The drought of 2009 is all set to go down in history as the worst-ever that India has faced since Independence. And the reasons for this are not just meteorological.
Parthajit Datta / AFP
This drought comes at a time when the country is already reeling under the impact of a global recession as well as the global food crisis that started last year. The impact of this drought, therefore, will go far beyond the agricultural sector and spill into our cities, affecting a significant number of people working in the non-farm sector too. To take just one example of this complex interplay of the financial and food crisis, we just have to look at the retrenched labour migrating out of the diamond industry in Surat back to Orissa. At least half a million jobs have been estimated to be lost in the gems and jewellery sector in Surat alone. Adding to that, there have also been media reports of a large number of these retrenched workers, who were earning up to Rs7,000 a month, turning up at the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) worksites.
Yet, it is unlikely that all these workers will be able to get the 100 days of labour promised under NREGS, given the fact that the average number of days of employment provided under this programme has been less than 40 in the last fiscal year. This is going to put an enormous strain on their household economy, which is anyway reeling under the spiralling prices of foodgrains over the past few months.
Therefore, the Prime Minister’s recent reassurance of record grain procurement and the Food Corporation of India’s buffer stocks needs to be seen in this context. The situation today is similar in some ways to the drought of 2002 when India had equally humongous food stocks and yet the State response remained woefully inadequate to stave off large-scale starvation and chronic hunger.
Since 60% of agriculture in India is rain-fed, there is little hope we will be able to divorce the agricultural economy from the uncertainties of the monsoon. What should be cause for greater national concern is the policy choices over the last two decades which have increased the vulnerabilities of our small and marginal farmers—these farmers have landholdings of less than 2 hectares and constitute 80% of the farming population. We still lack a comprehensive vision for water security; precious little has been done to address the issue of falling water tables across the country.
In fact, the over emphasis on procurement of cereals (mainly rice and wheat) has led to a systemic neglect of dry-land crops. Millets and other coarse cereals, oilseeds and pulses have seen a negative rate of growth in the last five years. The procurement of these crops—staple in states in central and eastern India with a predominantly rain-fed agriculture—has not been prioritized adequately. Research on dry-land agriculture to increase productivity has been neglected and virtually no major technological innovations have been introduced for bringing about yield improvements.
And it is not just a lack of vision that reflects this neglect. Where there is a vision, red tape ensures that it is not implemented. The new watershed guidelines which provide for doubling of the allocation per hectare have been lying in limbo because they have still not been operationalized, two years after they were drawn up. The non-financial aspects of the new guidelines, which put much greater emphasis of capacity building of farmers and creating people-centric development programmes that were part of that integral vision, lie buried in bureaucratese.
Moreover, any increase in productivity is likely to be offset by the rapid diversion of agricultural land for industry and real estate. We are unlikely to achieve the food security targets that have been set without rationalizing land use.
While the systemic neglect of the farm sector would takes decades to undo, there are a number of short-term measures that need to be urgently put in place if the impact of the drought has to be mitigated. NREGS has the potential to not just raise wages, but also rejuvenate the farm sector. The programme already allows for agricultural development in the private lands of scheduled caste, scheduled tribe and below-poverty-line farmers. If, with careful planning, this scheme was dovetailed into public works for watershed development, it has the potential to significantly improve productivity. The Congress party manifesto promise of extending NREGS to every adult and increasing the wage rate to Rs100 should be implemented promptly. A well-designed urban employment guarantee will also have the potential to address the urban poor.
Similarly, the proposed National Food Security Act could be the site for institutionalizing transformative social protection policies. A return to the universalized Public Distribution System (PDS) with adequate reform measures; deepening entitlements for the more vulnerable by providing subsidized cooking oil and pulses and other essential commodities from PDS outlets; and putting on track the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme—the only government programme that addresses child malnutrition—would go a long way on getting food security back in the agenda.
India may well be able to overcome the drought this time around, but the drought of vision in policymaking vis-à-vis the agricultural sector will take much longer to overcome.
Biraj Patnaik is principal adviser to the Supreme Court commissioners on the right to food. The views expressed here are his own. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org