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SUNDAY ET: Five reasons why a drought in India won't matter

From smarter official response systems to availability of better technology and information flow, India's capacity to handle a drought has improved vastly.

, ET Bureau|
Jul 15, 2012, 01.03 PM IST
Five reasons why a drought in India won't matter
Droughts are those creeping sorts of natural disasters that grab us unawares. Or are they? The south-west (June-September) monsoon, that gives almost 75% of India's annual rainfall, is erratic in one out of four years.
With wide variations in agro-climatic zones, drought is guaranteed somewhere in the country each year, affecting about 50 million people.

Changing weather patterns have accelerated drought attacks. There were six between 1900 and 1950 and 12 in the following 50 years. We have already faced three droughts between 2000 and 2009.

So, if this monsoon produces droughts in some areas - we are nowhere close to that possibility right now - do we have to worry? Not really. There are five reasons for this.


After the 2002-03 drought, the government developed a standard operating procedure on how to tackle water shortage for humans, cattle and crops. Once a drought is officially declared, several things happen at once. The Central government starts rescheduling farm loans, moving water and fodder by rail, hiking food allocation to poor families, creating more jobs. A ministerial task force is set up to take rapid decisions.

Drought-declared states are monitored individually by the Centre. The Essential Commodities Act is used to prevent hoarding, and states get cash for relief programmes. The upshot of these moves is that even though the majority of India's poor families live in rain-fed areas, destitution from loss of farm income is considerably less.


Even a 20% drop in rice production this year will not impact supply after the record harvest last season. The government is holding enough rice and wheat to supply ration shops for three years. This puts a ceiling on consumer foodgrain prices. A sugar shortage is unlikely because sugarcane is grown on irrigated land. Besides, India has plenty left over from last season that can be diverted from exports to the domestic market.

Punters may be betting on a shortage in edible oils and pulses. But the summer's production loss can be compensated by a good winter crop of oil-rich mustard seed and chickpea, India's largest pulse crop. As almost half the edible oils and a fifth of the pulses consumed annually are imported, price and availability are anyway decided by international markets.

Importing a tad extra won't send the market into frenzy. Even coarse grain, mostly fed to livestock and chickens, may eventually not be scarce as more land is being planted with these hardy crops. But consumers will feel the pinch of more expensive green vegetables as fewer farmers in rain-fed areas would be willing to invest in these high-value crops. Milk and meat will also become dearer as fodder prices rise.


The government's Agro-Meteorological Advisory Service daily collects weather, soil, crop, pest and disease information in 550 districts. These advisories reach farmers through various media and a daily SMS service so that they can immediately take remedial action and reduce risk.

The recently-launched National Initiative on Climate Resilient Agriculture is creating district-wide protocols on which crops to grow during prolonged dry spells. The technology exists to grow all the things we want with less water.

Resource conservation technologies such as the System of Rice Intensification, drip irrigation, short-duration crop varieties and drought-tolerant hybrids of summer crops allow farmers to save time, labour, energy, water and nutrients and, thereby, reduce cost of cultivation. If the government can ensure ample supply of seeds and fertilisers in those few days when the rains start and everyone rushes to plant, no farms will lie fallow.


The sharp spike in farm wages in the past two years means more job opportunities are available in villages as roads and communication improve. Income from livestock (sale of milk, meat and poultry) now contributes a third of a small farmer's family income.

As long as fodder is available, village people are able to survive a farming crisis. Moreover, rising commodity prices will partly compensate for the smaller harvest. Even those who plant hay will gain from greater demand for fodder.


Even if the normally drought-prone Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka take a hit, the eastern states of Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha are now far better equipped to pick up the slack. Companies are ready with special promotions and marketing plans to keep their rural customers engaged.

There may be sluggishness in rural sales of big-ticket items like two-wheelers, tractors and TVs, along with agri-inputs. But personal items of daily use continue to sell. Moreover, there is always hope of improved income prospects, translating into higher rural demand, from the second window of opportunity that winter brings.

These are very comforting developments because, bluntly put, droughts can't be prevented. Rains will become even more erratic in future.

From the US to Australia, Argentina to Canada, drought hits everywhere. The difference lies in management skills more than resources. India's management skills, while not at the level of some of these countries, have improved considerably.

We can handle droughts now.

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