The alarm bells have already started ringing: thanks to a whimsical monsoon that has refused to keep its date, many parts of the country are facing a drought-like situation. This has also led to concerns about rising food prices and according to economists, inflation may touch 8% very soon. But why is it that one bad monsoon has triggered such a widespread fear of a drinking water crisis and harvest losses? This is because along with our focus on water-intensive crops like sugarcane and the excessive dependence of agriculture on the aquifers, which are depleting fast, successive central and state governments have failed to drought-proof the country. After the severe drought of 2002, many in the Union and state governments finally realised that drought is not a “rainfall disaster but a condition created more out of mismanagement of rainfall”. So when the UPA 1 came to power in 2004, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), which later was rechristened the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, was launched with the intention of building durable assets like canals and water reservoirs across the country to ensure that India is water sufficient in the lean periods. But despite spending a humongous Rs. 1,10,000 crore as wages to 1,200 crore people since 2006, the water storage capacity has not improved much and it is not a surprise that six years after the programme was launched with much promise and fanfare, we are again staring at a water scarcity. This year the monsoon is normal in only one-third of the country and it has been 40% below average in crop-growing areas in the north and northwest.
Last week, while releasing a report on the implementation of the marquee scheme, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and rural development minister Jairam Ramesh admitted that the scheme has failed to make the expected impact because of misappropriation of funds and resources and its patchy implementation in several states. However, in places where it has worked, farmers have managed to tide over the deficit monsoon thanks to adequate water storage. But the country lost out a lot of this advantage because out of the total works created, at least 50% have not been completed or have been abandoned halfway. And the ones that were completed face another old Indian problem of not planning and allocating funds and personnel for the maintenance of these important structures. Moreover, not all states have managed to use the MNREGS funds uniformly. This is suicidal for a country where 68% of net sown areas are drought-prone.
It is important for the government to look into the potential of the MNREGS and shore it up because it is the cheapest irrigation mode available for the government. According to a Centre for Science and Environment report, it costs one-tenth of the current average of R1.5 lakh per ha of irrigation. So it is imperative that we don’t lose sight of the aim of drought-proofing the country and the role that MNREGS can play to realise that important goal.