The country’s lucky run in the last two years with a normal southwest monsoon has ended, with at least four States — Karnataka, Haryana, Rajasthan and Maharashtra — now declaring themselves drought-hit. Gujarat too is severely affected as the sluggish monsoon has not reached its crucial sowing areas.

In the northwest, where monsoon has been 35 per cent deficient, farmers in Punjab and Haryana have had to incur higher input costs to pump groundwater for saving the standing paddy crop. The two States are irrigated but water releases from depleted reservoirs have been restricted to conserve supply for drinking and power generation purposes.

In another adverse development, at the Himalayan foothills and in the eastern and northeastern sectors, orchards, paddy crop, and horticulture plantations have been hit by cloudbursts and floods.

The southwest monsoon, as it is largely known, is the lifeline of the summer paddy crop, more so for 60 per cent farmers who are dependent on rain to raise the crop.

The desperate times have triggered desperate measures — there are reports of farmers in the worst-hit Karnataka selling their livestock and their counterparts in Marathwada (Maharashtra) disposing of sugarcane as fodder. In some rain-fed areas, farmers with small holdings deferred planting of major crops in mid-July after it became evident that monsoon rainfall would be below normal.

The average 19 per cent monsoon deficiency in the country so far may not be as crippling as it was in 2009 when rice production alone fell by more than eight million tonnes over the previous year. But it is bad enough for the water levels in dams and wells to dip, and the acreage of paddy, pulses and coarse cereals to decline. In Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Gujarat the problem of drinking water and fodder availability for livestock is severe.

Kharif production is likely to be lower by 5-6 per cent, but more importantly this situation will affect the market sentiment. The prices of pulses, oilseeds and sugarcane are already rising and the government may soon have to impose stock-limits to check hoarding.

Not only has the country’s luck with a normal monsoon run out this season but expectations of a bumper harvest will also be hit. Last year, the country had a record foodgrains production of nearly 257 million tonnes.

With a National Food Security Bill pending approval of Parliament, the government was hoping to match, if not exceed, last year’s level of production.

But there is a likelihood of decline in the output of arhar and moong dals, maize, jowar, bajra, ragi and groundnut. Efforts are on to make up the over 50-lakh hectare shortfall in kharif sowing through cultivation of alternative crops (castor instead of groundnut or jowar, bajra for fodder) and by early sowing of rabi (wheat) crops. Fortunately, the current stocks of rice and wheat are enough to last one and two years respectively.

Funds to States

Last week, the Empowered Group of Ministers on Drought, chaired by Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, fast-tracked availability of budgeted funds to the tune of Rs. 1,900 crore to the worst-hit States of the northwest. It also provided 50 per cent diesel subsidy to farmers who have to delve deeper for pumping water for saving the standing crop.

At the same time, a 15 per cent import duty on oil meal cakes was waived for better availability of feed, even as large-scale export of oil meal cakes continues.

There are two aspects to this year’s drought that stand out: One, the India Meteorological Department proved itself wrong, predicting a near-normal monsoon initially and then declaring that the season’s rainfall would be below 90 per cent of the long period average — sure signs of drought.

Also, in April, the IMD said there was no likelihood of the El Nino effect. However, recently it admitted that El Nino conditions were likely to have an adverse impact on rainfall in August-September.

The government ignored timely warnings from international experts associated with the World Meteorological Organisation on a below-normal monsoon in South Asia this year.

Secondly, the situation points to the need for a concerted, nationwide single-point campaign for water conservation through small projects and revival of traditional water-saving structures in the spirit of catching every drop of rain.

The Punjab and Haryana experience shows that despite reservoir irrigation, farmers were advised to use groundwater for paddy cultivation.

In the absence of crop insurance that could compensate affected farmers, unpaid loans are the foremost cause of suicide and this, as fallout of drought conditions, must be prevented.

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