With the India Meteorological Department predicting a below-normal south-west monsoon at just 93 per cent of the long period average, the focus must shift towards drought-mitigation measures. For the new government, battling a prolonged economic slump, a deficient monsoon will put paid to its hopes of a quick recovery and its ambitious targets to curb inflation, revive investment, and boost infrastructure development. Late this year by six days, the rainfall for June is 44 per cent deficient. The south-west monsoon accounts for nearly 75 per cent of India’s annual rainfall and is the mainstay of the kharif crop sown between June and August. Even the rabi crop sown from late-October depends on the south-west monsoon’s ability to recharge ground water and reservoirs. The sole comfort, however, is the buffer stock in the central pool that stands at 206.45 lakh tonnes of rice and 415.86 lakh tonnes of wheat against the buffer norm of 100 lakh tonnes and 170 lakh tonnes for rice and wheat respectively.
The key to drought mitigation will be the activation of the contingency plans for crops, water management, public distribution systems, and relief measures for farmers and rural workers. In the event of deficient rainfall in July, the crucial month, the states must have a ready supply of short-duration low-moisture requiring varieties of kharif crops for farmers to switch over to. Besides, short-term water conservation efforts including rainwater harvesting, water budgeting, and monitoring of ground water exploitation becomes important. That the agriculture ministry is considering a diesel subsidy scheme for protective irrigation to standing crops and enhancement of subsidy ceiling on seeds to partially recompense farmers who resowed/purchased drought-tolerant seed varieties reflects the seriousness of the situation. The rescheduling of crops loans and providing interest subvention on rescheduled loans will also raise farmer confidence.
No amount of short-term progress in other sectors can offset the calamitous circumstances of rural distress as agriculture contributes 14 per cent of India’s GDP and two-third of India’s population still live in rural areas. The first signs of drought is a spurt in job-seekers in both urban and rural areas. Though the MGNREGA is yielding diminishing returns at a high capital cost, plans to whittle it down must wait. In scenarios like droughts, its utility in offering employment to distressed farm labourers and marginal farmers reaffirms its relevance. Further, it becomes an opportunity to direct all MGNREGA works towards drought mitigation efforts and rectify criticism that it failed in creating durable rural assets.
With food inflation averaging 10 per cent in the past two years, reduced foodgrain and vegetable yield following deficient rainfall could negate the government’s plans to tackle price-rise. The knock-on effect of low foodgrain yield on fodder prices and poultry feed could also impact milk and egg prices. The downside of past years of benevolent rainfall has been a certain complacency in acknowledging climate change and increasing irrigation cover. India has irrigated only 60 million hectares of cropped area against an irrigation potential of 140 million hectares. The predominance of rain-fed cultivation does not bode well for the country’s future. Rather than expensive, dangerous and unwieldy river inter-linking schemes, the solution lies in localised water management. It may not offer spectacular engineering feats for a rising nation to be pride of, but the future of India and its people lies in the humble, cost-effective latter option.