A survey of chronically drought-stricken Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh published last week could not have come up with a more grim assessment. As a result of two consecutive years of deficient rainfall, farmers and their families in the area are cutting back on their already meagre meals and inching towards something approaching famine conditions. The survey by Swaraj Abhiyan, a farmers' activists group, found that more than 80 per cent of households reported cutting down on consumption of pulses and milk while more than three-quarters reported they were increasingly eating roti with just salt and spices. This grim reading came in a week when several states met the Union agriculture minister to discuss responses to the drought. What is needed instead is a long-term action plan to tackle the effects of deficient rainfall, the overuse of fertilisers, the unpredictability of conditions - witness the heavy rainfall in Tamil Nadu this month - brought on by climate change, as well as the seemingly permanent low-productivity trap of small-scale farming in India. Groundwater is rapidly depleting: fresh water per capita in India has declined from 3,000 cubic meters to 1,123 cubic meters per capita in the past half-century. Taken together, this is a colossal crisis - and yet it punches well below its weight in national priorities.
When the government is stirred to act energetically, it is usually to impose a ban on "hoarding" whichever food stuff where price hikes have hit the headlines - onions usually, or pulses more recently. But these knee-jerk reactions amount to tampering with market mechanisms and make things worse rather than better. The need for cold storage, or for increasing onion dehydration capacity, to solve the perennial shortage of onions has been suggested every year, only to be forgotten till the next episode of eye-watering prices. The emergency decision to import certain kinds of lentils was so low relative to the scale of the demand for pulses in India as to once again beg the question of whether the government was serious about solving the problem.
Instead of short-term responses, the Centre and the states need to dramatically increase funding for agricultural research and agricultural universities to develop better seeds and fertilisers, including varieties better able to thrive in the face of water shortages. Average landholdings are a mere 1.15 hectares - but this is all the more reason for urgent action. Drip feed irrigation is also a priority as the water paucity crisis unfolds daily. Agricultural growth is limping along at about two per cent - some experts predict it might actually slip further this year - while the rest of the economy is growing at more than seven per cent. This disparity in prospects does not bode well when agriculture still employs more than half the population. As a recent series of reports in this newspaper showed, the crisis now extends from supposedly rich agrarian states like Punjab - where the whitefly, abetted by an unusually extended hot weather period, has wreaked havoc on cotton farmers - to rubber farmers in Kerala, who have been clobbered by a collapse in prices. The limits of short-term responses to forces as unyielding as climate change and embedded low productivity on India's small farms have been on display all this year. It is time for the government to act.