As India braces for the fallout of a sub-par monsoon, experts stress that Asia’s third largest economy needs innovative thinking to reduce its unhealthy dependence on the annual rain

Rainfall in the current South West Monsoon has been 40% below normal so far, according to Indian Meteorological Department. Image by Mahesh Basedia)

Rainfall in the current South West monsoon has been 40% below normal so far, according to Indian Meteorological Department. (Image by Mahesh Basedia)

Despite its globally-acknowledged prowess in the science and technology sectors, India breaks into a sweat each time the southwest monsoon – the subcontinent’s tenuous lifeline which showers its benediction between June and September – delays its arrival.

The stock market goes into a tailspin, politicians fret and millions of hapless farmers across vast swathes of the countryside pray for the rain gods to oblige. This scenario plays out year after year, and this season – as threat of sub par rainfall looms large – is no exception.

Seasonal rainfall – the southwest monsoon covers most of the country – has been about 40% below average so far. A `normal’ or average monsoon, according to India’s weather office classification, is rainfall between 96-104% of a 50-year average of 89 centimeters in total during the season. Drought invariably triggers a spate of suicides by debt-ridden farmers.

No region has been declared drought hit so far and rainfall has been picking up across some parts of the country, but fears persist. Experts say this is the current situation which may again change next week due to the dynamic nature of the rains.

The monsoons are critical for India’s nearly $2 trillion economy, Asia’s third largest. About 80% farmers depend on this shower power, vital for farm output in the world’s second-biggest producer of rice, wheat, sugar and cotton.

Close to two-thirds of humanity lives within regions influenced by the Asian monsoon and depends on its water to support agriculture and supply potable water. However, the Indian subcontinent lies particularly close to the centre of the monsoon belt making rains critical for farm output and economic growth.

Over 55% of the South Asian nation’s arable land is rain-fed, and the farm sector accounts for about 15% of the economy. No wonder the monsoons have been dubbed the real finance minister of India.

“It’s not just the farmers who get impacted,” explained Dr Arvind Panagriya, an agricultural economist formerly with the ministry of agriculture. “Deficient rains have a domino effect on the entire economy. Fast-moving consumer goods, consumer durables, consumer staples, food/beverages, tobacco, prescription drugs and consumer discretionary spends, all draw sustenance from rural income. That’s why it is critical that India devise ways to reduce its dependence on the monsoons,” he told thethirdpole.net

This year’s paranoia, pretty much like every other year, underscores one simple fact – India must whittle down its monsoon dependency and tap into a well-developed irrigation infrastructure during times of deficient rain. The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has warned in a report this year that Asian countries need to update their run-down irrigation systems if they wish to meet the challenge of feeding an extra 1.5 billion people by 2050.

India would be the biggest stakeholder in the scenario painted by the IWMI largely because only an abysmal 30% of all agricultural land in India is irrigated. Due to tardy government policies, say experts, productivity on existing land hasn’t been optimised as much as it should have been. Moreover, with the changing profile of the monsoons (short cloudbursts rather than a long spell of rains), the long dry periods in between enhance the risk of flooding and paradoxically, drought as well.

The spectre of drought remains a very real one. Between 2002-2012, three major droughts hit the country with the last one shaving off half a percentage point from the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to a 2013 World Bank report.

The country’s high dependence on monsoon — mainly because of inadequate investment in irrigational infrastructure — combined with its inability to augment productivity of food grain is choking agricultural growth.

According to Dr Rajeswari S. Raina, principal scientist, Council for Scientific Research, New Delhi, India needs a coherent policy on rain-fed agriculture. “Our research needs to be strengthened in the area of agronomy to study the frequency and seasonality of rains and how that knowledge can be transmitted to help the farmer. Right now, all our research is focused on fertilisers and how they can enhance productivity but we need to broaden our focus to make India a food-secure nation.”

The Indian government needs to look at strategic ways to help farmers, explains the specialist. Rather than doling seeds and fertiliser subsidies, as is the norm, farmers should be educated about the latest techniques in rainwater harvesting so that water can be captured, stored, and distributed more effectively during lean periods. Easier access to microfinance to provide small loans to farmers can also be transformative.

As well as ramping up investment in modern irrigation techniques, adequate storage facilities for food grains to tide over a period of inadequate rainfall will help keep food grain prices in check. This is vital as over the last two decades, India’s food grain production has been lagging behind the population growth rate.

As per Reserve Bank of India (RBI) data, while compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of food grain (kg/hectare) productivity peaked at 4.41% in the decade of the 1980s, growth rate plummeted to 2.36% in the 1990s and plunged further to 1.06% during the first eight years of the current decade.

An abysmal distribution mechanism hasn’t helped. Despite sufficient buffer stocks of food grains, the previous UPA government failed to bring the stocks to the market to cool the inflation last year. Such instances are disquieting in a country which hosts over 200 million food insecure people.

Steps should be taken, say experts, to link farmers to the market and improve farm and post-harvest infrastructure. Providing a favourable tax regime for the agriculture and related sectors can also help. The wasteful subsidy regime also needs to be overhauled. Fertiliser subsidies mostly benefit rich farmers and lead to gross overuse, added Panagriya.

In their book Climate change adaptation implications for drought risk mitigation: A perspective for India, S.V.R.K. Prabhakar and R. Shaw discuss how the expansion of certain drought risk-management programs – some of them already being implemented across the country – can help minimise risk for the farm sector.

One such way, mentions the book, is a three-tier method in which the state provides monetary relief (loans or grants), food, water, fodder supply, seeds, and fertilisers while the local populations deepen village ponds, repair dams and roads, and establish cattle camps for livestock. In the third tier, local governments provide weekly and bi-weekly “agromet advisories” for farmers so that the latter may tweak their agricultural practices according to weather forecasts.

Such innovative approaches can go a long way in reducing the country’s unhealthy dependence on monsoons while putting a smile on every farmer’s face.

 

 

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