In 2009, the Indian Meteorological Department, or IMD, predicted a "near normal" monsoon. But the year saw one of the worst droughts in recent times. So this year, with the IMD projecting a "below normal" monsoon, alarm bells have already begun to toll. For a government struggling to keep runaway food inflation under control, there appears to be more trouble ahead.
Although it is early to assess its impact on the kharif crop, and the cascading effect that will have on food prices, a weak monsoon is likely to make matters worse. The IMD expects us to believe that strong and weak phases are a common feature of monsoons. But it is the geographical spread and the intensity of the monsoon that have always kept policy planners on tenterhooks. With the warning of a weak monsoon having already been sounded, one expects the government to swing into action and prepare for contingencies in agriculture, water resources and power.
But that may not happen, simply because in the past the government has failed to demonstrate its preparedness to meet any eventuality arising from a failure of the monsoon.
While the impact of a weak monsoon on agriculture is always measured in terms of a shortfall in production, it is the resulting agrarian distress that is much more worrying. Since 60 per cent of the farm sector is completely dependent on the monsoon, determining its spatial distribution and duration is crucial for perspective planning. There have been years when monsoons have appeared to be normal, yet parts of the country have either gone dry or witnessed severe floods. Last year, Bihar and Jharkhand witnessed severe drought while the rest of the country received bountiful rains. This year, the forecast is for a break in monsoon after its normal entry in June in the northwestern parts of the country, and thereafter the rains coming in lesser intensity over the south peninsular region comprising Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
If the droughts of 1987, 2002, 2004 and 2009 are anything to go by, any significant shortfall in rainfall intensity and its geographical spread will spell doom for the beleaguered farming community.
While the hapless farmers wait endlessly for the rains, it is the resulting agrarian distress that pushes them deeper and deeper into the quagmire of poverty and hunger. Even if the rains come on time in June and then disappear for the next two months, and then again there is a heavy downpour in August, the average performance would be termed near normal. But in the process, the entire freshly-sown crop would have withered away necessitating either re-sowing or, for many, abandoning the kharif crop altogether.
In the event of crop failure and re-sowing (for which seed comes at an exorbitant price), the sale of cattle is the first sign of distress. Eventually, there is forced migration pushing from the heartland of Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh to the cities in search of menial jobs. I have often seen farmers and farm workers migrating to places as far as the cold desert of Ladakh, even though they are not used to its harsh climate. The search for a minimal livelihood can take them anywhere. If the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was working efficiently, I see no reason why such large-scale migrations would not have been contained by now.
To make matters worse, the paltry drought relief doled out by governments only adds to the farmers' misery. Despite the digital revolution and satellite imageries, drought assessment has remained primitive. For several years now, reports of drought relief cheques of Rs 10, Rs 30 and Rs 110 have been in the headlines.
For business and industry faced with recession in 2009, the government had doled out an attractive economic revival package which has still not been withdrawn. But for the poor farmers and landless labourers reeling under a bad spell of monsoon, and somehow surviving on the margins, the government has invariably failed to provide a farm revival package.
What is not being realised is that the farmer is not only a producer but also a consumer. Unlike in the United States where the consumer is not a producer, in India 60 per cent of the population comprising farm producers are also consumers. A farmer needs money in hand to indulge in some levels of consumption.
A healthy and vibrant rural economy, therefore, can have a domino effect on the national economy. Unless all-out efforts are made to prop up the sagging farm sector, trade and industry will fail to show the desired results. The warning of an impending drought is a perfect time to bring in suitable policy initiatives that can change the face of the rural economy. After all, let us not forget agriculture remains the mainstay of the Indian economy.
The author is a food policy analyst
Published on: Jul 21, 2011, 12:00 AM IST
Posted by: Navneeta N, Jul 21, 2011, 12:00 AM IST