Don’t blame the rain gods, Plan better for drought

Over 60 percent of India’s cultivable land depends on the monsoons. So why are our farmers being forced to adopt water-guzzling hybrid crops?

IN 2009, the Indian Meteorological Department had predicted a “near normal” rainfall, expecting a long-period average of 96 percent. It turned out to be one of the worst drought years in decades, with the monsoons falling short by 22 percent. So this year, when the Met Department again forecasted a “near normal” monsoon season with 96 percent long-period average, alarm bells had begun to ring.

June remained more or less dry. The rains were delayed over Karnataka for quite long, and more than 65 percent of the cultivable area went without rainfall. By the first week of July, the monsoons did forge ahead, covering the entire country, almost. The Met Department has been revising the frequency figures, trying to assure the country that the shortfall will be offset. It was 26 percent shortfall at first, 23 percent three days later and 22 percent when the latest figures came in.

Whatever the monsoon deficiency, the agriculture ministry has woken up to the threat that looms ahead, and has finally drawn up a contingency plan. It has provided seeds of short-duration crops to meet the delay in planting. With 57 percent of the area under millet and coarse cereals still to be sown, and with 26 percent deficit in paddy transplantation, the kharif sowings do not augur well. It may still be early to predict the expected shortfall in food production, but what is reassuring is the ample availability of foodgrain stocks. With over 82 million tonnes of wheat and rice in the godowns, there is no reason to panic.

The indications are that the rainfall will be deficient in the northwestern, central and southern parts of the country. But in the absence of any definite assessment, it is difficult to know the spatial distribution of rainfall, and for how long. There have been times when the country as a whole received normal or above normal rains, while some regions went dry. It has happened a number of years in Rajasthan, and rains have bypassed the central region of the country altogether. Two years ago, Bihar and Jharkhand were faced with drought, while the rest of the country received bountiful rains.

Why should Rajasthan be growing sugarcane and cotton, both water-guzzlers?

Although the Met Department has been promising to provide block-level forecasts, I wonder how that’s possible when it cannot even make a correct macro prediction for the country as a whole. Moreover, despite all technological sophistication, it may surprise you to know that the Met Department has never been able to predict droughts or impending floods.

Predicting weather, especially as complex a phenomenon as monsoons, is certainly not easy. But what is more perplexing is the failure of the agriculture ministry in making our vulnerable regions drought-proof. Every time we stare at a drought, tall promises of drought-proofing are bandied about. But after all these years, the mere mention of an impending drought sends our planners into a tizzy.

In a country with 60 percent of cultivable area rain-dependent, I cannot fathom why we promote water-guzzling crops. Hybrid crops require more water than high-yielding varieties. Hybrid seeds also require more fertilisers and pesticides. Ironically, it is in the dryland regions that farmers are being forced (with the seed industry pushing it vehemently) to cultivate hybrid varieties of paddy, jowar, bajra, cotton and vegetables. These crops require roughly 1.5 times more water than improved strains of high-yielding crop varieties. Common sense tells us that in the dryland regions, we should be cultivating crops that require less water. The more the crops pump out from the groundwater acquifer, more severe will the impact of any delayed rainfall be.

Why should Rajasthan be growing sugarcane and cotton, both water-guzzling crops? Why is Bt cotton, which requires about 15-20 percent more water than what is consumed by hybrid cotton, being promoted in the dryland regions? Don’t blame the rain gods; blame the planners, scientists and the seed suppliers who have always loved a good drought.

(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)


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