Yet to learn drought lessons

Published: September 2, 2009 - 15:30 Updated: July 3, 2015 - 14:38

Food prices are rising not due to a delayed monsoon. It is because of massive hoarding, black market and speculation. Yet, the government takes refuge behind the excuse: markets driven by sentiments
Devinder Sharma Delhi

A bad monsoon and the nation gets jolted by the spectre of a haunting drought. As symptoms of acute human suffering and despair begin to appear on the horizon - distress sale of cattle and increasing suicides by farmers - the government swings into a fire-fighting mode.

It has happened in the past. It is happening again now. No sooner the drought fades away, the files will be back on the shelf. The concern, the tragedy and the lessons that you heard repeatedly will soon be forgotten.

Drought meanwhile is fast sinking in despite the monsoon aberrations. India's vulnerability to slip into a serious drought even with a slight delay in monsoon rains has grown over the years. Such has been the excessive groundwater withdrawal over the years, as a consequence of the emphasis on intensive farming, that Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan will not have any water left underground for irrigation by 2025.

Little or no rain, late rain and heavy rain, the food bowl of the country stares ahead at a gathering drought in any case. The alarm bells had been ringing for long. For instance, in Punjab, where groundwater withdrawal has always exceeded its natural replenishment, every year 45 per cent more underground water is being mined. Punjab, which provides nearly 50 per cent of the country's food surplus, is paying a price for ensuring the nation's food security.

So, when senior journalists write that the prevailing drought has not touched Punjab this year because of the investment it made in irrigation, I am left amused. What is not known or little understood is that Punjab is fast heading into desertification, a process that is entirely man-made. For several years it is known that of the 138 development blocks in Punjab, 108 have been categorised as 'dark zones', where 98 per cent underground water level is exploited. Six of the 12 districts in the state have recorded groundwater utilisation rate of 100 per cent. In western Uttar Pradesh, which is also part of the country's food bowl, water-guzzling sugarcane has pushed the groundwater level to an all-time low.

The increased emphasis on water harvesting (see accompanying box) notwithstanding, the reduced availability of water is emerging as a major social and economic crisis. In addition, the cropping pattern has to be evolved keeping in mind the water availability. At present, more the water requirement for hybrid crop varieties, more is its cultivation in the water-scarce regions. This is scandalous and unless the cropping pattern is rectified no measures to protect and preserve water resources will be effective.


Why are food prices going up?

The answer is simple and straight. It is because of massive hoarding, black market and speculation by the trade. I don't know why the government takes refuge behind the economic parlance - markets driven by sentiments and in this case the delayed monsoon was the sentiment that the markets exploited. This is a completely flawed assumption, a euphemism that economists use to justify speculation and hoarding.

Take the case of pulses. Prices of arhar dal have hit the roof. Prices of other pulses, too, have sky rocketed. And, the impression we carry is that there was a shortfall in production, and of course, many would link the fall in production with the delayed monsoons. Let us try to understand what went wrong with pulses. Compared to 2008, the market prices of pulses have increased by 52 per cent in Chennai to 89 per cent in Delhi. Such a stupendous rise in prices of pulses would automatically be a reflection of the slump in production.

No, it is not true. There was hardly any difference in the production of pulses. In 2008, pulses production was 14.76 million tonnes. In 2009, it fell to 14.66 million tonnes, a drop of 0.1 million tonnes. In other words, production of pulses has remained almost static. The other argument is that demand has outstripped its production. Some economists have projected the demand to be around 17 million tonnes. Interestingly, it gives an impression that suddenly in 2009 people have started consuming more of pulses. After all, if the demand was growing, 2008 should have also been a bad year as far as the prices are concerned.

Even if this was true, let us not forget that India has imported 2.5 million tonnes of pulses this year. Add to this the production figures, and you arrive at a figure of 17.16 million tonnes of pulses available in the market. This means we have made up for that gap between demand and supply. Then, why are the prices going up? Not only pulses, prices of vegetables and fruits too had gone up for no apparent reason.

The trade has been holding up the supplies, wanting to exploit the sentiment. And, the government has been simply turning a blind eye. It is only after three months that the government has finally woken up to the real threat. It has been talking in tough terms against hoarders now. Some state governments have swung into action. And, look at the results. In just a few days of a crackdown against hoarders throughout the state, Madhya Pradesh, for instance, has been able to recover sugar worth Rs 10,000 crore. Just from godowns at Malanpur and Bhind, 14,364 quintals of sugar beyond the permissible limit was seized. Raids have been widespread, and are still continuing. In three days time, the state has found 34,000 quintals of sugar kept illegally. Market price of sugar has come down by Rs 3 a kg just in two days time.

For several years now, drought and prolonged dry spell have continued to afflict the inhospitable and harsh environs of the dryland regions, constituting nearly 65 per cent of the country's cultivable lands. Despite the monsoons being 'normal', failure of rains in certain pockets and the continuing dry spell had simply gone unreported. With traditional forms of water storage and harvesting having vanished, rural irrigation being completely taken over by inefficient government machinery, available groundwater was left to be exploited indiscriminately.

