On Wednesday, the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) on drought will meet to consider further relief measures for the country’s distressed farmers. No doubt, this is the time to provide all possible help but perhaps it is also time to deliberate and implement forward looking measures.
In the droughts in 2002 and 2009, similar ad-hoc measures reduced rural distress to manageable proportions. And the food management system in the country—while it is creaky—did not break down during these critical junctures. So far, this strategy has worked: it may not in the years ahead as managing agriculture is going to get tougher for sure.
There are different, interlinked, reasons for this. This is primarily due to the absence of incentives for “monsoon-proofing” Indian agriculture. One example of this failure, over the past many decades, has been the fate of umpteen programmes to develop drought resistant varieties of different crops. Surely, when an actual drought emerges, there should be no agrarian distress? The fact that farmers are in distress every time rains fail says something else. These programmes exist on paper and not in India’s parched fields.
Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
At another level, developing India’s irrigation potential has been more or less a story of failure. The net irrigated area is barely 30% of the total cultivable area of the country. This proportion rises a bit to 39% when one considers irrigated area as a proportion of the net sown area—or area that is actually being cropped. But all said and done, 60% of India’s farmland is still dependent on rainfall.
Until now, the artificially irrigated north western region of the country has been a steady source of foodgrains and other agricultural commodities. That has been due to its well-developed groundwater resources. That situation of comfort may not prevail in the future. Overexploitation of water resources in Punjab and Haryana is approaching a crisis-like situation. In the years ahead, this situation is likely to worsen. Once the food security law is implemented, the demand for foodgrains and other food items will only rise. Instead of diversifying the cropping pattern in these states away from water-intensive rice and wheat, greater demand will only accentuate this problem.
Finding solutions is not easy. Boosting agricultural research and development—especially developing drought-resistant varieties of crops is certainly needed. But given the past experience, not too much hope should be placed in this direction. A more promising avenue is that of using water resources, especially groundwater, judiciously. At the moment there are serious political and technological roadblocks to this. The sooner these are removed, the better it will be for India—rural and urban.
Can Indian agriculture ever be “monsoon-proofed”? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org