Rancour over rains

SHEOLI SARAN, 32, a farmer in northern Haryana sits idly on a charpoy near her fields, her face swathed in a scarf to ward off the 47 degrees C (116 F) heat. Her mother and siblings, meanwhile, organise cattle feed for their six beady-eyed buffaloes tied to a wizened Neem tree.

By Neeta Lal (Issues)

Published: Thu 14 Jun 2012, 9:33 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:42 PM

It is not the catatonic heat that is keeping the Sarans away from their three-acre land. It is the lack of water. Like most Indian farmers, the family has no access to irrigation systems. They depend on the capricious monsoon rains – which shower their benediction only between June and September—for a bountiful harvest of their wheat crop.

India’s ‘monsoonal economy’ is tied inextricably to the summer rains. Agriculture accounts for about 15 per cent of India’s nearly $2 trillion economy, Asia’s third biggest. And around 80 per cent of peasants depend on these rains, vital for farm output in the world’s second-biggest producer of rice, wheat, sugar and cotton.

A delayed or sub par monsoon can throw everything into a tailspin. In 2009, the ruling UPA dispensation had to import sugar, which sent global prices zooming into the stratosphere, pushing up inflation. Worse, between 2002 and 2006, 17,500 farmers committed suicide due to a killer cocktail of drought and debt.

But despite the criticality of seasonal rains, there are no enduring or sustainable irrigation methods in place. In fact out of a total 42,100 square km of arable land in the country, only a miniscule 1,662 sq km has been made irrigable. Surely six decades since Independence was time enough for the government to have weaned its agri-based economic model away from its overdependence on monsoons?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said last year that a second Green Revolution is needed to augment the country’s farm production, control rising food prices and tackle India’s mounting grain requirements. Farmers were assured that irrigation facilities would also be boosted to minimise the sector’s dependence on monsoons in the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17). However, rather than working towards a sustainable irrigation model, the government ended up spending a whopping $14.3 billion on waiving farmers’ loans debilitating an already fragile economy.

Each year, in the run up to the monsoons, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) forecasts how the rainy season will play itself out that season. Stock market analysts, CEOs, government officials and foreign investors wait with bated breath for this bit of news. But without a scientifically reliable crystal ball, the IMD’s predictions aren’t always accurate. For instance, the department failed to make critical predictions like the 2004 and 2009 droughts.

But why blame the IMD? The monsoon is a hugely complex phenomenon with scientists still decoding how the synergy between the oceans and the atmosphere can be leveraged for better predictions. But these plans are still embryonic. It will likely take years before such forecasts could benefit the farmer. In the meantime, the government would do well to devise more effective irrigation systems.

While it isn’t feasible to irrigate all agricultural land across India’s vast swathes due to topographical complexities and the enormous amounts of money required for such a task, a better budgetary allocation for the irrigation sector can surely help. At present, the total funds set aside for irrigation stands are a grossly inadequate two per cent of the total agricultural budget. Besides, there is no further allocation for the repair and overhaul of the ailing irrigation infrastructure.

In such an abysmal scenario, water conservation can be a good answer to India’s problems. This can go a long way in helping conserve rain water as the country receives most of its rains within the four months of the monsoon season, a precious commodity that is later lost rapidly to evaporation.

India needs to urgently look for alternative means to not only feed its exploding population, but also to ensure that the economic stability and growth of the country isn’t impacted by the temperamental monsoons. To power its overall growth, the country will need to whittle down its dependence on factors that are not in human control.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based journalist

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