Let’s start with some positive news. India has got around 71% of its average rainfall till now. Use-wise, this is more than double the quantity of rain we need in a year. Not to waste this, the country has woven a web of an unprecedented 0.8 million water harvesting or conservation and drought-proofing structures since March under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS).
Moreover, since 2006, NREGS has created another two million such structures with storage capacity of 523 million cu. m that must have harvested enough water from the last two normal monsoons. And to make things easier for small farmers, NREGS has treated 10 million hectares (ha) of drought-prone farmland in the last three years. Ideally, the country should celebrate such a time in history.
NREGS was conceived in 2005 to render Indian villages drought-proof, reduce farm distress and usher in rural prosperity using the precious capital of human labour. Each of the water structures created—the rate of which is historic compared with other public wage programmes in the past—is an effective economic instrument for the small farmers who account for close to 20% of gross domestic product.
So an inevitable question is: Why have these structures not averted the drought of 2009? Rather, the current drought is turning out to be the fourth severest drought of the last century. The government’s reaction is usual: mount emergency relief as we have been doing for at least a hundred years.
It isn’t that NREGS has not helped. The fact is that a substantial number of farmers have sailed through the deficit monsoon using NREGS structures. NREGS is the cheapest irrigation mode for the government, costing one-tenth of the current average of Rs1.5 lakh per ha of irrigation. It means NREGS has the potential not only to make the country drought-proof, but also to do it at least cost.
But a closer look at the government data still shows how we lost this opportunity. First, out of the total works created, the average of the last three years shows that at least 50% have not been completed or have been abandoned halfway. As of 28 August, only 16% of water conservation and less than 10% of drought-proofing works have been completed. We have wasted close to one million water harvesting structures which would have been useful in averting the drought by retaining surplus water from the last two normal monsoons as well as by retaining flowing water from the current monsoon.
In fact, a district-wise assessment shows that a majority of the drought-prone districts have a large number of water conservation works pending completion. Take Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, a chronic drought-prone district from where NREGS was, in fact, first launched. In 2009, it only completed 29 drought-proofing works out of the total 7,981 undertaken in this district in the last five months.
Second, most of the structures created in the last three years don’t have any concrete plan for maintenance and operation. This means those which could be completed have not been maintained well enough to be effective. Third, a handful of five states account for close to 90% of such works, thus not making water conservation a countrywide priority. This despite the fact that 68% of net sown areas of the country are drought-prone.
After the severe drought of 2002, both the Union and state governments realized that drought is not a rainfall disaster, but a condition created more out of mismanagement of rainfall. NREGS is a creative formalization of that realization. It will be a criminal oversight if we let this remain unrealized.
Richard Mahapatra is a Delhi-based development writer. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org