After dithering over whether India is facing a drought or not, the Centre has finally admitted that a crisis is upon us. On Sunday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh confirmed that there’s a hydrological drought and 141 districts have been hit; we’ll have to wait till September to get a confirmation of an agricultural drought. That the situation is more than grim is evident from the fact that
Mr Singh himself met the chief secretaries of the states on Sunday and asked them to “immediately” kickstart contingency plans for crops, drinking water and human and animal health.
There were tell tale signs from the winter of 2008 that this year would be tough, doubly tough if the monsoon failed. This is because the winter rains of 2008 were below normal, which meant that the moisture level of the soil was already down. Then came the monsoon’s vanishing act. Every time a drought happens, the signs are evident in June; this year was no different. So why this delay in rolling out contingency plans? What we now have is a clinical assessment of the situation when there should have been a constant monitoring of rainfall given that it supports the largest private sector business i.e. agriculture.
The government has assured us that our granaries are over-flowing, no doubt a confidence-building measure. But when one crop cycle fails and offtakes by the states increase, our buffer stocks will not look as healthy as they are now. The Centre has also asked farmers to start growing less water-intensive coarser grains. A good move but this again is an emergency measure because our farm policies and price-support systems never encouraged these crops. The focus has always been wheat and paddy. India is a country of marginal farmers and in these hard times, it is imperative that they are protected. The prices of essential items have also skyrocketed and, therefore, the government must ensure that hoarders and speculators are firmly dealt with. Last, but not the least, the Public Distribution System has to work effectively but fixing a leaking tap at this juncture will not be easy. That should have been done much earlier, drought or no drought. The political price of a drought and rising prices could be severe on an incumbent government. The Congress, hopefully, is well aware of this considering there are a couple of Assembly and bypolls in the coming months.