Thursday, Aug 22, 2002
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By S. Swaminathan
Monsoon failure and drought are not totally unusual in India. But it is a sad commentary on the Government's lukewarm response to the challenges of an agricultural system which continues to be vulnerable to variations in the pattern of precipitation. With only 40 per cent of the gross cropped area protected by assured irrigation facilities and with the agricultural system spanning the country of continental proportions, it may be next to impossible to make reliable forecasts about monsoon behaviour.
So to attribute the current drought to the failure of forecasting may be unfair to the India Meteorological Department. Experts believe that the so- called failure of forecasting is a worldwide phenomenon. According to them, as early as in February there were apprehensions that the El Nino factor would jeopardise the monsoons and thereby agricultural production. Even otherwise, monsoon behaviour in India, particularly that of Southwest Monsoon, which is the determinant of the khariff crop, has been known to be prone to be a four year cycle. Experiential learning should have guided the Government to prepare a contingency plan when we knew that for seven successive years we have had a normal and favourable monsoon.
In the name of planning, the country has spent enormous resources often seeking to link vast expenditure in the rural areas to poverty alleviation, employment generation, and the omnibus cause of rural development. And yet, we have not been able to liberate the farmers from the agony of crop failures and the consequent increase in indebtedness. The paradox is that, with all our policy deficiencies, the country has been able to achieve food self-sufficiency, with even a substantial export capacity. This strange transformation in Indian agriculture came about not through improvements in crop productivity (excepting in the wheat growing areas coming under the Green Revolution) but mainly as a result of price incentives liberally given by the government for farmers cultivating primary cereals, rice and wheat. Food mountains in recent years have exposed the folly of food policy as well as the uncaring, insensitive attitude of the Government towards the poor and the destitute. Is it not legitimate to raise the question why in the absence of a system of social security, universal accessibility to foodgrains has not been introduced at irreducible minimum prices, covering all the people, the poor, the middle class and even the well-to-do. Sounds crazy? This may not be such a fanciful proposition if the agricultural system can be helped to eliminate substantial part of input costs and artificial restrictions on inter-State movements of foodgrains.
Now that the drought has become practically an all India phenomenon, the Government seems to be getting more and more confused about the strategies needed to fight the drought. This notwithstanding the recommendations of dozens of committees during the last 20 years on how the drought has to be met. As M. S. Swaminathan put it recently, there is a mismatch between "what we know and what we do.'' For years we have been talking about drought-proofing, augmenting water-resources through the linking of the rivers in the North and the West with the rivers in the Peninsula, speeding up irrigation projects which have remained uncompleted for lack of funds, water harvesting and conservation. Why is it that all these pledges remain unfulfilled? In more recent times, the concept of village-level grain banks and setting up of agro-info facilities which would guide the farmers on regional/local weather conditions and help them plan their cropping activities prudently, has been widely advocated. Even if voluntary agencies have shown interest in such projects, the government as a whole seems not to be reacting to all such suggestions. Thus, it is that each drought comes to be treated as an unpleasant episode and when once it is past, there is no new learning derived from it. That what applies to droughts is almost a general trend in Government, is the more unfortunate reality.
True, this year's drought is not a calamity of an unprecedented nature. With foodstocks around 60 million tonnes and with a drop in foodgrains output by around 15 million tonnes (which could be compensated by the rabi crop for which the weather and soil conditions appear to have improved), there is no possibility of an acute shortage of grains. But the tough challenge will be how to reach the rural masses with food supplies given the notorious bureaucratic mismanagement of the delivery mechanism in the past two decades. The Prime Minister's announcement about 20 million tonnes of foodgrains being released on liberal terms for the food-for-work programme in the drought affected States is impressive on paper. But it is a grandiose show of concern that is least likely to be translated with credibility. It is now known that only three States out of 28 had made use of this and similar allotment schemes for foodgrains. The States seem more interested in "cashing in on the drought'' through grabbing funds from the Centre in the name of drought relief and in diverting these funds towards meeting their mounting non-Plan expenditure. One question about the food-for- work programme is, why should not this be implemented throughout the year in all the States?
The current drought no doubt, has helped as a mild shock therapy for a government that took agriculture for granted. Panic is not the proper response but a thorough re-appraisal of agricultural policy including procurement prices, food stock management, diversification of agriculture, alternate cropping, speeding up long pending minor irrigation projects and productivity improvements can help convert this adversity into an opportunity.
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