Neglect Turns Drought into a Man-made Disaster

A severe drought has nearly half of India in its grip – and the drought is no bolt from the blue, but has affected various parts of the country for three long years. Yet, there has been a drought of media coverage and political will as well.

Last year nine states were declared officially as drought affected. Yet, in spite of this official acknowledgement, nothing was done by governments to contain or minimise the adverse impacts on human lives and livestock. The framework and guidelines on drought management in the National Disaster Management Act 2005, and the technical knowhow for anticipating and managing drought situations in India exist – yet governments lack the political will to implement them. Two thirds of net sown area in India - about 140 million hectares - is classified as ‘drought prone’; and half of this is classified as ‘severe,’ where drought is chronic.

This year, ten states have declared themselves drought hit. A PIL being heard in Supreme Court filed by the Swaraj Abhiyan states that twelve states are under severe duress: Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Haryana and Chhattisgarh. The government has now accepted that 254 districts out of 676 total are drought-hit, affecting 33 crore people. This amounts to 25% of India’s population and 40% of the land mass. The actual number of suffering people may be even higher, because drought is declared only after 50% crop losses are officially reported (this is now reduced to 33%). The Uttarakhand government has accepted 20 percent losses occurred due to scanty rains, but the ground situation is even more serious. Bihar, Gujarat and Haryana have not declared a drought although rainfall was in deficit by 28%, 14% and 38% respectively.

According to government data about 55 percent of total cropped area is not irrigated. This may be an underestimation, since many irrigation systems (canals etc.) have been rendered ineffective or are underperforming owing to neglect. Only 18 percent of total cropped area is irrigated in Maharashtra, with the rest of the farmers depending upon rains and private bore-wells. Nationally, more than 50 percent farmers have to depend on uncertain rains for agriculture.

India’s agrarian economy’s contribution to the GDP has declined from 52% in the early 50s to less than 14% now. More than 50% of the population still depends on agriculture, and so even a small deviation from normal agricultural output has an immense adverse impact on a vast section of the population.

Droughts lead to increased food insecurity, forced migrations, economic crisis and many more miseries. This drought’s devastating power has increased manifold with the severe water crisis that now is affecting urban and rural populations both. In many parts of country all natural water bodies have completely been dried up. Major reservoirs which are sole source of drinking water for many big cities are at the verge of drying up. With underground water levels going down continuously, water scarcity now threatens even those who are not directly engaged with agriculture or rural India. This should be an urgent wake-up call.

Depleting Water Resources

The underground water table has gone down in almost every region in the country. In areas like central and western Uttar Pradesh, some parts of Madhya Pradesh, Vidarbha and Marathwada of Maharashtra the underground water levels have gone too deep to harvest economically. This has been going on for decades - completely ignored by the planners and policy makers in spite of being aware of the implications. While the state has failed to provide clean water to all, hand pumps and wells - dug individually or by the community - are the main source of water for the poor and deprived. Now, with water levels going down, even the hand pump is out of poor man’s reach; in Gwalior and Morena districts of MP, for example, it now costs Rs. 50,000 to 1 lakh for a hand pump which has to be dug to a depth of more than 400 feet. A similar situation prevails in the most affected regions like Vidarbha, Marathwada or Bundelkhand, but in other regions too, as one can see water levels going down. Even in Bihar – not known to be a water-starved state - many districts are witnessing drought and the water levels are going down year by year. In Bhojpur, the water table used to be 20-40 feet, a couple of decades ago, but now the water table has fallen to 80 feet, while a good quality water well is being dug at 160 feet or more.

The Latur water train is providing remarkable relief to the water-starved town, but this cannot hide the tragic reality of the loss of people’s own water resources and centuries-old rich traditions of water conservation.

It is urgent that these water bodies and methods of water conservation be revived and preserved. A mode of governance that has turned panchayat institutions into mere implementation agencies for various contractor-driven schemes, undermines the role of the democratic institutions of the rural communities in preserving and conserving natural resources.

Shrugging Off Responsibility

The Disaster Management Act 2005 and an official Drought Management Manual describes a definite role for every agency from the Prime Minister’s Office to state government to district level bureaucracy in drought ‘prevention, preparedness, mitigation and management.’ The Prime Minister is the Chairperson of the NDMA.

