Be­fore You Rain­dance…

A fore­cast of heavy show­ers not­with­stand­ing, In­dia needs pro­tec­tion from un­re­li­able mon­soons

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Hi­mang­shu Watts

In­dia is re­joic­ing. The weather of­fice has cured the country’s col­lec­tive PMT – pre-mon­soon ten­sion – with a fore­cast of heavy show­ers af­ter two droughts that dev­as­tated the ru­ral econ­omy.

Ex­perts, pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als and sec­tions of in­dus­try sud­denly aban­doned their gloomy out­looks and started paint­ing a rosy pic­ture at 4pm last Tues­day when the In­dia Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal De­part­ment, the country’s most re­spected and cred­i­ble weather fore­caster, said that this year’s mon­soon will be 6% above nor­mal.

Every­body is now con­vinced that the weather gods will de­liver a magic wand that will lower in­fla­tion, cut in­ter­est rates, raise ru­ral in­come, gen­er­ate de­mand for a wide spec­trum of goods and ser­vices, and that In­dia will shine once again.

A lot of this is prob­a­bly true. The country badly needs a break from two years of ad­verse weather and over­stated pes­simism. But for the medium to long term, the eu­pho­ria is dis­turb­ing – be­cause it may di­vert at­ten­tion from grim re­al­i­ties.

In­dia is a wa­ter-stressed country with prim­i­tive ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems. It plants wa­ter-guz­zling crops like sug­ar­cane in drought-prone re­gions. Its wa­ter stor­age sys­tem is hope­lessly in­ad­e­quate. Ground­wa­ter is de­plet­ing alarm­ingly. Every­body takes it for granted that wa­ter sup­ply should be free and un­lim­ited. And wa­ter is used most in­ef­fi­ciently and waste­fully de­spite the short­age.

The govern­ment has cor­rectly ac­corded top pri­or­ity to ir­ri­ga­tion and ru­ral de­vel­op­ment and sub­stan­tially in­creased funds for re­lated schemes in this year’s bud­get. It is im­por­tant that th­ese ini­tia­tives and poli­cies are im­ple­mented with the same sense of ur­gency with which the schemes were for­mu­lated be­fore the weather of­fice changed the mood of the country.

This is im­por­tant be­cause even if we get per­fect rain­fall this year, the fact re­mains that the mon­soon has in­creas­ingly be­come un­re­li­able in the past decade. In­dia faced a drought in three of the past seven years, in­clud­ing a se­vere one in 2009, which was the worst in 37 years. That’s an av­er­age of one ev­ery 2.3 years, which doesn’t leave any room for com­pla­cency, and cer­tainly not eu­pho­ria.

There is no doubt that good rain­fall is good news. But this does not change the fact that 68% of the country is drought-prone. Half of this vul­ner­a­ble re­gion is chron­i­cally drought-prone.

There’s an ur­gent need to drought-proof vil­lages, which has been demon­strated in lo­calised schemes with the help of non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions (NGOs). But this needs to be scaled up. Which means need­ing un­flinch­ing at­ten­tion of key au­thor­i­ties rang­ing from cen­tral govern­ment to the dis­tricts, or the PM, CM and DM.

Food Se­cu­rity

Abigger area of con­cern is the dan­ger to In­dia’s food se­cu­rity. Food de­mand and con­sump­tion is ris­ing in step with a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion and in­come. But agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tiv­ity re­mains pa­thetic be­cause of poor soil qual­ity, er­ratic rain, small land hold­ings, skewed use of fer­tilis­ers and in­ef­fi­cient agri­cul­tural mar­kets. As a re­sult, In­dia, once a big corn ex­porter, has turned into an im­porter. The im­pact on the price of pulses is painfully ob­vi­ous.

If In­dia gets an­other two suc­ces­sive droughts af­ter a few years – and it may even be three, given the chang­ing cli­mate and in­creas­ingly er­ratic weather phe­nom­ena – the country may need large-scale food im­ports at high prices. It will also lead to an­other bout of sus­tained in­fla­tion, like it hap­pened af­ter the drought in 2009. It took many years for in­fla­tion to calm down af­ter the drought made it gal­lop, although it re­mained tame af­ter the sub­se­quent droughts, for which the govern­ment de­serves credit.

Grow­ing Rest­less­ness

There is an­other dis­turb­ing de­vel­op­ment that can have scary con­se­quences next time the mon­soon fails. There is an in­creas­ing sense of an­guish and rest­less­ness among the poor – even bet­ter-off com­mu­ni­ties like the Jats who went on a ram­page, blocked high­ways and dis­rupted wa­ter sup­ply to Delhi.

The sta­tis­ti­cally in­clined may ar­gue that droughts don’t mat­ter be­cause agri­cul­ture’s share in the econ­omy has fallen from about 50% in the years af­ter In­de­pen­dence to about 15%. But given the fact that most In­di­ans still de­pend on farms for the- ir liveli­hood, the shrink­ing share also re­flects grow­ing in­come dis­par­ity. And grow­ing anger.

This year, the anger of droughthit vil­lagers in Ma­ha­rash­tra has cast a shadow on the IPL cricket tour­na­ment, which ap­peared to many to be a tawdry dis­play of glam­our, wealth, power and so­cial ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity at a time when im­pov­er­ished farm­ers were des­per­ate. The fact that vast quan­ti­ties of wa­ter were be­ing used to keep cricket grounds clean and green was un­ac­cept­able to many vil­lagers, TV an­chors and the Bom­bay High Court, which has kicked IPL matches out of the droughthit state af­ter April 30.

This sounds eth­i­cally cor­rect. But the fact re­mains that the cricket sta­dia in Mum­bai, Nag­pur and Pune have been us­ing only a very tiny frac­tion of wa­ter that Ma­ha­rash­tra con­sumes. Also, the green grass was not be­ing main­tained with wa­ter snatched from parched vil­lages.

But this could set an alarm­ing prece­dent. Ru­ral dis­tress has up­set a cricket tour­na­ment this year. Next time, the tar­get could be cars, up­mar­ket neigh­bour­hoods, glitzy malls, or cel­e­brat­ing Holi. So don’t let the cel­e­bra­tion of a good mon­soon fore­cast come in the way of ur­gent work needed to im­prove In­dia’s wa­ter se­cu­rity and to in­su­late vil­lages from drought. And don’t frown at pro-farmer mea­sures in this year’s bud­get.

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