Home >Politics >Policy >Fixing rural distress: A challenge for both Nitish and Modi

Nitish Kumar, who will take oath as chief minister of Bihar for the third consecutive time, will face a daunting task as he tries to tackle rural distress in the state that has been hit by a drought.

The issue had found little mention in the bruising political campaign that preceded the Bihar assembly elections in which the Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance won a two-thirds majority.

As many as 23 out of 38 districts in the state received deficit rain ranging between 20% and 60% of the normal, India Meteorological Department shows. Overall, the 2015 June-to-September monsoon recorded a 28% deficit compared with the normal. However, the state government is yet to declare a drought.

This year’s drought has affected the rice growing areas, with nearly 70% of the area under the crop affected by deficit rainfall, said K.M. Singh, director of agriculture extension at Rajendra Agricultural University at Samastipur. “The drought may lead to a shortfall of 20% in paddy yields as most of the paddy-growing areas of the state are rain-fed," he said.

Yet rural distress was a marginal issue in the state elections where the politics of caste took over. Even though the Bharatiya Janata Party put irrigation access and separate feeders to supply electricity to fields as part of its electoral promises alongside jobs and overall development, the Grand Alliance’s manifesto makes no mention of agriculture.

It is surprising as Bihar saw the worst rainfall in more than a decade; during the last all-India drought year of 2009, the state recorded a deficit of 28%. More worryingly, since 2012, Bihar is reeling under deficit rain. The state recorded 21% deficit in 2012, 30% deficit in 2013 and 17% deficit in 2014.

“The paddy crop has been most affected due to lack of rainfall during September which is the flowering time of the crop, with rains ranging between 35% to 75% less than normal," said B. Kartikeya, director of agriculture in the state. “The actual loss will be estimated only after crop cutting experiments are carried out but to provide relief to farmers the state government gave a diesel subsidy of up to 1,500 per acre. This year, the subsidy was extended to crops like maize, soybean and vegetables."

Despite back to back rain-deficit years, programmes such as the rural jobs guarantee scheme have failed to provide much-needed employment that could alleviate rural distress. For instance, in 2012-13, more than 94 million person days of work was generated under the scheme. It came down to 86 million in 2013-14 and 35 million in 2014-15. This year, so far only 22 million person days of work was generated under the scheme, shows data from the rural development ministry.

Back to back deficit rainfall years have prompted distress migration in the state but issues relating to farming never made it to the electoral battle, said Anil Verma of Gaya-based non-profit Pran, which works with rain-fed rice growers. “This year, the paddy crop is as good as fodder since there was no panicle formation (flowering of the crop) in some areas due to drought. Yet, caste was more of an issue than access to irrigation, even for a drought hit farmer," he said.

However, the challenge to alleviate rural distress is not just for Nitish Kumar alone. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will face the same challenge when states such as West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala go to polls next year.

Across the country, seven states—Karnataka, Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand—have declared a drought so far. More states such as Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and possibly Bihar may follow.

Five states together sought a central relief of nearly 18,000 crore to take up drought relief. But the centre is yet to decide. With the Bihar election out of the way, will the crisis in agriculture come to the forefront, in Bihar and elsewhere?

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