Water shortage, in any case, was always expected to emerge as the major environmental crisis for India in the new millennium. NASA's recent projections based on the tracking done by twin GRACE satellites show that 54 cubic kilometres of groundwater is lost every year in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Still worse, the depletion rate is 70 per cent faster in this decade than what was estimated for the 1990s. The depletion is primarily due to irrigation, but the additional pressure of urbanisation and reckless industrialisation has added to the water woes.

And yet, despite the dismal aspect of the irrigation policy, the fascination of planners for costly projects has not diminished. They have continued to overlook simple and effective methods like a series of small water storage tanks, recharging of village wells, whose water percolates into the ground and replenishes the underground reservoir for drinking and irrigation purposes. These water bodies are the only way to drought-proof the country. No wonder, amidst the depressing and agonising scenario, a number of oases still dot the scorched landscape.

In several parts of the country, innovative farmers have found an ingenious way to fight drought. What the planners failed to visualise by way of drought management for over a century, villagers have demonstrated it successfully. The story of Kanchanpur village in Siddhi district of Madhya Pradesh, which hasn't faced the brunt of recurring dry spells for the past six years, is a lesson that the nation needs to imbibe. Three dug wells and three ponds using the NREGA force have completely upturned the village's dreaded past. With agriculture becoming economically viable, reports of reverse migration have poured in.

But then, traditional water harvesting and rain water collection practices do not find favour with the policy makers and planners for the simple reason that these time-tested technologies do not need much investment and budget allocations. At the same time, a serious drought enables the affected state government to cry for more Central relief funds. It has happened in the past, and is sure to happen in the days to come. As and when the furore and dust over the drought and resulting food insecurity dies down, planners will find the relief and rehabilitation allocations handy enough for the industry to create more demand for its products.

On its part, the government has already constituted a group of ministers (GoM) and also set up a National Crisis Management Committee to tackle the critical situation. Not realising that if only these ministers and secretaries had the wisdom to understand the complexities of a drought and the trauma of the human suffering that it leaves behind, the country would have by now successfully evolved a drought-proofing mechanism. It is essentially because of the political apathy and the criminal (mis)handling of the drought situations by the bureaucracy and the agricultural scientists that drought has become a recurring phenomenon.


Faulty water harvesting

Some years back, an ambitious programme to bring nearly 65 million hectares of cultivable land through a series of "watersheds" in the next 25 years was launched. With an estimated outlay of Rs 76,000 crore, the programme envisaged clubbing the efforts of the ministries of agriculture and rural development. Sadly, no lessons have been learnt. Not even once have we questioned whether the existing "watershed" management system is what the country needs or is it time to look for indigenously time-tested technologies. What is not known is that the existing "ridge to valley" system of watershed management has been borrowed from the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States.

The watershed model that continues to be propagated has actually turned into an industry. No one has ever questioned the efficacy of an alien water harvesting technology wherein the 'vested' interests of the district administration, the NGOs, and contractors clearly dominate. The "ridge to valley" system is drawn from a country which receives rainfall intermittently throughout the year. In India, the entire rainfall comes in 100 hours in the three months of the monsoon season. No wonder, while India feels happy in adopting an American model of water harvesting, many US universities are promoting traditional water  harvesting structures from India. The Texas A&M University, for instance, promotes Tamil Nadu's traditional water harvesting system.

As it happens with much of the imported technology in the development sector, the watershed model, too, was destined to fail. The water that has been harvested is not commensurate with the kind of investment made.

Much of the problem could be resolved if the cropping pattern being followed on the cultivable lands of the country is linked to water availability. At present, drylands have increasingly come under the hybrid crop varieties. While the crop yields from the hybrid varieties were surely high, the flip side of these varieties - these varieties are water guzzlers - was very conveniently ignored. I don't understand the reason why semi-arid Rajasthan, for instance, should grow water-guzzling sugarcane. Similarly, how can policy makers justify the cultivation of mentha, requiring 1.25 lakh litres of water to produce a kg of oil, in the drylands of Bundelkhand?

In fact, all kinds of hybrid crop varieties that require much higher doses of water - whether it is of rice, sorghum, maize, cotton, bajra, and vegetables - are promoted in the dryland regions. In addition, agricultural scientists have misled the farmers by saying that the dryland regions were hungry for chemical fertilisers. The harmful combination of chemical inputs and water-guzzling crops has played havoc with the drylands turning them not only more unproductive but also barren.

The water table plummeted, the impact of deficient rainfall became more pronounced forcing farmers to abandon agriculture and migrate. As if this was not enough, Bt cotton requiring more water than hybrid cotton, was knowingly promoted so as to allow the seed industry to make profits. Unless we redraw the cropping pattern or the crop map of India, recurring droughts will continue to play havoc. This has to be followed with a drought-proofing strategy and action plan prepared in consultation with the faming communities and the local NGOs.

In short, there has been no sincere effort to minimise the dreadful impact of the drought. Recurring drought has emerged as a blessing in disguise for politicians, planners and now the industry - literally making hay while the scorching sun continues to shine.

Food prices are rising not due to a delayed monsoon. It is because of massive hoarding, black market and speculation. Yet, the government takes refuge behind the excuse: markets driven by sentiments Devinder Sharma Delhi

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