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Updated: February 15, 2010 12:24 IST

Drought management for rural livelihood security

M.S. Swaminathan
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In this July 15 photo a farmer walks on his field at a village in the drought-hit Morigaon district of Assam. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar
THE HINDU In this July 15 photo a farmer walks on his field at a village in the drought-hit Morigaon district of Assam. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Agriculture is not just a food producing machine but the backbone of the livelihood of 60 per cent of Indians. The extensive drought spotlights a situation of mass rural deprivation and a mindset that is insensitive to it. But there are some encouraging signs. What should be done to meet the challenge?

There are reports in financial newspapers that the ongoing drought affecting nearly 200 districts in the country may not have much effect on GDP, since the farmers in the drought-affected areas contribute hardly 3 per cent to GDP. It is sad that such a measure of the impact of drought on the lives and livelihoods of millions of rural families is even considered. It is this mindset that is responsible for our country being the home of the largest number of poor and malnourished people in the world. P. Sainath’s article in The Hindu of August 15 brings out clearly the growing insensitivity to human suffering in our country.

No wonder we are finding it difficult to achieve the first among the U.N. Millennium Development Goals – reducing hunger and poverty by half by 2015. Unless we realise that agriculture in India is not just a food-producing machine, but is the backbone of the livelihood of over 60 per cent of our population, rural deprivation and suffering will not only continue to persist, but will get worse, leading to severe social unrest.

Fortunately, there are some encouraging developments which offer hope that drought management will be based on human values.

First, our President in her address on the eve of the Independence Day urged the need for refraining from making profit out of poor peoples’ entitlements. This is a timely warning since thousands of crores of rupees will be spent during the coming weeks in drought relief. Unfortunately, disaster relief funds become an easy target for those to whom corruption is a way of life and hence it would be useful to provide copies of P. Sainath’s book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought (1996, Penguin), to all involved in taking the benefits of the drought relief programmes to rural families.

Secondly, the Prime Minister in his Independence Day speech has rightly emphasised the need to help farmers in their hour of distress, so that they can help the country to produce as much food as possible under the prevailing meteorological conditions. He has announced that the repayment of loans taken from banks will be rescheduled. In this connection, it will be useful to find a long-term solution to the problems faced by farmers in rain-fed areas by adopting the recommendation of the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) that the repayment period for loans in drought-prone areas should be four to five years. This is particularly important, since we do not have an effective crop insurance policy for farmers in drought-prone areas.

Thirdly, the Prime Minister has constituted a Crisis Management Committee under the leadership of Pranab Mukherjee, with membership includes the veteran leader Sharad Pawar. Mr. Mukherjee fortunately belongs to the rare group of leaders who are firmly rooted in the “we shall overcome” philosophy. I hope the Crisis Management Committee will not only look into the immediate problems and short-term solutions, but will also develop a medium- and long-term plan that can enable us to face the challenges of drought, flood, high temperature, and sea level rise, which in future will be the recurrent consequences of global warming and climate change. I wrote an article in The Hindu of July 13, 2009 on “Monsoon management in an era of climate change.” Since serious action involving a large financial outlay is now under discussion, I would like to lay out a road map on the action needed immediately and during the remaining period of the 11th Five Year Plan.

Immediate Action

With the help of State governments, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), and agricultural universities, the situation in each State may be classified into the following two categories.

1. Most Seriously Affected Areas (MSA):

These are areas where the monsoon irregularity has multiple adverse effects on crops, farm animals and human food, and livelihood security. Also, hydropower generation is affected, leading to energy shortage. The power shortage, in turn, makes it difficult to give a crop life-saving irrigation, wherever opportunities for this exist.

Apart from the relief operations normally undertaken, the urgent needs of MSA areas are: saving farm animals from distress sale through Farm Animal Camps near a water source or near a groundwater sanctuary (that is, a concealed aquifer which can be exploited during the emergency) and where animals can be fed with agricultural residues enriched with urea and molasses. Distress sale of farm animals is a clear index of extreme despair.

A “Beyond the Drought Programme” should be organised. This should involve short duration crops like saathi maize (60 days maize), sweet potato, pulses, oilseeds, fodder crops, and other less water-requiring but high-value crops, according to scientifically prepared contingency plans.

