The Indian meteorological department has lowered the monsoon estimates, from 95% of the long-term average that was first forecast in April to 93%, calling it below-normal monsoon. While the northeast is expected to get 99% of what it gets normally, the shortfall is to the tune of 93% in southern India and more pronounced at 85% in the northwest regions.
Drought conditions building up
With El Nino - warm Pacific currents - likely to develop in August and strengthen further in September, the likelihood of an impending drought stares ahead. Even though private weather company Skynet has predicted 25% chances of a drought building up, I am worried at the plight and suffering the millions of small and marginal farmers across the country will entail. With farmers already reeling under mounting debt and faced with a terrible agrarian distress, any shortfall in monsoon can put the deteriorating household economy back by several years.
What pains me is the deliberate effort to view the deficient monsoon only in terms of fall in growth. Many economists on television channels have been saying repeatedly that the failure to push economic growth because of low agricultural production will mean that the overall economic growth will remain subdued, as a result of which, the Reserve Bank will not be able to lower interest rates.
Instead of worrying about the GDP (gross domestic product) growth rate, it is high time that the entire focus of the new government should be on minimising the harmful impact on the livelihood of millions of small and marginal farmers. This is the time to channelise the entire government machinery towards fighting the impending drought in a way that helps mitigate the economic suffering, and at the same time, take appropriate steps to save the standing crops and put in place a contingency plan. For this, there is an immediate need to first set up a war room in the cabinet secretariat to monitor the drought conditions on a daily basis.
Lessons from 1987
I remember it was in 1987 that the country was faced with one of the worst droughts of the previous century. Almost the entire 147 million hectares of the cultivable area was affected. But that was also the year when the country had a food-grain buffer of 20 million tonnes. A meticulously planned food management programme, ensuring the availability of food-grains in the deficit areas together with timely availability of inputs such as diesel, electricity and canal water helped tide over the crisis. Probably that was the first time after Independence that a massive drought did not lead to starvation and hunger.
What can be done
A lot has changed between 1987 and 2014. But still, drought remains a nightmare for farmers as well as the government. This year, India already has a surplus food stock of 62 million tonnes, which is enough to keep normal food supplies in place and also ensure food inflation is under control. Besides stocking diesel supplies to augment groundwater irrigation in the deficit states, important equally is to make available fodder and cattle feed for the animals. In any drought-like situations, it is the livestock that bears the brunt first but receives the least attention.
In addition to ensuring that farmers get adequate power supply to keep the tubewells running, it would have been much more fruitful if the Ministry of Agriculture had launched a nationwide campaign encouraging farmers to make an immediate shift to sowing paddy, main kharif crop, with less water. The entire agricultural machinery, including agricultural universities and the state agricultural departments along with the private agribusiness companies, should have been involved in promoting the SRI (system of rice intensification) method of rice cultivation, which saves almost 30 to 40% water. In addition, a massive thrust should also have been on the direct sowing of paddy, instead of the water-guzzling transplanting that we see across the country.
Agriculture is the biggest employer in the country. Almost 70% of the population is engaged in farming directly or indirectly. In addition to the low agricultural growth, what is more important is the loss of livelihoods reflected through farm suicides and increased rural-urban migration. A strong and economically viable agriculture is the foundation on which the entire economy grows. More the purchasing power in the hands of villagers, greater is their ability to purchase consumer goods, which moves the wheels of economic growth. It is, therefore, important to provide an economic stimulus package of at least Rs. 1-lakh crore to agriculture.
The moment I talk about an economic stimulus for farmers, I encounter an orchestrated uproar. But what we don't realise is that at the time of the global economic crisis in the year 2008-09, Indian industry was given a stimulus package of Rs. 3-lakh crore. This package continued to be doled out for almost three years. If the industry can be given a huge stimulus for three years, why shouldn't the poor farmers also get the benefit? It is high time the animosity towards rural India ends. Perhaps Prime Minister Narendra Modi will see merit in providing a bailout package to millions of hapless farmers.
(The writer is food security analyst. Views expressed are his personal)