In the beginning of the season, the monsoon got delayed due to the effect of cyclone Aila. As a result, the cumulative rainfall from June 1 to July 9 for the country as a whole was 34 per cent below the Long Period Average (LPA). Some regions are suffering more than others, especially northwest India which is 50 per cent below the LPA. In several pockets the sowing is already delayed. This is worrying as it will impact productivity.
The Meteorological Department remains hopeful and is forecasting that much of the deficit will be covered gradually. But it does appear that this year is not going to be very good for agriculture. One will have to monitor the situation carefully for the next few weeks, and see the dispersion and spread of monsoon as 60 per cent of the cropped area in India still depends on the mercy of rains. But at the same time, Indian policy makers cannot just afford to remain silent spectators. They need to get into action right now.
What can the government do to mitigate the potential adverse effects of a poor monsoon? It needs to act, at least, on three fronts. First, it must immediately prepare for some relief work in hard-hit drought prone areas in the form of scaled up NREGA schemes. This will give some employment and income to those who don’t have much agricultural work due to lack of rains. Secondly, scarce water reserves must be carefully used.
This can be ensured by better water management and discouraging water-intensive crops such as sugar or rice. Finally, the imports of all major cropsshould be done at very low duty or no duty. While there are ample reserves of wheat and rice in the country, hovering around 50-million tonnes, there is no need for any panic reaction. Yet, it may be useful to keep the imports of pulses, coarse cereals, edible oils, and sugar at zero import duty.
For the medium to long term, Indian policy makers need to learn two important lessons. India simply cannot afford to neglect investments in irrigation structures of all types— large, medium, and small-scale water harvesting. A few years back the Prime Minister had announced setting up of the Rainfed Authority of India. One may ask what has been achieved so far? More than 400 irrigation projects are stuck due to lack of funds.
Unless our policy makers make huge investments in the irrigation sector and carry out an overhaul of irrigation departments to stop leakages and improve water-use efficiency, Indian agriculture will remain hostage to the monsoon. It’s the poor of India who have to bear the brunt of the misplaced priorities of the government.
Then, it’s also important to scale up rainfall insurance among farmers. Although a beginning has been made in this direction, yet we are far from the goal. All credits for crop loans should be tied with insurance premiums. Also, evaluation processes for reimbursement, in case of crop failures, have to be simplified and made more transparent. Only then can India hope to improve the lot of our farmers and agricultural workers.
Ashok Gulati is the Director (Asia), International Food Policy Research Institute