Chasing the rains and relief

Print edition : August 03, 2002

The near failure of the monsoon has affected agricultural operations in 11 States.

WITH the forecast of a good monsoon turned on its head, sections of India's city dwelling population are questioning the scientific basis of such predictions in the first place. Though they have been already severely inconvenienced and at least some of them are likely to face acute livelihood pressures in the months to come owing to the climatic upset, the problems in the city are nothing compared to the distress in the sprawling rural areas of the country. The erratic behaviour of the monsoon has adversely affected small and marginal farmers at least in the 11 States of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh.

Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh said: "This is the worst situation in the last 12 years or even longer. The drought seems to be widely spread all over India." Preliminary assessments have shown that 320 of the 524 districts monitored by the Agriculture Ministry had insufficient rainfall. The bad news continues with no hopes for substantial rain in northwestern and central India in the near term. It is not clear how the Ministry arrived at the conclusion that this year's monsoon is the "worst monsoon" in the last 12 years. But from the extent of damage reported so far, it appears that this year the number of drought-affected districts has surpassed that in 1987, which was the last major year of calamity.

Overflowing granaries which have nearly 65 million tonnes of foodgrains in stock have ensured that the abnormally late monsoon will not affect the supply of foodgrains to consumers, although a rise in the prices of pulses and cooking oil remains a distinct possibility. This is quite apart from the rise in the prices of vegetables.

The late onset of monsoon has revealed flaws in the government's policies: questions are being raised about low spending on public investment in agriculture. It has sent warning signals to the economy that grew at 5.4 per cent last year essentially on the basis of a buoyant agriculture sector. Corporate India is apprehensive that if the monsoon fails altogether it would affect industries such as fertilizer, steel and cement. Tractor manufacturers, for instance, have reason to worry.

At an emergency meeting of Agriculture and Relief Ministers of the 11 States several of them expressed fears that if the situation got worse the rabi season, which normally begins in October, would be affected. Madhya Pradesh Agriculture Minister Shivnarayan Meena said: "We are really worried about the next sowing season. Only if the rains come in September will we be able to recover at least marginally from the losses of the kharif season." Madhya Pradesh is the largest producer of soyabean in the country. Low or negligent rainfall has meant that soyabean could not be sown in a large area. Rainfall has been scanty in 43 districts of Madhya Pradesh as a result of which the State is facing the twin crises of drought and drinking water shortage.

The list of crops affected by the delayed monsoon is long, and oilseeds, coarse cereals and pulses top it. The progressive acreage so far under kharif oilseeds has been just 44.7 lakh hectares, a 50.5 per cent decline over the corresponding figure last year. This is bad news for the economy as low production of oilseeds could mean that India would have to import an extra one million tonnes of oilseeds this year, which in turn would increase the import bills.

Ajit Singh said: "The situation in soyabean was retrieved partially with rain in mid-July but the jowar-growing farmers in Rajasthan have been the worst-affected." Bajra sowing decreased by 24 lakh ha owing to the monsoon delay. In Rajasthan only 16 lakh ha is under bajra, compared to 30 lakh ha last year. Until July 11, Rajasthan received a scant 69 mm of rainfall. The situation since then has been dismal too. Bajra was only sown in Banswara, parts of Udaipur and Durgapur where the first rainfall occurred. With no subsequent rainfall, the crops withered. Now with conditions deteriorating the government has advised farmers to grow short-duration crops such as pulses, gwar, math and moong.

Paddy is the only crop that has not suffered real acreage reduction. Yet the water availability situation is tricky. Absence of rain in the coming months will not augur well for the crop. It will mean that farmers will have to use fuel-run tubewells to maintain the required water level for the rice crop. This is a costly proposition considering that a tractor consumes 2 litres of diesel an hour to power a tubewell. It takes up to six hours to cover an acre. This would cost the farmer an extra Rs.1,200 per acre. J.S. Samara, Deputy Director-General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, said: "In Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh the farmers will have to spend on diesel. This would no doubt put them in a very difficult position." At the meeting, Punjab complained that 47 per cent of its tubewells were working at less than 75 per cent efficiency.

