STOP THE KILLING FIELDS

Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

Tour sea­son of de­spair. This year, it would seem, the HIS IS gods have been most un­kind to In­dian farm­ers. Early in the year came the weird weather events, like hail­storms and freak and un­timely rains that de­stroyed stand­ing crops. No­body knew what was hap­pen­ing. Af­ter all, each year we wit­ness a nat­u­ral weather phe­nom­e­non called the Western Dis­tur­bance, winds that em­anate from the Mediter­ranean and travel east­ward to­wards In­dia. What was new this year was the sheer “freak­i­ness” of th­ese dis­tur­bances, which brought ex­treme rain with un­usual fre­quency and in­ten­sity. More im­por­tantly, in­stead of “break­ing” over the Hi­malayas, as th­ese dis­tur­bances are prone to do, th­ese winds with mois­ture travel led east­ward to­wards Ben­gal and even south­ward to­wards Mad­hya Pradesh. Me­te­o­rol­o­gists were spooked.

And farm­ers, watch­ing their stand­ing crops de­stroyed be­fore their eyes, were caught off guard. Their pain was pal­pa­ble. My col­leagues who went to understand what was hap­pen­ing in ru­ral Ut­tar Pradesh af­ter th­ese events came back with tales of ut­ter shock .Farm­ers were al­ready caught in a spi­ral of debt be­cause of the in­creas­ing cost of agri­cul­ture and now this. It was noth­ing less than car­nage.

But this was only the be­gin­ning of the year, the first crop­ping sea­son. Then came the whop­per of a drought sea­son, linked to El Niño—warm­ing of the Pa­cific that gives the mon­soon a fever.In many parts of the coun­try, this would be the sec­ond or third or even the fourth con­sec­u­tive mon­soon fail­ure. It is a ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion, with no wa­ter for crops, live­stock or drink­ing in many parts.

The ques­tion is: will it end soon, or is it a be­gin­ning, a glimpse of what the fu­ture looks like? The an­swer to this ques­tion holds the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death, lit­er­ally.

The fact is if we dis­miss this sea­son of de­spair as a freak year, then we will never put into place the cor­rec­tions so des­per­ately needed in a fu­ture that is even more risky and makes us even more vul­ner­a­ble. Me­te­o­rol­o­gists will tell you that the weather is be­com­ing more er­ratic, more con­found­ing and definitely more dev­as­tat­ing. Even if they hes­i­tate to use the word “cli­mate”, they will agree that some­thing new is afoot.In other words, this is not just nat­u­ral weather vari­abil­ity, but por­tends long-term changes. So what do we do? First, we need to in­vest big time in weather sci­ences. This is where our fu­ture se­cu­rity lies. Mon­soon is our fi­nance min­is­ter and it is not just capri­cious, but per­haps the most glob­alised In­dian. We need to in­vest in the science of mon­soons and weather fore­cast­ing.In the last bud­get, there was across-the-board cut in the money al­lo­cated to all sci­en­tific min­istries. This means in­sti­tu­tions fol­low­ing and learn­ing the mon­soon, like the Pune-based In­dian In­sti­tute of Trop­i­cal Me­te­o­rol­ogy, could see as much as a 25-30 per cent re­duc­tion in their an­nual bud­get. This is short-sighted, if not down­right fool­ish. We need to spend more, not less, on this life­line science.

Sec­ond, we need to do much more to fix our agrar­ian cri­sis. It is clear that farm­ers are caught in a dou­ble bind.On the one hand, costs of all in­puts, par­tic­u­larly labour and wa­ter, are in­creas­ing and on the other hand, there are con­trols on food prices. Our food pric­ing pol­icy is built on the premise that we are a poor coun­try, so con­sumers must be pro­tected. But this means farm­ers—who are also con­sumers of food—are not paid re­mu­ner­a­tive prices for their prod­uct.And all the big talk about dereg­u­la­tion and ease of do­ing busi­ness never makes it to their fields. They are re­strained in where they can sell; prices are ar­ti­fi­cially “fixed”; and when short­ages grow, gov­ern­ment rushes to buy from heav­ily sub­sidised global farms. This can­not go on.

Third, we need to plan for de­vel­op­ment know­ing that weather will be more vari­able and more ex­treme. This means do­ing all that we know has to be done. There is no rocket science here. Build wa­ter and drainage in­fra­struc­ture that can both hold wa­ter when there is ex­cess rain and recharge ground­wa­ter when rain fails. Again, in this bud­get, the gov­ern­ment has slashed in­vest­ment in ir­ri­ga­tion.We are not even us­ing the op­ti­mal po­ten­tial of ru­ral em­ploy­ment to build wa­ter se­cu­rity.We have just not un­der­stood that in a cli­mate-risked In­dia, wa­ter has to be our ob­ses­sion. In­fra­struc­ture—ev­ery­thing from cities and roads to ports and dams—must be built in a way that they are com­pli­ant with best en­vi­ron­men­tal safe­guards.

Fourth, know­ing that build­ing re­silience and adapt­ing to th­ese changes is not enough, we need to vastly strengthen sys­tems to com­pute farm­ers ’loss and pay for dam­age—quickly and prop­erly.At present, our so-called crop in­sur­ance schemes are poorly de­signed and even more poorly ex­e­cuted. Once again, this can­not go on.

Let’s get our heads out of the sand and smell the wind. Only then can we stop the killing fields.

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