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A drought of ideas

Every year, the first signals of a weak/delayed monsoon in India spark off the fear of an imminent drought. What follows is a predictable script: states start clamouring for funds to fight the drought and the Centre evaluates their demands. This year is no different.

india Updated: Jul 29, 2009 22:59 IST

The poor take the brunt of an unpredictable monsoon. We need to manage things better.

Every year, the first signals of a weak/delayed monsoon in India spark off the fear of an imminent drought. What follows is a predictable script: states start clamouring for funds to fight the drought and the Centre evaluates their demands.

This year is no different. The late monsoons means that both farmers and the government are worried about the repercussions, given that the things on the economic front are not exactly up there in the bright lights.

Though the late-July rains have brought some relief, everyone’s a bit jumpy about things. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar on Tuesday allayed fears of a drought in northwestern India, the country’s grain bowl, but pinned his hopes on predictions made by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD).

It appears that we might see a “better than normal monsoon” in August, higher than that in July. In the words of the IMD, we might just have “101 per cent rain in August” as against 82 per cent in July. Meanwhile, the Centre has released Rs 271 crore from the Calamity Relief Fund to four states: Assam, Bihar, Manipur and Uttar Pradesh. During a discussion in Parliament, BJP MP Gopinath Munde urged the Centre to consider a fresh loan waiver to farmers who have had to abandon sowing or may have lost their seed after the rains failed.

There is no doubt that immediate relief must be given to the farmers who have suffered. But, rather than debating and haggling over the quantum of money that should be released to the states, it would be far more profitable if the discussion focused on how to drought-proof the country.

This is vital considering that drought is something we have come to live with in many parts of India. If we go by the trend of past years, there’s no doubt that more areas will come under the drought-prone area category in future. Between the two monsoon-related disasters — drought and floods — the former has a longer gestation period.

It takes three to four months to show its impact and also lingers long after the monsoon. Its impact is crippling and enduring. It is true that deficit monsoon triggers drought but what is equally true is that its intensity is dictated by local situations like the capacity to cope with disaster and inadequate water and forest management.

Since the maximum impact of a drought is on the poor, it is imperative to take up the issue of drought-proofing on a war-footing.

The NREGS was seen as a good measure to increase the number of water harvesting structures. It did some good work in certain areas in the country. But more needs to be done, especially as it goes into its next round.

Drought and its aftermath cannot be taken as an easy ride for those who are in charge of it. It is literally a matter of life and death for people. The faster we manage it, the more lives we will be able to save.