Sometime ago, the authorities claimed that a delayed monsoon didn’t necessarily mean a bad monsoon. Then came the announcement of a “below normal” monsoon, glum news especially for the granaries of the north-west. As if on cue it began raining in western Gujarat, prompting the meteorological department to hail the monsoon’s arrival on the west coast and its anticipated extension to central India. July, it’s been suggested, may make up for June’s shortfall in rain. Everyone now has fingers crossed about the next crucial 20 days. Surely, instead of see-sawing between hope and despair each time rains play truant, India ought to deal with the problem of its monsoon-dependence scientifically.
Representing around 17 per cent of India\’s GDP, agriculture has averaged nearly 4 per cent growth over five years. The sector was expected to buoy India\’s overall growth, hit by the global crisis. Manufacturing is down. Exports are down. If the monsoon does disappoint, farm production will fall at about the worst possible time. Nearly 70 per cent of Indians depend on farming. Many handling summer-sown crops like rice, soybean, sugarcane and cotton would be impacted, as also dealers in food and cash crops. Rural demand has been robust. A poor monsoon could change that. Food prices are already high. They could hit the roof.
If rains are deficient, many rain-fed farms will need help in switching to less water-dependent crops. Rice-growing Orissa advises use of short duration paddy seeds. Bihar is thinking of diesel subsidies so fields can be kept irrigated. Andhra is even mulling cloud seeding. Whatever strategies they adopt, affected states must rigorously implement the rural job guarantee scheme should farm hands need alternative employment. While buffer stocks are comfortable, proper storage to avoid wastage and corruption-free distribution need attention to ensure food security, now and as a general rule. Here’s also hoping for better forecasts from India’s weathermen.
Irrespective of how the situation plays out, studies on monsoon patterns indicate a generally erratic and weakening trend. Yet India’s output of water-intensive crops is to grow exponentially in future, implying massive groundwater depletion in wheat and rice-growing states. Managing water resources harvesting, extraction, storage or recycling can’t but be top priority. Woefully inadequate irrigation infrastructure needs overhaul. India can learn a lot from technologically innovative Israel, a model of efficient water management. Consider drip irrigation, which avoids evaporation by keeping the soil moist underground. Also, power subsidies encourage waste of water. Their calibrated rollback is required, as also strict use of water meters. Finally, there’s need to boost manufacturing to meet growth targets and ease dependence on agriculture. By World Bank estimates, our water demand will outstrip supply by 2020. Staving off such a scenario will require more than propitiating the rain gods.