In 2009, when India had its severest drought in three decades, the country managed to produce a million more tonnes of foodgrains than it did in 2007-08, a normal year.
Droughts are no longer the disaster they used to be, thanks to innovative drought-management systems. Largely indigenous and meticulously planned, it hinges on providing timely inputs — such as seeds for alternative crops, power and better agricultural practices.
A good monsoon — which had a normal onset in Kerala on June 1 — results in both a psychological and real respite in a country where two-thirds of Indians depend on farm income. It boosts the output of summer crops, such as rice, sugar, lentils and edible oils.
The country’s farm output has risen sharply — from about 50 million tonnes in 1950-51 to more than 250 million tonnes during 2012-13 — helping avoid a scary “Malthusian world” of food production not keeping pace with population.
“In the British period, drought was a word for famines, which would kill hundreds of thousands,” Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen said.
The Bengal famine of 1943, followed by a missed monsoon, is estimated to have killed up to four million people. The British tackled drought with the Famine Code. “It was essentially related to public works to provide alternative income,” Sen said.
Such famines prompted the British to set up the India Meteorological Office — now the national weather agency — in 1875. Though droughts are no longer synonymous with deaths, the closest India came to a famine after 1947 was in 1965-66 in Bihar due to a drought year.
Since then droughts have become an issue of inflation, balance-of-payments crisis and power shortfall, rather than shortage of foodgrains, Sen added.
Changing from the “Famine Code”, India now handles drought through the agriculture ministry’s Crisis Management Plan, a manual that focuses on “preventive measures in a time bound manner”.
Rainfall monitoring and early warning have been critical to managing droughts. Alternative rice varieties — customised for major farm belts — and well-stocked seed banks help farmers switch to more sturdy crops. In critically rain-deficit areas, farmers are persuaded to avoid big staples and opt for cash crops that need less water.
A drought still drives up food inflation, mainly due to shortfall in the output of non-grains such as pulses, sugar and edible oils and milk.
With the June-to-September rain-bearing system progressing well, India is set to avoid a drought for the fourth straight year. The monsoon is expected to cover more areas of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and southern Andhra Pradesh by Tuesday, says the India Meteorological Department.
For the government, this represents a window of opportunity: inflation levels are the lowest since UPA 2 took office in May 2009 and the rains could help maintain the lid on prices.
“This is the first time since November 2009 that wholesale inflation has decelerated below 5%,” said Upasana Chachra, an economist with Morgan Stanley.