July 25, 2020
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A sub-normal monsoon could see already ravaged states in complete distress

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Prashant Panjiar
  • Six crore rendered unemployed

  • 25 crore don’t have sufficient drinking water

  • Agriculture production down 19 per cent overall (13.6 per cent foodgrains, 26 per cent coarse grains, 24 per cent oilseeds). GDP depressed.

  • Water in major reservoirs down to 36 per cent of normal

  • Nine states and 125 districts severely affected by drought

  • Of the 34,656.84 crore sought by the states from the National Calamity Contingency Fund, only Rs 3,517 crore released

    Rajasthan, ravaged by drought, has been running on a hope and a prayer. Clinging desperately to the faint possibility of a normal monsoon this year, farmers are planning pujas and yagnas to propitiate the rain gods. If the gods don't deliver this summer, the parched picture in rural Rajasthan will turn hellish. That's why the Indian Metereological Department's (IMD) forecast, suggesting a 60 per cent probability of less than normal rainfall in the southwest (or July) monsoon, has come as a devastating blow. Rajasthan relief commissioner Ram Lubhaya feels the IMD shouldn't have gone public with its predictions so soon. "People have been surviving on the hope that July will bring rain. Now it's just gloom all around. In Jodhpur, I found people crying in despair," he says.

    In Rajasthan, all 32 districts are drought-hit. At the national level, eight states are reeling under the impact of successive years—nearly half a decade—of drought. As many as 125 districts are still affected (down from 350 during peak drought), while 60 million people—mainly landless labourers and marginal farmers—are jobless. A quarter of the country's population has no access to drinking water. Water levels in the country's 200 main reservoirs are down to 35 per cent of normal for this time of the year.

    The full impact of last year's monsoon failure is being felt only now, in terms of the widespread food and water crisis. Depleted reservoirs mean less drinking water. Poor sowing in the rabi season means the current harvest will be bad—and there'll be less food to go around.

    Is the country in for yet another thirsty year? The nation's number one weatherman, IMD director-general R.R. Kelkar, stresses that his forecast is based on probabilities. There's only a one-in-five chance (21 per cent) of last year's nationwide drought being followed by another one this year. But there's a 39 per cent probability of below normal rainfall this July. "So parts of the country could suffer drought because there is massive variation in distribution," he says. And usually it's those specific areas prone to scarce rains (like Rajasthan) that suffer.

    Even if the remote possibility of a bumper monsoon (3 per cent) or normal (14 per cent) or better than normal (23 per cent) one is realised, it's still going to be tough. Says Union agriculture minister Ajit Singh: "Drought is a natural calamity that has long-term effects. It's not like a cyclone or an earthquake. The soil's fertility and moisture content is affected. Water bodies get depleted, groundwater is not recharged. It takes time to replenish soil and water." Besides, the ground may be too dry for sowing or there aren't enough seeds. So it's hard to hazard a guess on how this year's kharif crop will pan out, as sowing is in June, ahead of the monsoon.

    Last year's drought was one of the worst in the last 100 years with the southwest monsoon at half-strength. For Rajasthan, the consequences were devastating because it had already suffered four consecutive years of scarcity. As a result, 45 million people and thousands of cattle are drought-affected, all the major reservoirs have dried up and last year's summer crop damages amounted to a staggering Rs 4,031 crore. It will take three years of good monsoons for the state to recover.

    The human cost, says Kavita Srivastava of the Akaal Sangharsh Samiti, has been incalculable. "Vulnerable tribal populations are living in sub-human conditions. The rural and tribal interiors of Ajmer, Chittorgarh, Udaipur and Jaisalmer are in complete destitution".The old, infirm and ailing have been left to the mercy of the state, which has identified 4.6 lakh such people. Pleading for aid, Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot presented a moving picture to the Union ministry of rural development: "This is the worst drought in 100 years.All 32 districts and 41,000 villages are affected...in these conditions, if we cannot provide employment to bpl families, it will be inhuman."

