Sep 21, 2009

Every drought leaves behind lessons

Drought is no longer in the news. I think the media has got tired of it, and after the recent spell of rains (quite heavy, in fact) the focus has shifted to the rabi sowing, how the soil moisture now will help in the sowing of the next crop etc. With drought no longer under the media scanner, my worry is whether the policy makers and agricultural officials too have also closed the files and put them back on the shelf to gather dust till the next drought strikes.

Every drought leaves behind lessons. I am not sure how much we try to learn, and then draw adequate steps to ensure that the deadly impact of any dryspell in future is minimised to a considerable extent. It was in this light that the monthly news magazine Hard News had invited me to write an article. The article appeared in the September issue, but somehow I had forgotten to share it with you. A few days back I got a Google Alert informing me that a web site Ajamvari Farm (probably from Nepal) had used the article.

In its introduction, Ajamvari Farm said: Much of South Asia, and it appears, much of the world seems to be going through drought and the occurance of drought seems to be increasing in both intensity and frequency. However, the governments have hidden behind the veil of market sentiments to explain the rising food prices, growing hunger and increasing farmer suicides. As Devender Sharma reports, there are places where innovative practices have transformed the conditions, but these don’t interest the planners because they could be done with very limited, but crucial resources. In other words, the corruption potential in them remains too little for those who control the resources to be interested in.

I have highlighted the last sentence because I think it is an important statement. Nowadays we don't talk of any technology intervention till it relates to a product that can be sold. So basically the approach is to sell a technological product in the name of development. And if there is nothing to sell, you will see there is no effort to promote that technology. Anyway, here is the article:

Yet to learn drought lessons

By Devinder Sharma

A bad monsoon and the nation gets jolted by the spectre of a haunting drought. As symptoms of acute human suffering and despair begin to appear on the horizon - distress sale of cattle and increasing suicides by farmers - the government swings into a fire-fighting mode.

It has happened in the past. It is happening again now. No sooner the drought fades away, the files will be back on the shelf. The concern, the tragedy and the lessons that you heard repeatedly will soon be forgotten.

Drought meanwhile is fast sinking in despite the monsoon aberrations. India's vulnerability to slip into a serious drought even with a slight delay in monsoon rains has grown over the years. Such has been the excessive groundwater withdrawal over the years, as a consequence of the emphasis on intensive farming, that Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan will not have any water left underground for irrigation by 2025.

Little or no rain, late rain and heavy rain, the food bowl of the country stares ahead at a gathering drought in any case. The alarm bells had been ringing for long. For instance, in Punjab, where groundwater withdrawal has always exceeded its natural replenishment, every year 45 per cent more underground water is being mined. Punjab, which provides nearly 50 per cent of the country's food surplus, is paying a price for ensuring the nation's food security.

So, when senior journalists write that the prevailing drought has not touched Punjab this year because of the investment it made in irrigation, I am left amused. What is not known or little understood is that Punjab is fast heading into desertification, a process that is entirely man-made. For several years it is known that of the 138 development blocks in Punjab, 108 have been categorised as 'dark zones', where 98 per cent underground water level is exploited. Six of the 12 districts in the state have recorded groundwater utilisation rate of 100 per cent. In western Uttar Pradesh, which is also part of the country's food bowl, water-guzzling sugarcane has pushed the groundwater level to an all-time low.

The increased emphasis on water harvesting (see accompanying box) notwithstanding, the reduced availability of water is emerging as a major social and economic crisis. In addition, the cropping pattern has to be evolved keeping in mind the water availability. At present, more the water requirement for hybrid crop varieties, more is its cultivation in the water-scarce regions. This is scandalous and unless the cropping pattern is rectified no measures to protect and preserve water resources will be effective.

For several years now, drought and prolonged dry spell have continued to afflict the inhospitable and harsh environs of the dryland regions, constituting nearly 65 per cent of the country's cultivable lands. Despite the monsoons being 'normal', failure of rains in certain pockets and the continuing dry spell had simply gone unreported. With traditional forms of water storage and harvesting having vanished, rural irrigation being completely taken over by inefficient government machinery, available groundwater was left to be exploited indiscriminately.

Water shortage, in any case, was always expected to emerge as the major environmental crisis for India in the new millennium. NASA's recent projections based on the tracking done by twin GRACE satellites show that 54 cubic kilometres of groundwater is lost every year in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Still worse, the depletion rate is 70 per cent faster in this decade than what was estimated for the 1990s. The depletion is primarily due to irrigation, but the additional pressure of urbanisation and reckless industrialisation has added to the water woes.

And yet, despite the dismal aspect of the irrigation policy, the fascination of planners for costly projects has not diminished. They have continued to overlook simple and effective methods like a series of small water storage tanks, recharging of village wells, whose water percolates into the ground and replenishes the underground reservoir for drinking and irrigation purposes. These water bodies are the only way to drought-proof the country. No wonder, amidst the depressing and agonising scenario, a number of oases still dot the scorched landscape.

In several parts of the country, innovative farmers have found an ingenious way to fight drought. What the planners failed to visualise by way of drought management for over a century, villagers have demonstrated it successfully. The story of Kanchanpur village in Siddhi district of Madhya Pradesh, which hasn't faced the brunt of recurring dry spells for the past six years, is a lesson that the nation needs to imbibe. Three dug wells and three ponds using the NREGA force have completely upturned the village's dreaded past. With agriculture becoming economically viable, reports of reverse migration have poured in.

But then, traditional water harvesting and rain water collection practices do not find favour with the policy makers and planners for the simple reason that these time-tested technologies do not need much investment and budget allocations. At the same time, a serious drought enables the affected state government to cry for more Central relief funds. It has happened in the past, and is sure to happen in the days to come. As and when the furore and dust over the drought and resulting food insecurity dies down, planners will find the relief and rehabilitation allocations handy enough for the industry to create more demand for its products.

On its part, the government has already constituted a group of ministers (GoM) and also set up a National Crisis Management Committee to tackle the critical situation. Not realising that if only these ministers and secretaries had the wisdom to understand the complexities of a drought and the trauma of the human suffering that it leaves behind, the country would have by now successfully evolved a drought-proofing mechanism. It is essentially because of the political apathy and the criminal (mis)handling of the drought situations by the bureaucracy and the agricultural scientists that drought has become a recurring phenomenon.

You can read the full article at:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Respected Sir
Completely in sync with your views, I wish to add that we need to reconsider our existing classification of disasters into natural and manmade. Drought is definitely not a natural disaster anymore, because if it was so, it would’ve hit the 'privileged' and the 'aam aadmi' alike. Except for a tsunami like occurrence(which too can be foreseen), all other disasters that the common man is facing today are nothing but a result of the skewed development policies of our elitist policy makers, who are so very apathetic towards ‘ground reality’. Seems like the highhandedness of Indian bureaucracy as a British legacy is alive and kicking in more than one ways...
Anusha Singh
LL.M. Ist Year
Faculty of Law, Delhi University