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Coping strategies, short-term and long-term

Print edition : Aug 17, 2002

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Interview with Dr. M.S. Swaminathan.

"India is one of the few countries with over two centuries of recorded experience in managing the consequences of monsoon failure, from which we can learn. But the tragedy is that we are a classic case of a data-rich but action-poor country," says Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the internationally known agricultural scientist-administrator and institution-builder.

A key scientific figure behind the Green Revolution of the 1960s in India, Dr. Swaminathan has thought ahead of his time. A drought management strategy he proposed in 1979 when he was Secretary in the Union Department of Agriculture, but has remained unimplemented, is relevant even today. While being involved in strategising the Sixth Five Year Plan, Dr. Swaminathan suggested, after analysing two centuries of data on the monsoon that are with the India Meteorological Department, that in the process of planning it should be assumed that at least two years in a block of five years would be drought years.

Since 2000, Dr. Swaminathan has been pushing for setting up grain and seed banks in all villages in the country. Though the concept was approved, such banks have not been set up as yet. His idea of setting up "climate managers" involving all the stake-holders who can monitor the climate and advise farmers on managing any abnormal situations is pending too. Another suggestion that Dr. Swaminathan has made, relates to working out a disaster management 'drought code'.

Dr. Swaminathan says: "There is a mismatch between what we know and what we do. This is the tragedy of our times which we can well avoid and minimise human suffering considerably. Only if there was the political will."

As Director-General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and later of the International Rice Research Institute, Manila, and earlier during his stints with institutions such as the Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack, and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, Dr. Swaminathan has continually innovated, employing techniques and technology to marry science and public policy. His efforts have helped transform many Asian countries from being net importers of foodgrains to net exporters. He has made considerable contributions to biotechnology and eco-friendly farming methods. Over the last three decades he has focussed on water-harvesting, conservation and management methods.

Dr. Swaminathan spoke to Asha Krishnakumar on the nature and extent of the drought situation, the level of preparedness of governments at the Centre and in the States, and the strategies to deal with the situation. Excerpts from the interview:

What is the nature and extent of the drought this year in India? Were there early warning signals?

This year we are in the grip of a very serious drought due to the lack of rainfall. As early as February there was suspicion that the monsoon may not be normal because of the El Nino phenomenon. Though not fully understood, it is noticed that the El Nino causes either severe drought or floods. So we should have started preparing even at that time.

The IMD (India Meteorological Department) is doing a good job on the whole both in terms of medium- and long-term forecasting. It had said that the monsoon would be more or less normal. But in a country of our dimensions and variety, when you say monsoon is normal it means on an average. But in the case of agriculture what is important is not the total quantum of rainfall but its distribution and what we call interspell duration (the time-span between one spell of rainfall and another). For example, this year there were some soaking rains in late June. So farmers in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh sowed, thinking the monsoon had begun. But then there was a complete recession, with the result that whatever sprouted died. Now the farmers may not have seeds to replant if it rains by the end of August. There could also be heavy rainfall later. Suppose some paddy crop is still there and when it is ripening you get 10-15 cm of rainfall, then it may be almost like a parting kick for the crop.

The tragedy in India is that there may be droughts and floods in the same area. For example, when I was Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, I visited areas of Rajasthan twice the same year - once because of severe drought and then because of heavy floods. For some historical reasons, the Ministry of Agriculture is also in charge of disaster management. With 70 per cent of the population being dependent on agriculture for livelihood, if this sector fails then there is tremendous hardship, particularly for the landless labour.

So in a country of such dimensions, where there is considerable variability in rainfall not only between districts but also within a season, you could have an initial onset of rain followed by a prolonged dry spell - which is what is happening now. Suddenly the tail-end season may have very heavy spells; these may cause floods also. This is because much of our soil has a hard pan preventing water from going down. This, along with shallow ploughing, results in flash floods. Even if we get 10-15 cm of rainfall, there is water stagnation for the reasons cited above.

So, what can be done to take care of such unique situations? Are systems of disaster management in place?

We should have had a 'drought code', as I mentioned as early as 1973 in my Sardar Patel lectures on All India Radio. I analysed 150-200 years of Meteorological Department data and found that once in four years there is normally a drought. Sometimes there were two continuous drought years as well. There were times when some parts of the country were drought-hit but not the rest. For example, in 1966 there was a severe drought in Bihar leading to a famine situation there but nowhere else. The situation was saved at that time by the import of PL 480 material from the United States. So as I said, we need to have a 'drought code'.

Thus drought, like the one we have this year, is not unusual. It can be expected. In fact, in the Sixth Plan document, of which I was in charge, I had written that while planning for five years, one should plan for at least two abnormal years. There must be a mainstreaming of abnormal weather in the planning process so that you are well prepared and not taken by surprise. It may not be very difficult for us to manage this year's drought, particularly with such large grain stocks.

In your assessment, what is the extent of this year's drought?

This drought is mainly due to the absence of rainfall. There are two kinds of drought. One is the soil drought, where there is no moisture in the soil, and the other is the atmospheric drought, in which there is very low humidity in the air along with very high temperature. When the two combine there is a real problem. That is what has happened this year.

How can this situation be handled? What immediate actions are necessary?

Action can be divided into two major groups. One is relief measures for the affected population - the poor, the landless labour, the tribal people, Dalits, women and children, besides animals. I believe that in this country the affected should also include animals because livestock and livelihoods are very closely related. There is, in fact, a greater degree of equity in livestock ownership than in the case of land. Over 70 per cent of the poor farmers own only about 20 per cent of the land but they own 75 per cent of the animals. That is why there is a great influence of livestock on household nutrition and livelihood security. So the relief works should cater to both humans and livestock.

