.

They said rainwater harvesting should be undertaken at household and community levels and emphasised on the need for proactive policy and investment support.

Several CMs also spoke about the successful conservation practices they have implemented. Examples: Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan in Maharashtra, which is aimed at making 11,000 villages drought-free, Rajasthan’s Mukhyamantri Jal Swavlamban Abhiyan that resulted in a five-feet rise in groundwater in 21 districts and Mission Kakatiya in Telangana that irrigates 19 lakh acres of land.

It’s the distressed farmers’ turn

The agrarian crisis also got a mention at the Niti Aayog meeting. Rainwater harvesting, drought, relief measures, transforming agriculture with emphasis on Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act and Essential Commodities Act (ECA) were also discussed at the meet.

When the political leaders discussed about protecting farmers from the vagaries of the unpredictable monsoon, came up the closely related and deeply important issue of drought.

For this, many chief ministers suggested possible short-term and long-term solutions which include reviewing their district agriculture contingency plans, streamlining provisions of inputs such as seeds and making contingency plans for irrigation.

The Prime Minister also called upon the Fifth Governing Council Meeting to undertake foundational reforms like reviewing the implementation of the APMC Act and possible reform in the form of a Model APMC Act for complete transformation of the agriculture sector. He also spoke about exploring changes in the Essential Commodities Act to ensure fair remuneration for farmers and streamlining supply.

Other issues

When it comes to health, the Prime Minister said the government targets to eliminate tuberculosis by 2025. Also, targets that have to be met by 2022 should be given special attention, he added.

He urged states that have not implemented Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY) under Ayushman Bharat so far, to come onboard at the earliest.

Other issues that found a mention in the meeting were poverty, unemployment, pollution, pockets of under-development districts.

Then, of course, there is looming climate change making the weather unpredictable and increasing the occurrence of extreme weather events — more droughts, floods, cyclones and irregular rain. These not only displace people by the drove, but also damage their means of livelihood, as was evident recently in the aftermath of Cyclone Fani.

There, however, was no concrete reference in the PM’s speech of any plan to tackle climate change holistically. ‘Climate action’ is one of the United Nations-mandated sustainable development goals. The list also includes poverty, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, etc — issues which have been picked up by Modi at various points.

Yet, this was a start: Recognising a problem is the first step towards solving it. The road to get rid of issues like the agrarian crisis amid serious lack of water (made more acute by the cattle question), rampant unemployment in an economy that doesn’t show signs of confident growth will be long. Not to forget that not factoring in global warming can put a spanner in the best of works.

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