First, a dampener: concerns about the delayed and deficient monsoon this year may be misplaced. There are fears that India may see a repeat of 2009, one of the worst droughts in three decades, and that economic growth and inflation will be impacted. There is scepticism about the Indian government’s ability to proactively manage the drought and ensure adequate food availability. As agriculture secretary in 2009, I would say the situation then was worse but agricultural GDP shrank only 0.2 per cent, owing to a proactive set of actions the government took at the time and appears to be following now.
In 2009, despite a 22 per cent rainfall deficit and with drought affecting 338 districts in 14 states, total foodgrain production was 218 million tonnes. Compared to 2008-09, however, production in 2009-10 was lower by about 10 million tonnes of rice and about 7 million tonnes of coarse grains. There was a 10 per cent fall in oilseed output, primarily groundnut and mustard.
The current rainfall deficit is unlikely to impact rice production much. This, however, is contingent on normal rainfall in July and August, which is most likely the case. Considering the amount of food stocks in the central pool, there is no reason to worry on account of rice and wheat. There could, however, be some concerns on coarse cereals, oilseeds and vegetables. Though there is a greater level of comfort this year, there is no space for inertia. The ministry of agriculture knows this well and has geared up to face challenges on the production front.
Based on the experience of 2009, the government has a range of options at its disposal. None of them require dramatic policy announcements; it’s more a case of setting priorities and focusing on the effective implementation and continuously monitoring these interventions.
One of the first and obvious interventions is to produce more from areas that have received adequate rain. This means ensuring prompt supply of inputs like seeds, fertilisers, credit and so on. Meanwhile, areas that have received less rain may have to shift to short-duration of varieties or alternate crops such as pulses, and fodder as a last resort. At the same time, the agriculture ministry needs to mobilise district-level plans (the ministry has such plans for about 200 drought-prone districts) in terms of releasing additional funds to improve irrigation and providing flexibility to the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana to provide for additional seeds, support for water conservation, micro-irrigation and so on. Seed reserves from the public and private sectors should be made available to farmers.
Despite these efforts, the livelihood security of farmers (and agricultural labourers) in rain-deficient areas could be seriously affected. Their food, income, nutrition security have to be ensured by a combination of agriculture, animal husbandry programme interventions and programmes like the rural employment guarantee scheme.
The availability of fodder and water for animals could emerge as a problem, as it did in 1987. It makes sense to take steps to increase fodder cultivation in areas where normal crops cannot be sown — for instance, cultivating fodder in rice fallows after the Kharif harvest is a good option.
If the Kharif crop is below expectations, planning for a better Rabi is essential. It is vital that Rabi output matches that of the previous year. A well thought out region- and crop-specific plan needs to be launched well in advance. For instance, in 2009, the planning for Rabi started early by identifying the right varieties of seeds for each region, adequate stocking of fertilisers, sanctions for micro-irrigation schemes, releasing central funds early and so on.
Meanwhile, water management should be given high priority. Water conservation technologies like alternate drying and wetting of paddy fields, micro irrigation and so on, have to be stepped up immediately. Indiscriminate pumping of water needs to be checked, either through an appropriate regulation or by controlling the availability of power.
At the same time, extra electricity should be made available from the national grid to states to save crops. State governments will have to give priority to agriculture, if necessary by reducing power supply to urban areas. There could be an overall deficit in power generation owing to lower output from hydel stations, but providing power in time to agriculture has to be on top of the agenda.
Availability of drinking water could come under stress in rural and urban areas. This has to be handled as an emergency. In areas where monsoon is deficient, pressure on drinking water supply could become serious in the summer of 2013. Adequate planning for augmenting sources of water and enhancing distribution through trains and tankers has to be done in advance. Efficiency of water use in urban areas needs to be enforced.
A drought-like situation invariably affects the poorer sections of the society badly, particularly women and children. Thus, effective distribution of foodgrain under the public distribution system, augmentation of mid-day meals programme and strengthening of Integrated Child Development Services in these areas are crucial. It may be a good idea to extend the mid-day meals to six or seven days a week during the drought season in distressed districts.
There are traditionally water-stressed regions in the country. A large number of poor people, dependent mostly on agriculture, live in these regions. Special attention needs to be given to these areas and to the vulnerable sections of people who live there.
While the government of India may roll out new initiatives quickly (diesel subsidy, additional seeds, watershed projects, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and so on), the efficiency with which these are delivered will determine the success of drought management. The delivery deficit remains an area of concern. Regular communication and monitoring with the states and districts is vital.
Still, I would reiterate that at this stage there is no cause for worry. All the same, central and state governments have to keep their eyes and ears open and respond quickly whenever the situation changes — for better or worse.
The writer was agriculture secretary in 2009 when India suffered its worst drought in more than 30 years