Again, within the relief works for humans, there should be two categories. One, the 'food for work' programme, which should be open-ended, without anyone being sent back. The other is the 'food for nutrition' programme for those who cannot avail themselves of the former, such as pregnant and nursing mothers, young infants, the old and the infirm who cannot work but also need food. This is what I did to manage the 1979 drought and it worked very well. There was excellent public participation and the media did very well too in not scaring the people but at the same time informing them. As soon as there was an announcement that the government had approved three million tonnes of foodgrain for drought relief works, there was a sobering effect on the market. At that time there was a buffer stock of hardly 16 million tonnes.

Apart from providing food, relief works should also take care of drinking water requirements, which often become the major problem. There is a need to identify and locate good concealed aquifers and reserve them for use in drought years. This is what I call the 'groundwater sanctuary' - not exploit it for normal use but conserve it for emergencies. This is part of the 'drought code' - an anticipatory action. As soon as there is a drought you drill these identified places and use it for drinking water needs. For example, 'cattle camps' can be organised close to 'groundwater sanctuaries'. A cattle camp is where animals are left during the spells of drought instead of being allowed to die of starvation or slaughtered. Once rainfall resumes and the weather improves, the owners take back the animals. With these programmes we should be able to take care of the needs of food, drinking water and work, besides those of animals.

The second major set of actions relates to 'agricultural rehabilitation'. That is minimising the losses of agriculture. There will be a loss, particularly because there are no alternative crops. That is why I insist that every State, district and village should have a 'crop-weather watch group'. This will be a broad multi-stakeholder group comprising farmers, media, bankers, government officials and academics. It will monitor the weather continuously and advise farmers as to what should be done - 'crop life saving techniques', 'alternative cropping programmes' and so on.

Can there be alternative cropping systems even during spells of severe drought or floods?

Alternative cropping is possible in any situation. For instance, after the supercyclone and floods in Orissa all crops were gone. But from my experience in Bihar I knew that the crop that grows fast is sweet potato, which is also very nutritious. So we got half-a-million cuttings of the sweet potato plant from the Tubercrop Institute in Thiruvananthapuram and planted them in Orissa. The people were not used to it but it saved lives and they liked it very much. It is a hardy plant, its cuttings can be planted anywhere and with some water it grows. So whether it is drought or floods, we can have an alternative cropping strategy to minimise the total loss.

What can be the strategy if only parts - and not all - of the country faces drought?

One can divide the country into two parts - the most seriously affected (MSA) from natural calamities, and the most favourable areas (MFA), where there is good soil moisture with groundwater or canal irrigation. Have a compensatory production programme in the MFA areas. For example, if necessary, give them fertilizers free, ensure that their soil-micronutrient is in good condition, give them good varieties of seeds and so on. One cannot completely offset the loss in the MSA. But an increase of a few million tonnes in food production in the MFA areas would be of great help.

So in the MSA areas the strategy would largely be one of relief and rehabilitation of humans and animals, while in the MFA areas there should be compensatory production programmes.

What should be the strategy for drought management this year?

The two packages - for human and agriculture rescue - should begin immediately. Thousands of crores of rupees will be spent in the name of drought. But it will never be used to strengthen the coping mechanisms of the people. For example, in our Orissa project at Koraput, wherever we have put up the seed, water and grain banks, there is no panic. They have seeds to sow, water to drink and food to eat. There is no magic here. All the resources for the banks are theirs. It is decentralised storage in local silos that does the trick. That is why I have been fighting for the last two years for setting up community food or grain banks in all villages. Last year some 100,000 grain banks were approved for the tribal areas. But till today not one has been set up. There is so much gap between decision and action. The Centre and the State governments keep blaming each other all the time. In a democratic country we have no right to be silent spectators of the sufferings of the poor.

We have the capability to plan and tackle any situation. We have considerable technical capability - the remote sensing organisation, the IMD, and excellent short, medium and long-term weather forecasting. The government should immediately distribute seeds to grow alternative crops, start relief packages and put in place disaster management strategies. We need not deal with such situations amateurishly. We have all the capabilities, techniques, knowledge and over two centuries of information for the management of calamities. But the Centre alone cannot do it, it can be a catalyst. The State governments should do it. Much of the action lies with District Collectors and panchayat leaders.

We must give proactive advice to farmers. The political management of the IMD is such that it does not want to scare the people by announcing a monsoon failure. But why should it be so? The farmers should be prepared for a poor monsoon. They are going to face the consequences of a monsoon failure. So, they should be warned and helped. If we know in March-April that the year's monsoon is not going to be normal then it should be said so. There is no use concealing it and letting farmers be caught unawares. Our country is data rich but action poor due to all these problems. There is a mismatch between what we know and what we do. This is the tragedy of our times which we can well avoid. We can minimise human suffering considerably. But there is a need for a lot of professionalism. Bureaucrats alone cannot do it. Technical people should be involved.

Without losing time we should set up a virtual college (no big infrastructure is needed - only a computer) on climate management linked to the panchayats. Two men and two women members of every panchayat can be trained as climate managers to look at climate in its totality - not just precipitation but also temperature, humidity and so on - so that there is a bridge from the macro to the micro level and macro knowledge can get into micro-level action plans.

A major effort on water should be in place. Somehow the emphasis on irrigation has been put on the back-burner in the last 10 to 15 years. 'Rain centres' - a one-stop information centre on everything one would want to know about water - like the one in Chennai (set up by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment) should be set up in every village, town and city.

There is an uncommon opportunity today to reduce human suffering if political will, professional skill and people's action are brought together.

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