Yet, the Central Government tried to tell the Supreme Court that it is the primary responsibility of concerned states to declare a state as drought-hit and to make plans to address it. The Supreme Court rapped the Centre on the knuckles, saying, "You are also under a duty to say that everything is not alright, please take remedial measures. If the state does not do so, you have recourse to other sections of the Constitution." The Court also criticised the Gujarat and Haryana governments for presenting outdated facts on rainfall data to underplay the severity of the drought. The Modi Government was unwilling to take up the Supreme Court’s proposal to send a rapporteur to the affected states to conduct a field survey.

The Modi Government has utterly failed even to do what Governments routinely do towards drought relief. The Centre released an amount of Rs. 11,938 crores to ten states against their demand of Rs. 38,667 crores under National Disaster Relief Fund. Out of this, UP with 50 out of a total 75 districts drought-hit, and the whole Bundelkhand region heavily devastated, received Rs. 1305 crores against a demand of Rs. 2058 crores. Earlier it received Rs. 490 crores against the demand of Rs. 4900 crores.

The compensation of Rs. 13500 per hectare (for irrigated lands) provided for by the Government is inadequate even to cover input costs. Moreover, sharecroppers are deprived of compensation in absence of any legal provision for them. Farmers in drought hit areas are still waiting for appropriate compensation and relief from the governments.

A letter to the PM by concerned citizens observes that “the government has not even allocated enough funds this year to sustain the level of employment generated last year... Most alarming today, is that instead of expanding, MGNREGA is all set to contract in this critical drought year, unless financial allocations are vastly expanded.” The letter also observes, “we find no plans in most of the drought-hit regions for feeding the destitute, especially old persons left behind when families migrate, children without care-givers, the disabled and other vulnerable groups. ICDS centres could have been upgraded to supply emergency feeding to the destitute during the drought, but this has not happened.” Also “Arrangements to augment drinking water supply, including ensuring that marginalised hamlets have functioning tube-wells and transporting water where necessary, are awfully inadequate. There are also few attempts to create fodder banks and cattle camps. Most of these measures used to be a routine part of state response to drought, and were often undertaken with a great sense of urgency, but they are barely being considered today.”

Various crop insurance schemes launched so far have proved to be a farce for farmers, and the latest Pradhan Mantri Fasal Beema Yojana (PM Crop Insurance Scheme) is not very different. Though the premium has now been reduced and more farmers to be covered from June onwards, the fact remains that crop insurance tends to protect the insurer more than the insured. The collection of premium is assured by linking it with loans through Kisan Credit Cards; the premium is mandatorily deducted by the bank from the loans given to farmers. Many farmers who avail the credit facility are not even aware of this mandatory provision. The farmers will be liable to insurance cover only when a whole area is declared affected irrespective of losses incurred by individual farmers. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers are not liable to avail insurance, and those who have not taken credit from the bank also will not be covered. Then, insured farmers will be liable for compensation only when highly unlikely conditions of rainfall deficiency and crop losses are met; after that they can receive a compensation which could be less than half of the input costs incurred.

Adverse Effects of Indiscriminate Shift to Commercial Crops

The shift from traditional sustainable crop cycles to commercial crops, driven by the needs of corporate, has further damaged the environment and soil. Many districts in MP have shifted to tomato farming after farmers were encouraged to grow tomatoes. This year there was a bumper yield, but in the absence of any plan to commercially utilise this harvest and with prices in the Mandi falling as low as Rs. 2 per kg, beleaguered farmers are throwing away their harvest is distress. The BJP Chief Minister of MP too had grown tomatoes in his ten bigha farm in Vidisha (the constituency of MEA Sushma Swaraj). In the absence of proper remunerative prices, he ordered that the tomato yield from his fields be sent to the town in trolleys for free distribution among the public. ‘The CM has showed his generosity’, said a local BJP official to the press. Can all the farmers in this state follow in the footsteps of their leader? They can’t even afford the cost of cartage to the Mandi. Instead of displaying his largesse the chief minister could have ensured proper compensation to the tomato growers in his state! This happened just after the national launching of electronic Mandis by the Prime Minister for the ‘benefit’ of farmers. The onion crop also has had very good yields, but farmers have to sell it at as low as 30 paisa per kg in these districts.

Amidst the devastating crisis being faced by one fourth of the nation, there are some who are going to mine gold from the crisis. Drought has given an opportunity to private water supply tankers (generally run by a water mafia in nexus with politicians). This is a fast growing industry now.

