But the agriculture ministry finally woke up last week to face the grim reality of a widespread drought in the country. After meeting the agriculture and relief ministers of the 12 affected states on Wednesday, Union agriculture minister Ajit Singh had little option but to concede that it was the worst drought in the past 12 years. Consequently, the ministry has come up with a package to salvage the current drought situation in states like UP, Haryana, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka. Some of the measures include:
- Making the agricultural input subsidy—usually given to small and marginal farmers for damaged crops—available to those with larger landholdings.
- Allocation of free food to the states for additional employment generation under the food-for-work scheme.
- Allowing the states to utilise relief funds for employment generation.
- Relaxation of last date for the National Agricultural Insurance Scheme.
- NABARD to review its policy of recovery from governments and other borrowers in the affected states.
How far these measures will help is a matter of conjecture. But there agricultural experts are of the view that precious time has already been lost. The actual magnitude of loss of crop productivity in the central, northern and north-western states will be known only in the second half of August when the sowing of the kharif crop will be over. The ministry, however, has been forced to begin its salvaging operations with immediate effect since there are no signs that the monsoon will revive.
Apart from providing relief to the farmer, the Centre has to trudge uphill on other fronts too. The failed monsoon will impact the essential commodities and, more importantly, water. The government is in a comfortable position vis-a-vis foodgrains because it has a huge surplus stock. But, as Ajit Singh admitted while addressing the state agriculture ministers, the real challenges are to see that delivery systems work, prices are stable and additional employment generated, wherever necessary, to sustain the purchasing power of the poor.
The situation is worse in terms of drinking water. While the government can tide over a crop failure, the availability (or the lack of it) of drinking water is cause for alarm. The overall drought assessment process has traditionally been crop-oriented, to the extent that issues of immediate concern like availability of drinking water haven't even been considered part of drought planning.
The supply of drinking water, essentially in the urban and semi-urban centres, is directly linked to the availability of water in the reservoirs. This season the water in 70 important reservoirs is only about 17 per cent of the full reservoir level of 130.55 billion cubic meters. Consequently, cities like Delhi, Bhopal, Hyderabad and Jaipur are facing acute scarcity of drinking water. Although no definite plan has been spelt out as yet, the agriculture ministry has asked the departments of rural and urban drinking water supply to draw up a contingency plan to meet the challenge.
But for now it's the farmer who's in focus. According to senior officials in the agriculture ministry, the governments of the affected states have already prepared crop contingency plans.These are based on advice from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and state agriculture department, and the traditional methods of coping with drought. The Union agriculture ministry has also come up with its own guidelines on how to deal with the drought.
But its contingency plans aren't flawless. To tackle the crop crisis, the ministry has come up with a plan to initiate sowing of drought-resistant and fast-maturing seeds. Paddy is the main kharif crop. Farmers in major paddy-growing states like UP and Orissa have already sowed paddy and many experts believe that it is too late to go in for re-sowing. The drought-resistant seeds will be of some help in states like Punjab and Haryana where an effective irrigation system is in place.
In Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the oilseeds and coarse cereals are also wilting. With less than average rainfall in the last decade, farmers didn't sow seeds on all the available farmland. In Rajasthan, only 16 lakh hectares of bajra has been covered compared to 30 lakh hectares covered last year. Similarly, the production of soyabean is estimated to drop to an all-time low. The area covered by the soyabean crop so far is 18 lakh hectares, almost one-third of the 51 lakh hectares sown last year for the corresponding period.
Experts also believe that it's too late in the day to persuade farmers to depart from traditional farming practices and go in for unconventional crops. This would require monetary investment and physical labour with no real surety of crop output and profits. Similar strategies, adopted in the past decade to tackle drought conditions, showed very little result.
The re-sowing remedy may also not work scientifically. Explains G.B. Pant, eminent weather expert and director, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology: "If re-sowing is undertaken at this stage, it would require optimum temperature. The practice of traditional farming is tailored to match the various growth stages of crops with the temperatures prevailing during that period. The crops require time for maturity and due to variations in temperatures and moisture levels, they may not fully mature."
Meanwhile, the agriculture ministry has not completely lost faith in the Mausam Bhavan. Its officials, and those in the met department, hope that with two more months left for the monsoon there is a good chance that it make a delayed appearance.
The Indian skies, however, belie all such great hope. For the second time in succession during the season, the low pressure trough area—an imaginary line along the borders of which heavy rainfall activity takes place—shifted to the Himalayan foothills. Ideally, it should have been over Central India. But in the absence of any low pressure area over Bay of Bengal, it moved to the Himalayan foothills, leaving most of the north-west completely dry.
Says Pant: "This kind of situation occurs in the later part of August when it has already rained enough. But this year it's begun to happen in July itself. Currently, there are no thick clouds over the subcontinent and there's no major system developing in the Indian Ocean that can induce rainfall."
The drought warning has compelled bureaucrats from the affected states to rush to Delhi—to negotiate with the Centre for drought relief. While funds have been promised and will be released soon, it remains to be seen as to how much of it will finally reach the affected population. Past experiences aren't very encouraging. The drought of 2000 in Orissa saw the announcement of elaborate relief measures, but not even essential foodgrains were released to the starving population. As a result, over two dozen people died in Raigada district after consuming fungus-infected mango kernel.
One only hopes that this time the agriculture ministry, the FCI and the state governments don't hoard life-saving food in the storehouses of corruption and greed.