    Rajasthan has been identified by the Centre as the state most severely hit; and it has received kudos from the ngos for its relief efforts. The Gehlot administration is being defeated, however, by the problem's sheer magnitude. After a rocky start, the food-for-work programmes have taken off. But against one crore families in need of wage employment, only 74 lakh will get it and that too in June this year.

    Similarly, food aid is slow, for purely logistical reasons. Against a sanctioned amount of 7.63 lakh tonnes of foodgrains for drought relief in Rajasthan this month, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) has provided only 2.5 lakh tonnes. Why? Because rakes and trucks are not available to move the grain!

    Ironically, with all its problems, Rajasthan still seems to be handling relief better than Madhya Pradesh. "Drought relief in MP suffers from ad-hocism and poor management. Thousands of people from Sheopur district in MP have moved to Rajasthan," says Srivastava. After three years of drought—affecting 33 of its 45 districts—migration is the only way out for marginal farmers. The lack of water and fodder has led the tribals to the last resort: slaughtering their herds. Another spin-off of the water crisis: a sharp decline in hydel power production. With rivers running dry, generation is near-zero, aggravating the grim power situation.

    In Maharashtra, a quarter of the state's 43,722 villages have been hit by water scarcity; half of them depend on tankers. In Gujarat, despite the high-profile Narmada project, 96 of the 182 dams are bone-dry. In Andhra Pradesh, the drought is being described as the worst in 30 years. Of the state's 1,127 mandals, 1,041 have been declared drought-hit, which means 5.5 crore people are affected. Some 20 lakh hectares have been left unsown due to lack of water. Chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu says: "We have infrastructure for irrigation, but no water. None of the reservoirs have water. All my main and medium irrigation projects are empty. What's the point of creating infrastructure if there isn't any water?"

    Nine states are severely drought-hit now, another six moderately affected. The states complain of not getting adequate or timely aid, while the Centre urges them to streamline relief apparatus. State governments have demanded in excess of Rs 30,000 crore, along with 167 lakh metric tonnes of foodgrains. What they have been given is around Rs 3,500 crore (Rs 1,650 crore approved last month) and 80 lakh metric tonnes of foodgrains.

    Union food and civil supplies minister Sharad Yadav explains the gap: "State governments tend to exaggerate demand. The Centre has to make a realistic assessment. A compromise is reached and allocations are finalised. With most governments in a financial crisis, foodgrains for drought relief are being given completely free of cost." Giving foodgrains free was a tough decision, but there was no option as the states weren't lifting stocks even under the subsidised Antyodaya scheme. He says he's asked the states to ensure the pds functioned effectively, so that relief does not get siphoned off.

    The task force on drought, headed by deputy PM L.K. Advani, is still grappling with the escalating demands from states. A Planning Commission note points out that with the exception of Rajasthan, the utilisation of foodgrains released under the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana (food for work) has been unsatisfactory. And that AP, Gujarat, Maharashtra, UP and Chhattisgarh have enough foodstocks, but are agitating for more.

    While these are contingency measures, more attention has to be paid to long-term drought-proofing, argues Ajit Singh.This includes growing crops appropriate to individual climatic zones. There is no point growing water-intensive cash crops in deficient areas and depleting the soil even further. Late-sown, early-maturing alternative crops require less water. And small -scale industries, not dependent on water, will create jobs and sustain local resources and may even help to eliminate drought.

    Simultaneously, water resources must be developed. Lately, traditional water preservation methods—baolis, johars etc —have seen a revival. However, even here the Rs 200-crore fund set up two years ago for the development of indigenous water conservation hasn't been utilised.

    "No matter how much money we pump in, we can't compensate for failed monsoons," admits an official in MP. So all eyes are focused on the southwest monsoon—which has never completely failed in recorded history. The one positive aspect in the weather scenario, says Kelkar, is the constancy of the monsoon. "In 125 years, there's been no decreasing or increasing trend. So climate change has not affected the Indian monsoon. It always comes and it never fails totally."

    Bhavdeep Kang with Bureau reports
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