'Pro-active monsoon management plan is needed'

Published : May 27, 2000 00:00 IST

Interview with Dr. M.S. Swaminathan.

"There is no long-term government policy on managing drought. At best its approaches are ad hoc and fire-fighting in nature," says Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the internationally acclaimed agricultural scientist. A key scientific figure behind the Green Revolution in India, Dr. Swaminathan has thought ahead of his time. A drought management strategy that he proposed when he was Secretary in the Department of Agriculture in 1979 never saw the light of day in the absence of political will. The plan is va lid even today. Dr. Swaminathan says: "I tried, without much success, to institutionalise the management strategy and make people realise that drought is as much a part of life as good rains." As Director-General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Res earch and the International Rice Research Institute, Manila, and 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 with new techniques and technology to marry science and public policy. His efforts have transformed many Asian countries from being net importers to net exporters of foodgrains. His focussed approach on biodiversity, biotechnology and eco-friendly farmi ng methods 15 years ago gave a new direction to farm production. He has made major contributions to water-harvesting, conservation and management methods in the last three decades.

Dr. Swaminathan spoke to Asha Krishnakumar in Chennai on aspects of drought, ways of assessing its impact, the role of governments in managing droughts and the intensity of the problem this year. Excerpts from the interview:

How would you define drought? Is India in the grip of a drought and what the magnitude of the problem?

Drought is a complex phenomenon. It has a differential impact across the country, depending on several factors. The primary impact of drought induced water scarcity is on household consumption and agriculture. Its secondary impact is on industry, energy generation and ecosystem conservation.

In general, the intensity of drought varies according to its impact primarily on human beings. When a serious drought occurs there is immediately a great scarcity of drinking water: the lakes dry up and the groundwater levels go down significantly and th ere is no recharging.

The impact of drought on agriculture is determined by a number of factors. Its impact on crop production varies depending on the timing of its occurrence. For example, there can be an early monsoon and then a long period of drought or excellent precipita tion for a short period and dry spells thereafter. Each of the scenarios can have different implications.

There are also different kinds of drought in agriculture. The soil drought is one where there is no moisture in the soil. The atmospheric drought is one in which the temperature is very high. A combination of the two is the worst kind. There could be a s ignificant drop in crop production or even total failure when the drought occurs very early in a crop season, preventing sowing. Thus, there is an empirical method of assessing the impact of drought.

How is the actual impact of drought assessed?

We have considerable information for assessing the actual impact of drought on crops. For example, the Meteorological Departments of various States put out detailed maps that give three parameters to assess the actual impact. One, the date of onset of so aking rain, depending on which the farmers sow the seeds. Two, the inter-spell duration. That is, the distribution of rainfall. This is a major problem in India. We may have high spells in a short duration and finish the annual quota of rain in, say, a f ew days. But this may cause more harm than poor rainfall. And, three, the soil's moisture-holding capacity. And even this can vary between short distances. For example, an India Meteorological Department (IMD) study conducted by Dr. C.R.V. Raman in Mahar ashtra showed that a long inter-spell duration of even 20 days did not matter much in the Vidarbha region, which had heavy black soil, but central Maharashtra, which has shallow red soil, was badly affected.

Over 66 per cent of our farmlands are rainfed. But there is enormous variation even within these rainfed lands. While some States depend on the southwest monsoon, many others depend on the more unpredictable northeast monsoon. Thus, the kharif and rabi s easons differ across States. The type of irrigation is also important. For instance, the areas where suicides are taking place in Andhra Pradesh mostly follow tank-fed irrigation, dependent primarily on rainfall.

What are the secondary effects of drought?

The secondary effects of drought are felt, for instance, in hydro-power generation. Low water levels in reservoirs affect power generation. This, in turn, affects the quantum of electricity available for both agricultural and industrial use. There is a s trong relationship between agricultural success and industrial growth. This is largely because industrial raw material - cotton, jute, sugarcane and so on - come from agriculture. Thus, while the direct impact of drought is on water, the secondary impact is on power and energy supply.

What about early warning signals and ways of finding out the probable impact of droughts, and also systems of managing droughts?

We had some excellent systems in place during British rule. Detailed famine codes and scarcity manuals were prepared for different regimes. The "annawari system" (this term was coined when the Indian rupee was equivalent to sixteen annas) of estimating t he impact of weather on crop yield was developed to decide on tax remissions and relief measures. The village karnams were taught how to measure the impact of drought on crops. These empirical methods of assessing crop failures, and the scarcity manuals of managing droughts are not in vogue now.

The public policy now is mainly post-mortem, not pro-active. Whenever there is a serious shortage of drinking water, crop failure, very abnormal rainfall, high inter-spell duration and so on, the State governments immediately shoot off a letter to the Ce ntre asking for relief. The Ministry of Agriculture sends a team to assess the problem and sanctions money to the States, often after considerable political bargaining.

