The South-West monsoon has proved to be unpredictable, variable, and uncertain this year — with the official announcement that 177 districts suffer from either drought or drought-like conditions indicating the magnitude of the crisis. Little or no rain, late rain, and heavy rain have all been features of monsoon behaviour so far in different parts of India. Officially, the monsoon ends on September 30, 2009 and it is possible that September will witness heavy rain at some places, leading to floods and damage to crops. For agriculture, what matters is not total rainfall but its distribution. In an era of climate change India, which is home to nearly 20 per cent of the world’s poor, must start planning for cyclical droughts and floods long before they occur. It is crucial to formulate these plans on the understanding that such crises hit the poor, especially agricultural labourers and land-poor peasants, the socially underprivileged sections, and women the hardest. Women are badly affected because they do not have equal access to non-farm employment opportunities and are forced to take up jobs involving high drudgery but low wages. The first priority for the National Crisis Management Committee chaired by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee will be to ensure that the drought relief and rehabilitation programmes are pro-poor, pro-socially-underprivileged, and pro-women.

There have already been symptoms of extreme distress and despair in the drought-affected areas. Suicides by farmers are increasing, leading to greater hardship to widows and children. The distress sale of cattle has begun in Andhra Pradesh and Vidharbha in Maharashtra. This is unfortunate since livestock and livelihoods are closely inter-related in most parts of the country, especially in arid and semi-arid areas. The burden of usury is one of the worst aspects of the life of a small and marginal farmer. Agriculture is a life-giving profession and it is tragic that those who help to feed the country are pushed into taking their own lives.

The Pranab Mukherjee committee will of course be looking at short-term, urgent solutions. Effective price control measures must be thought through and put in place. Access to the public distribution system must be made universal, with an enlarged food security basket being provided under the PDS. There must be large-scale provision of employment in the drought-hit areas, with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme expanded to provide 100 days of work at minimum wages to every working member of a rural household (instead of 100 days of work for the household). But what the committee must also do is to convert the present challenge into an opportunity to fast-track institutional and policy changes that will help insulate the country from serious losses of crops and livelihoods under similar conditions in future. Some of the important steps that need to be taken immediately have been indicated in M. S. Swaminathan’s articles published in this newspaper. They include the launch of a ‘Pond in Every Farm’ movement with the help of NREGS workers; the organisation of Farm Animal Camps near sources of water; a ‘Beyond the Drought’ programme involving the planting of short-duration crops; and a compensatory production programme in areas with adequate soil moisture. The Crisis Management Committee must also plan for short- and medium-term programmes such as the organisation of a ‘Weather Information for All’ scheme based on village level agro-met stations.

Hereafter, the mode of tackling drought and flood must be proactive. This calls for the preparation of drought, flood, and good weather codes designed to reduce the adverse impact of unfavourable weather and maximise the benefits of a good monsoon. Such anticipatory measures will include the building of seed stocks for implementing contingency plans, and water and energy security systems. An important factor behind the relative stability of the prices of wheat and rice is the build-up of substantial grain reserves, which now exceed 50 million tonnes. The government has been wise not to export these grains despite pressure from traders. It is unfortunate that four decades after the beginning of the green revolution, the country has failed to develop modern grain storage structures on a large scale. Professor Swaminathan’s suggestion that the government set up ultra-modern grain storage facilities at 50 locations in the country, with each storage structure capable of handling one million tonnes of wheat or rice, must be implemented without further delay.

In the midst of drought-related crisis management, the challenge of dealing with the impact of climate change on Indian agriculture and rural livelihoods ought not to be ignored. Agreement was reached at the recent G8 Summit held at L’Aquila, Italy that a temperature rise of 2{+0} C over the pre-industrial period cannot be avoided. Even to contain the rise to 2{+0} C, greenhouse gas emissions will have to be reduced by about 40 per cent by 2020. But steps to achieve this goal are nowhere in sight. A 2{+0} C increase in mean temperature will have serious implications for India’s food security system, since the yield of crops like wheat and rice will be reduced. Here again proactive measures must be developed by breeding and selecting crops and crop varieties that can withstand higher temperatures. The initiative of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation for building genetic resources for a warming India is timely and important. It is these kinds of short- and long-term changes that the Crisis Management Committee must initiate in the context of extreme destitution in rural India, which has serious social and political implications.

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