The drought and beyond

The drought and beyond

Some situations are drought-proof. The dependence of India’s agriculture on the monsoon is one example. A less known but equally visible infirmity, if it can be called that, is the excessive reliance on Punjab, Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh for foodgrains. That situation has serious ecological costs, even if it has served the country well since the 1960s.

This situation of business as usual cannot last forever. On the one hand, Punjab and Haryana continue to supply a major share to the Central pool of foodgrains. On the other hand, their use of water is not only unsustainable but poses grave danger to the long-run food security of the country. As reported in Mint on Thursday, these states are drawing water beyond the sustainable level. That has been known for a while, but nothing has been done, or is being done, to counter that situation.

What this requires is more than merely changing the cropping pattern in the country. The fact is, the current system of foodgrain production, purchase and distribution has crippled any innovation in the country’s agricultural economy. The inability of governments to foster productivity and increases in grain output across different states has ensured that Punjab and Haryana remain the fallback options when there are agricultural failures, as is the case this year. As a result, there are few incentives to improve productivity in eastern India.

This has had other pernicious consequences: It has reduced Punjab and, to a lesser extent, Haryana to a level of unhealthy dependence on money from the Union government. In fact, much of the economy of the two states depends on open-ended purchase of grains by the Centre. The state-level taxes and imposts on purchases by the Food Corporation of India are an important source of income for the state governments.

In fact, if there is one area that has been left untouched by the reforms initiated in 1991, it is this aspect of India’s economy. The high-level committee on long-term grain policy led by Abhijit Sen had in 2002 recommended a series of measures to change this situation. Few, if any, of those recommendations have been executed in a manner that would improve this state of affairs.

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