The Agriculture Ministry is in charge of disaster management because drought directly affects agriculture, which provides maximum employment. For example, in 1950-51, 66 per cent of our workforce was in agriculture and in the Five Year Plan period beginn ing 1997, 64 per cent is still farm-dependent. This is striking because the numbers are very high now. While the population was less than 350 million in 1950-51, today it is over one billion. This is one reason why a drought becomes a great human calamit y.

Thus, as agriculture historically provided the most number of jobs in the country and also because it bore the brunt of the calamities, the British government started a number of relief works under the Agriculture Ministry. These continue even today in t he form of food-for-work and rural employment programmes and, hence, the Agriculture Ministry is the nodal agency for disaster management.

Drought has very serious human implications as it affects the livelihood security of a majority of the population. That is why it is important to have a pro-active policy relating to monsoon management. The majority of the population which depends on the monsoon for livelihood has only become more vulnerable with poor coping mechanisms. The government subsidies are also inadequate.

The U.S., for instance, has 900,000 farming families, while the figure is 105 million in India. The U.S. government last year set aside $18 billion just for insurance cover for the farming families, whose average farm size is 200 hectares; delivered $3.7 billion as Loan Deficiency Payment and Marketing Loan Gains; gave an emergency lending of $329 million; and provided $1.4 billion as direct loans and $2.5 billion as guaranteed loans. Compare this with India, where 78 per cent of the farm families own l ess than two hectares. The total subsidy given by the government for these people, who are directly affected by such calamities, is about Rs. 2,000-3,000 crores every year. So our investment in drought proofing is poor, and it is getting poorer. Thus the coping mechanism of the farm families is extremely poor and the people are severely affected during calamities.

What is the nature of the problem this year?

We used to have fairly recurrent droughts in the past. But in the last 12 years, we did not have any serious aberration of the southwest monsoon, which is more reliable. That has made us complacent, without any effort to institutionalise monsoon manageme nt efforts.

In 1999, year the northeast monsoon was very erratic and the southwest monsoon was also skewed. There was good rain in several areas, but it was deficit in some areas. Even last year, though the meteorological map showed that the country as a whole had a normal monsoon, several areas - parts of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh - that are chronically drought-prone, had deficit rains. These areas are drought-prone districts and we have the Drought Prone Area Programme (DPAP) for them. Fo r instance, in Andhra Pradesh, Chittoor, Cuddapah, Anantapur Mahbubnagar and the Telengana region, and in Tamil Nadu, Ramanathapuram and Pudukottai are all chronically rainfall-deficit districts. Even in a normal year, there is thus variability in this l arge country in terms of rainfall distribution.

The advantage of having a zoning system of arid and semi-arid districts is that we can plan to conserve water in tanks, wells, open wells, lakes, reservoirs and also in recharging underground aquifers. For instance, in Thanjavur district, the Cauvery wat er is not only important for crop production directly but also to recharge aquifers. Yet there is no systematic and rational water-harvesting and conservation movement.

With both the southwest and the northeast monsoons skewed, there were widespread problems. The erratic southwest monsoon caused drinking water scarcity in many areas. We just have to hope for some rains in June-July. But we do not know the actual rainfal l projections because information on a probable poor monsoon is not given out as the government fears that a prediction of a severe drought would lead to large-scale hoarding and price escalation. Calamities have been commercialised and it has become ser ious business in this country. Even the government relief money often does not reach those for whom it is intended.

This is one such year when the acute drinking water scarcity is affecting human beings and farm animals in several parts of the country. The problem is not unprecedented but it is intensifying. This is largely because our human and animal population is h igh and growing on the one hand while the aquifers are overexploited, without being recharged. In Punjab, for instance, the problem in the last five years has been over-exploitation of groundwater, particularly as the State government gives free electric ity to pump water. This is a very irresponsible policy from the point of view of the sustainable management of groundwater resources. This I call "ecocide"- subsidy for ecological suicide.

Similarly, industries are also using a lot of water without recycling. If there is no electricity, industries use diesel generators and dig deep borewells to draw water indiscriminately. Every drop of water that industry uses should be given back. That h as not been made obligatory. Much of the problem is because there is no "Groundwater Act" in place. As early as in 1971, a draft Act had been circulated by the Centre. Again in 1992, as chairman of the Groundwater Committee I took up this issue. Israel c ultivates good crops in deserts and this is largely because water is a social and not a private resource, unlike in India where water markets are emerging in a big way. From landlords we now have waterlords controlling human security. There is, thus, a n eed for groundwater regulation even if we do not make water a social resource, as in Israel. There is also a need to regulate the cultivation of water-intensive crops in drought-prone areas.