India is the second biggest producer and consumer of wheat, and production is expected to fall short of our requirements by ten million tons in the current Rabi season. This can be good news for the international wheat market and Indian brokers who may be eyeing an import of more than ten million tons. India’s wheat reserve should be around 17 million tons, but we do not know how much really exists. Recently wheat worth Rs. 20,000 crores just disappeared from the FCI godowns in Punjab. Banks have provided loans for the purchase of this wheat in last season. Now in view of the crisis and new loan requirements for new season’s procurements the RBI has advised the bankers to just forget what happened and include this sum in the list of NPAs.

What needs to be done? The Government should first declare the country-wide drought to be a national calamity. Agricultural loans and electricity bills in drought-hit regions must be waived, especially for small and marginal farmers. Sharecroppers must be covered by all subsidies and relief and welfare measures, and agricultural labourers must be compensated for livelihood loss. MNREGA, ICDS, Food Security Act and other schemes must be expanded in the drought-hit regions. Above all, the Government cannot just look towards the monsoons for relief; it must implement drought prediction, prevention and management recommendations in all earnest. The neoliberal agrarian policy that has allowed a corporate stranglehold over crop choice, seeds and other aspects of agriculture, must be reversed. The Panchayati Raj structures must be democratised, and communities empowered to conserve local water bodies. An excessive monsoon is forecast this year; the Government must plan ahead so that floods do not follow drought.

Nothing Works for the Farmers

THERE are institutions galore for drought and flood prediction and management – yet, in the absence of political will, the measures that can be taken are neglected.

The Indian Meteorological Department in association with many other agencies regularly monitors the rainfall situation, deficiency in soil moisture, vegetation index etc. up to district level. A Drought Research Unit was established long bank in 1967. A Crop Weather Watch Group assesses various parameters on a weekly basis. The National Agricultural Drought Assessment and Monitoring System (NADAMS) project, currently operative in 13 states, provides information up to sub-district level. A National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting was set up in January 1988.

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), set up as per Disaster Management Act 2005, has the Prime Minister as Chairperson. Disaster Management Authorities at State and District levels are headed by the Chief Ministers and Collectors/Zila Parishad Chairpersons respectively. The Department of Agriculture & Cooperation is assigned the role of coordinating the measures needed in case of drought and the National Disaster Management Cell under the Ministry of Agriculture monitors drought in states as well as availability of resources.

The Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA) is supposed to prepare a contingency plan in collaboration with various Agricultural Universities, ICAR and other agencies.

A National Policy for Disaster Management was formulated in 2009. There is a whole lot of government programmes to mitigate the disastrous effects of drought to ensure employment, food security, supply of fodder to cattle etc. including MNREGA, ICDS, Mid Day Meal, and Food Security Act.

The National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) are provisioned under the DMA for immediate drought relief for the affected farmers.

There are many more programmes and schemes like Integrated Watershed Management Programme (IWMP), National Watershed Development Project for Rainfed Areas, National Food Security Mission, National Horticulture Mission and Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, National Mission on Micro Irrigation etc. – all of which are supposedly meant to build resilience and capacity in agriculture by addressing the issues of land, water and afforestation. Yet, why do farmers and citizens remain so alarmingly vulnerable to drought and floods?

State governments depend on trivial methods like ‘eye estimation’ for the assessment of the drought conditions. The Supreme Court has asked why Governments persist with these inaccurate methods, when drought can be accurately assessed by modern techniques like satellite imagery.


A brief report from Uttarakhand

THE hills of Uttarakhand have experienced deficit railfall which was not seen in decades. It’s difficult to find a trace of green in many of the hill fields now. Sizable parts of Almora district including Salt, Bhikyasain, Dwarahat, Tadikhet, Bhaisiyachhana, Dhauladevi; Betalhat in Nainital district; Syalde and Chaukhutiya; Khirsu and Thailisain (Pauri district), and Gairsain and Karnaprayag (Chamoli district) are drought-hit. Bageshwar, Champavat, Tehri, Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi are also affected. Yet the Harish Rawat Government has only acknowledged a 20% fall in agricultural production. The drought has increased distress migration. Hill farmers have no access to farm loans. They do mostly organic farming with ploughs. What they need is guaranteed Government procurement of the crop. Environmental devastation compounded by low rainfall and snowfall has led to depletion of ground water and levels of river water.

- Purushottam Sharma

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