If there’s one thing that bothers me it is this — why, when there are four full-fledged ministries charged with the responsibility of taking care of farmers, water and rural issues, should India 2009 undergo the pain and pathos of drought. We need to ask why, after 62 years of democracy — a process that has astonishing informational results in prevention of famines — there is a drought in Western Rajasthan every two years, in Gujarat and Western UP every three years, in Karnataka every four years and in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar every five years.
Or why, with ministries of agriculture, consumer affairs, rural development and water resources to oversee the well being and address the problems of farmers and rural India, those who they purport to support are no better. Why, after six decades of freedom, 60 per cent of India’s agriculture is dependent upon rainwater. Why ground water has been virtually emptied, irrigation projects have turned the pockets of contractors green rather than the fields of farmers and no effort been made to build the health of India’s soil.
Nobody — and certainly not the farmers I spoke to — is saying that frail humans should fight the gods and force the clouds to release rains. “What can the government do,” Mohan Singh Birodia, 66, a farmer with 1.5 acres in Uttarakhand where he grows peaches, plums and tomatoes asked me. “If rains don’t come, nobody can help us.”
His is a fatalistic response coming from a farmer whose weathered blue shirt matches the sky above, a sky that’s heated up so much over the past decade due to climate change that apples have all but disappeared from this area. But it’s not entirely correct. True, rains need to come in order that crops grow. But equally, rainwater needs to be systematically harvested so that farming as a profession works out — Birodia’s neighbour Dewan Singh Negi, 59, has 25 acres but runs his household on the income he gets from the veterinary research body nearby, where he works as a lab assistant.
What Birodia and Negi need to ask Sharad Pawar, the minister for consumer affairs, food and public distribution — as well as agriculture — is this: how is it that when he oversees one commission and council, three departments, five autonomous boards, 60 agencies, institutes and centres and about a dozen other state-funded organisations with the sole mandate to serve farmers through organisation, marketing, technology in areas as varied as horticulture, fisheries, cotton technology, soil salinity and statistics... how, then, is the lot of farmers not getting better?
Or — and this might hurt the incumbent agriculture and food bureaucracy — just what are the thousands of people employed in these lofty organisations with unquestioned job security and pensions, actually doing?
Pawar is responsible for the formulation of policies for availability of essential commodities, the management of the food economy, ensuring remunerative rates for farmers and supply of foodgrains at reasonable prices to consumers through the public distribution system. Where is the delivery?
They need to ask C.P. Joshi, the minister for rural development what’s going on in the programmes he’s allegedly responsible for.
Or what is the update on his Drought Prone Area Programme? Or, apart from a fancy report, impressively titled Movement Towards Ensuring People’s Drinking Water Security in Rural India, what action has been taken to ensure that people in rural areas get clean drinking water, even as we, in urban areas, flush the same drinking water down our toilets.
They need to ask Pawan Kumar Bansal, the minister for water resources, what planning, policy formulation, minor irrigation programmes and ground water development he has done. The ministry’s 10-point agenda is impressive and covers everything from water balance and flood control to financing and participatory irrigation management. There are nine water-related boards, commissions, research stations and institutes he oversees but the farmers are where they were.
No sane person will expect the government with its endless bureaucracy and institutions behind it to fix the drought in one season. But equally, I am slowly coming to a view that successive governments have neither taken agriculture seriously nor care a dry grass blade for farmers. To them, farmers are a tool to get into power. Worse, the only party that could provide some opposition and create some political discomfort to dispel this policy and execution inertia, the BJP, is by all estimates, imploding.
Meanwhile, a falling share of agriculture in India’s gross domestic product to 17 per cent today is part of an evolutionary growth of an economy that moves from the farm to manufacturing to services. But leaving 60 per cent of India’s population behind, to eke out a life on that shrunk GDP is bad governance.
As a result, these 660 million have to make ends meet from a small kitty of about Rs 8,16,000 crore, or about Rs 12,364 per person per annum, or Rs 1,030 per month. This, however, is just a statistical number; the real income would be lower since the difference between a few large farmers and a many marginal ones is large. A drought in this already diminishing sector, takes its toll on the lives of the most vulnerable, pushing them one step further towards the edge, forcing them to ask uncomfortable questions about the next crop, the next rain, the next meal.