Bengaluru: What exactly can a government do in times of drought? Is it sensible to expect farmers to move away from commercial crops—like sugarcane, cotton or maize, which may guzzle a lot of water but would also assure them some return—without government intervention?
“Suppose you issue a diktat to farmers to not grow maize or sugarcane. Who is going to bloody care for a government diktat ? And under what provision are you going to pose such a diktat that you shall not grow maize?” asks Krishna Byre Gowda, agricultural minister of Karnataka, one of the worst drought-hit states in India, in an interview.
“In reality, the farmer will grow what is economically beneficial for them, not necessarily what the society would want him to grow. There are only a few levers available with the government and we just have to play with it,” he says.
Like states such as Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka is reeling under severe agrarian distress. It is the only state to have declared widespread damage to both rabi crop this year and kharif crop last year, seeking a total central assistance of Rs.2,263 crore.
The drought that struck the state in 2015 came on the back of unseasonal rains damaging the winter harvest last year, and a monsoon deficit that led to a dip in kharif output in 2014. Agriculture production in the state is likely to come down to 11 million tonnes this year from the last year’s figure of 12.6 million tonnes, as per the state budget.
Struck with such a drastic shortage of water, both for irrigation and drinking, Gowda says his government in the days to come will focus more on the incentive structure put in place to boost crop area of millets like ragi and jowar, which use less water to grow, as well as disincentivise water-guzzling crops like maize.
“The procurement price for ragi is now 28% more than the central minimum support prices (MSPs) of Rs.1650 (per quintal). Going ahead, each year we are going to buy millets from the farmers by at least Rs.500 more than the MSP. In addition, we are giving free seeds of millet crops and also some cultivation assistance for millet growers,” he said.
The minister said that the government is also planning to supply more millets through the state’s public distribution system, increasing the existing 30kg for Rs.1 distribution for poor families under a flagship scheme called Anna Bhagya.
The government is also trying to rope in retailers and companies such as Big Basket to connect directly with millet farmers. Because of their nutritional and health benefits, millets, along with organic products, have become a trendy product among urban consumers.
In terms of disincentivising water guzzling crops, he said that for the last two years the state had not given any bonus payment above the minimum support price for maize and is right now focusing on cutting even subsidy on maize seed.
This is the only way the government can actually play a role, says the minister.
“Certain crops that are using disproportionately large share of water resources. I feel very strongly about this issue because it causes me a lot of distress, may be because I come from a water-deficit area. I think it is very unjust and inequitable. Only a few people have all the water available. For the rest there is no water, their entire distress is caused by this lack of access to water,” he said.
“The (water) challenges we have are largely related to sugarcane and paddy, both are water guzzlers. Sugarcane also creates enormous socio-economic tensions when the prices crash. For the last two years, maize prices have been relatively moderate, so that might have a moderating impact on the increase in the area. Cotton is also increasing but we are not alarmed by it yet,” said Gowda.
A lot of the area increase of these crops have actually come at the cost of ragi and jowar and the government is trying to reverse that trend, he said.
To be sure, his efforts have started showing small changes on the ground. According to data from Karnataka’s agricultural department, the procurement of ragi shot up from 1.35 million quintals last year to about two million quintals so far this year.
This is a pattern emerging across India, according to Prakash Kammaradi, a farm expert and chairman of Karnataka’s Agricultural Price Commission, a body set up to monitor the price fluctuations for farm products.
“In Tamil Nadu, the government along with civil society is trying to convert fallow lands into millet farms. In Andhra Pradesh, NGO-led community movements are promoting millet cultivation. In Orissa, the government is taking some steps to increase the area of millet cultivation. In Maharashtra, the government has already announced subsidies for millets,” he said.
“Millets are important, from the larger perspective of climate change and also because of its nutritional prospect for the underprivileged. The role of government is to show an effective demand for large number of farmers to take an aggregate decision to grow millets. Right now, that is not very clear for the farmers,” he said.
After several decades of messing up with agriculture in the state, this seems to be an effort in the right direction, said Devinder Sharma, an agriculture policy analyst and convenor of Kisan Ekta, a confederation of farmers associations. But more needs to be done, he said.
“Millet is a very high loss-making crop, every time a farmer grows the crop his net return is negative. So I think the MSP still needs to be raised further, at least to Rs.5,000,” he said.
However, even as the government is pushing for crop diversity, it has not yet led to much change in the production patterns of the biggest water-guzzling crop, sugarcane.
Sugarcane cultivation increases in Karnataka by roughly 6% per annum, and notwithstanding most of the cane factories owing money to growers due to overproduction in the state, the government cleared six new sugar factories backed by powerful political lobbies last year. Most of these factories would come up in severe drought-prone areas, Mint reported on 3 March.
“It’s like saying we are encouraging prohibition but at the same time we will open more liquor shops,” says Sharma.
“You can’t have it both ways. Indian states have to put regulations for sugarcane to tide over the present water crisis,” he said.