Love the drought | columns | Hindustan Times
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Love the drought

India’s worst dry period in 91 years could be here. This might be the best chance to start a thousand farm revolutions. But who will lead them? Samar Halarnkar writes on the latest Indian malady.

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 13:08 IST

You have only to have a conversation in south Mumbai to realise how far away it is from India. Much passion is expended in packed — what was that about a downturn? — restaurants over the latest prices of (already overpriced) flats and the latest cars (imported, not Indian). Over the past week that I have been here, I’ve gathered that very few of India’s richest and brightest have heard of the NREGA.

That’s the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the world’s largest attempt to create a modest social security network in a democracy where the rural poor are mostly ignored till the end of their short lives. It guarantees one member from each rural family 100 days of work every year in exchange for their sweat and toil. More than 40 million of India’s poorest rural families have thus been given a livelihood of sorts. If you take an average of five people to a family, that’s more than 200 million people.

The two knee-jerk reactions you hear in India’s islands of affluence like south Mumbai (or south Delhi for that matter) are these:

That’s my money being spent on these handouts!

It will all end up in the hands of corrupt officials and politicians.

First, let’s understand this clearly: It is not likely to be your money. No more than 13.6 per cent of the Indian government’s Rs 9 trillion ($184 billion) expenditure in 2008-09 came from personal income tax. The estimates for next year show that income tax is likely to comprise no more than 11 per cent of state spending. No more than 31 million Indians, or less than 3 per cent of the population, pay tax.

Second, of course there is corruption. Fake payrolls and ghost workers have long bedevilled the NREGA. Corruption is a part of Indian life — so, when did you last slip a Rs 50-note to the constable who pulled you over? — not just the government.

Despite the leaks and the programme’s inability to provide, on average, more than 48 days of work, there is strong evidence that it keeps the worst deprivation at bay. Indeed, on the vast plains of northern India, the NREGA has become a common noun: “Narega”.

With the drought imperiling millions of livelihoods, the government is going to spend much more money on Narega in the coming months. It’s critical that the splurge is impeccably planned and directed.

We have till the end of September to see if things change, but if present meteorological estimates hold good — let’s pray they don’t — India may be facing its worst drought since 1918, the year since when records are available. That’s the conclusion drawn by Himanshu, a columnist at Mint and a Jawaharlal Nehru University professor, who analysed records of annual summer monsoon rainfall since 1918.

As I write this column, the monsoon rainfall of 2009 is 29 per cent short of normal. Last week, worried state governments started emergency spending. Gujarat, a state that has invested more than Rs 27,372 crore (Rs 273 billion) in irrigation over the last decade, has more than doubled power supply to farmers, from eight hours a day to 19, so that water can be pumped to save crops. Gujarat’s farm subsidies of Rs 3,000 crore will immediately increase by up to Rs 15 crore. Maharashtra — faced with withering fields and an election — has upped the money it pays each rural labourer under Narega from between Rs 66 and Rs 80 a day to Rs 120.

Such Band-Aids may not be avoidable, but they cannot be substitutes for a surgical operation. Fattened by four good years, Indian agriculture has managed to hide the terminal decline that affects its vital organs. The drought is a great opportunity — adversity always is — to make some radical lifestyle changes.

Narega’s predecessor, and arguably its inspiration, was Maharashtra’s Employment Guarantee Scheme. It was launched in May 1972, the result of some innovative thinking by state officials who realised that once its mighty capital city (then Bombay) was removed from the economic equation, India’s most industrial state was no better than darkest Bihar. Narega itself was created after the drought of 2002, and India’s biggest advance in agriculture, the Green Revolution, was launched after crippling droughts swept India in the 1960s.

There is much that can be done today, from grand national projects to a village initiative. There are warehouses to be built, dams and canals to be completed, new crops and practices to be tried.

You will find thousands of farm innovations across India’s vast plains. They are run by dreamers, agronomists, workers, visionaries and, of course, ordinary farmers. It is impossible to list them here, but you will read about them soon in this newspaper.

It is time, then, to launch a thousand new revolutions. It is time to address the weaknesses of a system that keeps India dependent on the vagaries of the rains — especially in a world beset by the meteorological uncertainties forced by global warming. It is also time to find someone to lead this grand agricultural overhaul.

With his attention divided between cricket and crops, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar is unlikely to be the man for the job. The Prime Minister picked flat-world pioneer Nandan Nilekani to lead the project to provide all Indians with an identity card. Surely he can find someone to begin the transformation of the livelihoods of more than 600 million Indians?