Forest protection is also part of the problem. Forests protect aquifers as also the hydrological cycle. Denudation and hydrological cycle disruption are major problems. For example, Cherrapunji (in Meghalaya), which is said to receive the highest rainfal l in the world, is now facing an acute drinking water problem. This is because of water run-off, denudation and also because of not storing water.

What is the role of the government in dealing with abnormal monsoons? Is there no pro-active policy on drought management in India?

The government has an important role to play during abnormal monsoons. But there is no system in place to deal with such situations. Nor is the government serious. Yashwant Sinha, for instance, in the 1999 Budget speech spoke about water conservation and a watershed movement. He declared 1999 the Year of the Gram Sabha (participatory approach). But this year's Budget speech had no mention of watershed management, and the gram sabha was not even mentioned.

Monsoon management is a better term to use than drought management. There are well-thought-out plans to face an abnormal monsoon. It is best to have a good monsoon but it is prudent to be prepared for the worst. Dealing with both situations must be part of the planning process. It should be institutionalised. The government knows the problems and the solutions, only it has not converted know-how into do-how.

In 1979, as the Union Agriculture Secretary, I developed a pro-active methodology of monsoon management. Basically it had three components - train people at different levels to conserve and manage water, develop contingency plans to suit different rainfa ll patterns and work out a compensatory production programme.

The scheme begins from below, with a village, a watershed or a command area of an irrigation project and trains some people, whom I call climate managers, to study and assess monsoon impact at this level. The climate managers need to be trained in water conservation, water harvesting and climate management. Then, at the district and State levels, there should be crop weather watch groups consisting of farming families, IMD officials, media representatives, local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and agricultural scientists and extension officers. They should be trained to take concerted action in such areas as saving the crops already sown, preparing alternative cropping strategies, building up seed reserves and setting up cattle camps near water s ources to save animals.

A contingency plan for alternative cropping patterns should be developed. This should be a detailed plan that warns if the monsoon arrives late and if it is too late to sow jowar then whether it should be short-duration pulses, bajra, ragi, sweet potato or a fodder crop. Thus, taking into account various aspects such as soil condition, water availability and so on, different cropping strategies can be worked out to suit different weather probabilities. We have Technology Missions in pulses, maize, cotto n, oilseeds and other crops. These Technology Missions should be linked to water harvesting programmes, since pulses and oilseeds are low water requiring but high value crops. The growing import of pulses is an index of the neglect of dryland farming.

Now, with satellite imagery and various other modern technology, and looking at the last 100 years' rainfall data, the IMD is able to work out different sophisticated weather modules. The capacity of the IMD for accurate medium-term forecasting is excell ent. From this a suitable crop strategy (crop and variety) can be worked out. It is important to have seed stores for contingency planning. Seed reserve is as important for crop security as grain reserve is for food security.

This scheme for monsoon preparedness should be developed particularly for the drought-prone areas. Since this is a bottoms-up approach, it is much easier to work it out today with the panchayati raj system in place. Some men and women members of the panc hayats can be trained as climate managers. With the development of technology and enormous progress in the atmospheric and meteorological sciences, reliable forecasting can be done for longer periods - two or three months. With reliable predictions, the crop-weather watch groups can plan alternative scenarios for the district. Full advantage can be taken if the monsoon is good, and if it is abnormal, contingency plans can be looked at and alternative cropping strategies worked out. In other words, there would be in place an overall monsoon management strategy which includes both rain (conserved through tanks, lakes and reservoirs) and aquifer water.

Similarly, I also proposed in 1979 groundwater sanctuaries to preserve water for use during emergencies. While mapping groundwater, some aquifers that cannot be found easily need to be identified, declared sanctuaries and preserved by the government. It should be used only during an emergency as in times of acute water scarcity.

In the compensatory production programme, which I gave shape to in 1979 - which was a serious drought year - the idea was to divide every State into the most seriously affected areas (MSA), where no crop can be grown as they were very seriously affected (as those the media have been projecting this year) and the most favourable areas (MFA), where there is some water for agriculture. In the MSA, you concentrate on the relief and rehabilitation of human beings and cattle. We launched open-ended food-for-w ork and the food-for-nutrition (for pregnant mothers, the elderly and children) programmes. We concentrated not on unproductive work as in the British period, but productive work such as clearing drains, desilting tanks and reservoirs, distributing seeds and so on. And in the MFA, as in Punjab or Thanjavur, we tried to produce a little more than they normally would in order to compensate, at least partially, for the MSA. It is important to institutionalise such approaches and develop a system of monsoon management from the village to the Centre. An advantage of open-ended food-for-work and food-for-nutrition programmes is that they help to stabilise foodgrain prices and prevent panic purchase.

What is the government doing to tackle the situation this year?

