As the southwest monsoon begins retreating from the northwest, it is clear that the country is staring at another drought, the second in a row. Such back-to-back droughts are uncommon - having occurred only four times in over 100 years. The last such event was in 1986-87. There is yet another peculiarity about this year's drought. It is more of a meteorological drought (with a rainfall deficit of nearly 14 per cent till now) and, to some extent, hydrological drought (with total water stock in 91 major reservoirs having plunged 16 per cent below normal). But it is not a typical agricultural drought barring in Marathwada, adjoining areas in Maharashtra and a few other pockets elsewhere. Though rainfall is significantly below normal in most other regions as well, it has not disrupted crop sowing thanks to well-distributed precipitation during the main planting season of June to August. The total sown area is, therefore, larger than last year's.
However, the situation in Marathwada is disturbing despite the belated showers in the past couple of days in most parts of the southern peninsula. The ongoing wet spell may help. Even fresh sowing may also be possible in areas where the soil moisture improves sufficiently. But the real cause of the woes of the Marathwada, like that of the perpetually water-stressed Vidarbha, is worrisome. These tracts have been hit by repeated droughts in recent years. Yet, not much has been done to enhance their resilience against droughts through measures like rainwater conservation, judicious use of stored water and diversification of crops with greater stress on those that require less water to grow. Water-guzzling crops like sugarcane are unsuitable for this area.
At the national level, this year's drought seems to have been better managed, reflecting the country's improved drought management skills. Indications are that the year-on-year growth in the gross domestic product (GDP) for agriculture and allied sectors may be higher than last year's 0.2 per cent. The credit for this also goes partly to the India Meteorological Department (IMD) for sounding a timely warning about the impending drought. It allowed both the farmers and the government to initiate timely remedial actions. It is noteworthy that the IMD this time got its prediction of 12 per cent rainfall deficiency right. In contrast, private weather forecaster Skymet seems to have failed to visualise a rainfall deficit of this order in its early-season forecasts.
There are other factors as well which inspire confidence in the country's ability to withstand the current drought without much negative impact on agriculture or overall economy. The foodgrain coffers are well-stocked with over 55 million tonnes of rice and wheat, against the buffer-stocking norm of 30.7 million tonnes. Even if the output of predominantly rain-dependent crops like oilseeds and pulses suffers, necessitating higher imports, there are hardly any worries thanks to ample supplies and low prices in the international market. Food inflation may, therefore, remain manageable. The wholesale inflation of non-food items has in any case been in the negative since November. However, given the glorious uncertainties of weather, anything can happen between now and the end of the kharif harvest.