Even in States that have irrigation systems in place, the situation is less than rosy. This is because such systems suffer from the twin defects of uneven distribution of irrigated land not only across States but also among crops, and declining public investment. In 1970-71, 41 per cent of the total irrigated land was dependent on government canals. Tubewells accounted for only 14 per cent of the irrigated land. By 1997-98, tubewells were irrigating 34 per cent of all irrigated land, while canals accounted for only 31 per cent. This has meant a major drain on groundwater reserves. Over-dependence on groundwater in States such as Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra has led to water tables falling. The blame cannot be placed on these States as the increasing dependence on groundwater stems from a steady decline in public investment in agriculture.

In 2000-01, public investment in agriculture was down to Rs.4,000 crores from about Rs.4,500 crores in 1993-94. The money is not sufficient even to maintain the existing irrigation infrastructure. Not surprisingly, States such as Punjab have lined up before the Centre with a demand for an immediate relief of Rs.100 crores.

Ajit Singh has, however, made it clear that relief can only follow when the States declare their drought-hit areas. "So far only 26 districts of Uttar Pradesh and 150 taluks of Karnataka have been declared drought-hit." According to the 11th Finance Commission, the Centre releases 75 per cent of the Contingency Relief Fund while the State governments release the remaining 25 per cent to deal with a natural calamity like a drought. Why are the States reluctant to declare their districts as being drought-affected? Records show that even when States declare themselves drought-hit, the distribution of relief is based on political considerations and not on the reality on the ground. Last year, Andhra Pradesh, which had only 6 per cent deficient rain, walked away with Rs.148 crores and three lakh tonnes of rice. Rajasthan, which has had three successive droughts, did not get anything.

Now emerging tensions between the Agriculture Ministry and the State governments threaten to endanger the entire exercise of providing relief. While the Centre seems content to follow a policy of wait-and-watch, the State governments say that by the time the sops are handed out, it would be too late. They have been pressing for the distribution of short-duration seed varieties so that they can make the best of a truncated crop cycle.

On July 24, the Centre announced its first relief package which included directing sugar mills to pay an outstanding total of Rs.1,000 crore to cane growers and the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) to postpone debt recovery proceedings. Other measures included assistance under the Calamity Relief Fund, which is normally available to small and marginal farmers who have at least 2 ha of land. This assistance would now be provided to all categories of farmers in the drought-affected areas. The government has assured the State governments that this is the preliminary round of relief and that an elaborate package of measures would be worked out later. To emphasise this point, the Agriculture Ministry has extended the July 31 deadline for making claims under the crop insurance scheme. The scheme would now include farmers who have not availed themselves of loans and the claims would be decided on a case-by-case basis.

The government has set up a Crop Weather Watch Group under Special Secretary Hemender Kumar to monitor the situation. Hemender Kumar said: "We are hoping that the monsoon will pick up momentum. Our stress is to remain prepared with a contingency plan for sowing alternative crop and advise the State governments and farmers on what to do with standing crops. As agriculture is mainly a State subject, the State governments will have to communicate to us about shortages of fodder and drinking water and about payment of compensation to farmers." Alternate cropping is being promoted by the government. Samara observed: "In Haryana and Gujarat, if the rains come in the next two weeks, we would stress on the sowing of millet, moong beans and then cluster beans. If the rains do not reach these States till the end of August then the farmers would be advised to go for fodder varieties. Orissa, Chhattisgarh, eastern Uttar Pradesh and eastern Madhya Pradesh are facing a variable situation. They would be asked to stress on transplanting varieties followed by undercrafts and moth beans."

While the daily monitoring approach seems to be working for the time being, it is clear that if the government wants to save the rabi crop it would have to start planning now. Notwithstanding its truant behaviour so far, there is every possibility that the southwest monsoon will eventually turn out to be a normal one. Sufficient sub-soil moisture at the end of the kharif season and the beginning of rabi planting can contribute to higher production.

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