As they say, drought is a disaster one can see coming. Deficit monsoon creates situations for a drought. But it is not deficit monsoon, rather the lack of policies and mechanisms to drought-proof susceptible areas that turn the situation into a crisis
Officially, drought is a permanent disaster that strikes, on an average, 50 million Indians every year; 33 per cent of the country is chronically drought-affected while close to 68 per cent areas are drought-prone. India has more than 150 years of experience in drought management. Despite this, every time the country faces a deficit monsoon, we plunge into a crisis. Is the drought of 2015-16 different from other droughts? No. Like previous years, this time too India has just reacted to a situation. Though in all these years our policy has been to drought-proof the country instead of just embarking on drought relief operations. Since the 1965-66 drought, it has been an official policy to prepare villages to fight drought by investing in works related to soil and moisture management. As they say, drought is a disaster one can see coming. Deficit monsoon creates situations for a drought. But it is not deficit monsoon, rather the lack of policies and mechanisms to drought-proof susceptible areas that turn the situation into a crisis.
Arguably, the current drought shouldn’t have been so unbearable. In the last six decades we have spent more than R3.5 lakh crore on water conservation and drought-proofing. Particularly, in the last one decade, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has helped create, on an average, 21 water bodies in every village. Some 12.3 million water harvesting structures have been built. Sixty-four per cent of the total expenditure under mgnrega was on agriculture and agriculture-related works. From its inception in 2006 to March 2016 , the government has spent over R3 lakh crore on MGNREGA. Of this, according to an estimate of the dte-cse Data Centre, R2,30,000 crore has been spent as wage or money that has gone to people directly. We have a better monsoon forecasting system than we had before and our crisis response management has improved. The drought, therefore, should have been easy to tackle. But still the capacity of rural areas to tackle drought is quite poor. Probably, the ravages of nature the country witnessed in the past five years have something to do with it. In 2009, a severe drought year that crippled more than half of India and impacted 200 million people, the situation was not that bad because the winter monsoon was more than normal and people harvested a bumper rabi crop. This compensated for the loss of kharif crops. But in the past two years, the country has gone through two consecutive double-digit deficit monsoons as well as a below normal winter monsoon. In January-February this year, the rainfall was 57 per cent less than normal—the lowest in five years. Moreover, when it rained, it poured so heavily that the winter crop in the areas already reeling from the second consecutive drought was damaged. In the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, this was the 15th consecutive crop loss. Such situations are going to be the new normal in the face of climate change. A 2006 study by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and the Japan International Research Centre for Agricultural Science, in association with research organisations in Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand, shows that drought is a key reason for the poor staying perennially below the poverty line. The study found that in every severe drought year, farmers in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha lose close to US $400 million. It found that in the three states, 13 million people who were above the poverty line slipped below it due to drought-induced income loss. According to “Some aspects of Farming in India”, a 2015 report by the National Sample Survey Office, farmers cited inadequate rainfall and drought as the biggest reasons for crop loss, particularly for the two most harvested crops—wheat and paddy. Farmers, on an average, suffer a loss of R7,363 (one-fifth of their annual income) in paddy due to these reasons. Drought and food security are critically linked. Drought-prone districts account for 42 per cent of the country’s cultivable land. With 68 per cent of India’s net sown areas dependent on rain, rain-fed agriculture plays a key role in the country’s economy. For maintaining food security, even at the current nutritional levels, an additional 100 million tonnes (MT) of food grain needs to be produced by 2020. Realistically, the total contribution of irrigated agriculture to food grain production from both area expansion and yield improvement will contribute a maximum of 64 MT by 2020. The balance 36 MT will have to come from the rain-fed areas or the drought-prone districts. According to estimates, 40 per cent of the additional supply of food grain required to meet the rise in demand has to come from these districts. So, it is not about whether our drought relief operations are effective. Rather, India can’t afford to have droughts any more. A long-term strategy to make India drought-free is the biggest message of the 2016 crisis.
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