As far as I can see, the government is resorting to ad hoc measures such as releasing foodgrains and providing tankers to carry water to the affected States and so on. Everything is ad hoc. That is a very major problem now. We should institutionalise the approach and make people realise that drought is as much a part of life as good rains. The bottomline is that human beings must be saved from acute scarcity of food and drinking water. Fortunately, we are now in a position to do so because of good grain reserves.

Is the system of early warning signals well developed in India?

In terms of technology, we have made rapid strides. But the data generated have not been put to use effectively. We are a data-rich, but action-poor country.

Ideally, the IMD must have at the national level a crop-weather watch group, preferably under the Ministry of Agriculture. It should meet regularly whether there is a drought or not. But the IMD is not autonomous. Earlier it was under the Civil Aviation Department and is now under the Department of Science and Technology. It needs to be a separate department, functioning on its own. In 1981, when I was chairman of the Science Advisory Committee to the Cabinet, I tried to make it an autonomous department of the government with the Director-General of the IMD given the rank of a Secretary to Government. But it never took off. It is a good professional department, but needs to be further professionalised, with excellent outreach and links to international meteorological stations. And, every State needs to have a multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder Monsoon Management Board with crop-weather watch groups at the apex and at the district level to interpret and plan the data got from the IMD.

In the past, people did not know in advance the occurrence of such calamities. But today, thanks to the electronic media, information is disseminated speedily and people know what is happening in different parts of the country. Politicians are also press ured to react. Prof. Amartya Sen has often said that in countries with a free media, famines no longer occur. And that is what is helping us now - media reports - by sending early warnings. But rather than sending early warning signals to rush aid to the affected places, what I would like is to see is a procedure by which monsoon management becomes an integral part of the planning process. We have made great strides in space and information technology that are crucial for planning and implementing monso on management. Why, then, do we not use the expertise?

There have been instances of successful drought management and water management in the drought-prone areas of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and some other States, because of which these places have fared better this year than in the past. Can the se be replicated in other parts of the country?

No doubt these examples can be replicated. But these need good organisation. NGOs can do it in some areas and demonstrate its success. But for it to be done on a large scale, the government must get involved. It needs to be institutionalised. Schedule 11 of the Constitution, the 73rd Amendment, gives 29 items of responsibility, including land and water management, social forestry and water harvesting, to the panchayats. It is all listed, but not enabled. The gram panchayats are not empowered - financial ly, legally or technologically - actually to do what they have to do. Now, with the panchayati raj system in place, it is possible to instil some discipline within a village. Nothing was done to empower the village panchayats even though 1999 was the "Ye ar of the Gram Sabha". But there is a structure in place, why not make use of it? The Chinese commune is an excellent example of participatory management.

Techniques of water harvesting and conservation are well-known. Every gram panchayat needs to develop a water management strategy with the three components of water conservation, its sustainable use, and equitable sharing, and should be empowered to put this into practice. At least two (one male and one female) panchayat members should be trained to become climate managers.

What is the future for India on the water front?

India's future can be bright or dismal depending on our action. We can shape our water future by having a clear policy. A holistic policy has not been in place for various reasons. Primarily because we have looked at these issues in a compartmentalised w ay. The Ministry of Water Resources looks after water; the Ministry of Agriculture looks after agriculture and disaster management; the Ministry of Power looks after hydro-electric power; the Ministry of Environment and Forests is in charge of climate ch ange and climate convention; and the IMD is under the Department of Science and Technology. Wherever land, water, flora, fauna and human beings are involved, issues cannot be compartmentalised. Different issues need to be addressed in conjunction with on e another and not in isolation.

There is a need to develop a series of technical resource centres on monsoon management within a university or an institution. These centres can be synthesisers and not original researchers. They can put together research works from different agencies or departments and work out monsoon management strategies that are location specific, based on computer simulation models.

The problem is that many useful ideas are floated by politicians, but with little follow-up action. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, in his Budget speech this year, said that the State, in its endeavour to achieve immense progress in agriculture , would train the agricultural extension officers and transform them into knowledge workers assisting the farmers to enhance their income and reduce cultivation expenditure. If he follows up on this promise, Tamil Nadu would definitely make good progress in agriculture.

We should strengthen our capacity for pro-active analysis and management of issues relating to weather and climate. I would urge every State government to set up a multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder Monsoon Management Board. Similarly, the Centre s hould establish without further delay a National Commission for Monsoon Management supported by a National Monsoon Management Centre. Only then can we convert the present calamity into an opportunity and change the saying "Indian agriculture is a gamble of the monsoon", into "India's strength lies in its ability to manage monsoons."

Unless we take immediate action - come out with a clear short and long-term water policy, work out monsoon management strategies and empower the gram panchayats - wars over water would be a reality in the future.

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