Before You Raindance…
A forecast of heavy showers notwithstanding, India needs protection from unreliable monsoons
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.
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.
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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