Another urgent need is the launch of “A Pond in Every Farm” movement. This can be done by permitting NREGA workers to build Jat Kunds in the farms of small and marginal farmers (see also Sainath, The Hindu, 15 August 2009). The revised NREGA guidelines permit this. At least five cents in every acre should be reserved for the construction of ponds to store rainwater. Where there is adequate ground water in MSA areas, subsidised electricity and diesel should be made available on a priority basis. Energy is the key limiting factor in taking advantage of ground water.

2. Most Favourable Areas (MFA)

In every agro-ecological zone, the Most Favourable Areas (MFA) can be identified where there is enough moisture for a good crop. A compensatory production programme can be launched in such MFA farms by taking steps to increase the productivity of the crops already sown. This can be achieved by undertaking top-dressing with urea or other needed fertilizers, including micro-nutrients, with government support. Wherever there are opportunities for launching such compensatory production programmes because of adequate rainfall, the faculty and scholars of the agricultural university in the area can be requested to move from class rooms to farmers’ fields to help ensure the proper administration of the nutrient top–dressing programme. This will help to increase crop productivity significantly.

Preparing for the Rabi season:

Where two or more crops are taken normally, it is time to begin preparation for a good rabi crop by assembling the seeds, soil nutrients, and other agronomic inputs needed for timely sowing and good plant population. Late sowing of kharif crops should not be encouraged, since every week’s delay in the sowing of wheat reduces the yield by over fourquintals per hectare.

Action during 2009-10:

During the next few months, detailed drought, flood, and good weather codes should be prepared for every agro-climatic zone in the country. These codes should indicate the pro-active measures such as building Seed Banks of alternative crops needed for minimising the adverse impact of rainfall abnormalities. The Good Weather Code should provide guidelines for maximising the benefits of good soil moisture. Another step urgently needed is the identification and training of two members of every panchayat – one woman, one man – as Climate Risk Managers. It is best that they are identified by the Gram Sabha.

The Climate Risk Managers can be trained in the science and art of managing uncertain rainfall patterns leading to drought or flood. They could also operate a Weather Information for All programme based on village level agro-met. stations. A mini agro-met. station can be built in every block with basic instruments to measure temperature, rainfall, wind speed, and relative humidity. The Climate Risk Managers can be trained in data collection and interpretation, so that the right decisions are taken at the right time and place. Such a technological upgrading of agricultural infrastructure will also help to attract youth in farming.

Medium Term Action

This could include the following:

(a) Build a national grid of ultra-modern grain storage structures all over the country. To start with, at least 50 such storage facilities each capable of holding one million tonnes of food grains can be constructed, thereby making it clear that government intends to remain at the commanding heights of our food security system.

(b) Promote through Gram Sabhas community food and water security systems. This should involve establishing at the village level seed, grain, and water banks. Seed banks will help to introduce alternative cropping strategies and contingency plans to suit different rainfall patterns.

(c) Enlarge the food security basket by including a wide range of millets and grains like ragi in the public distribution system (PDS).

Lessons from the Past

In 1966, the country faced a serious drought. A serious famine was avoided, particularly in Bihar, though concessional wheat imports of the order of 10 million tonnes under the U.S. PL-480 programme. This served as a wake-up call and several steps were taken under the far-sighted political leadership of C. Subramaniam, Lal Bahadur Shastri, and Indira Gandhi, which led to a wheat revolution in 1968. The major ingredients of this revolution were: technology; services that can take technology to the fields of small and marginal farmers; public policies, particularly relating to input and output pricing; assured and remunerative marketing; and above all, farmers’ enthusiasm as a result of national demonstrations in small farmers’ fields.

Today, the last component of the green revolution symphony is sadly lacking: over 40 per cent of the farmers interviewed by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) said they wanted to quit farming, if there was another option. No further time should be lost in implementing the commitments made under the National Policy for Farmers presented in Parliament in November 2007 — if the desire of the Prime Minister that there should be another green revolution is to materialise.

( Professor M.S. Swaminathan, eminent agricultural scientist and food policy expert, is chairman of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation and a Member of the Rajya Sabha.)

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