For a country like India where agriculture contributes 18% of the gross domestic product, but is a source of income to over two-thirds of the nation’s 1.1 billion population, drought is an evil word.
Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has declared that nearly half of India, i.e. over 250 of the country’s nearly 600 districts have been hit by drought.
This was the situation in the middle of August and the Indian Meteorological Department warned that the south-west monsoon would withdraw early this year. This warning, coupled with the fact that skies continue to remain sunny across most parts of India, especially in the north, shows the situation is only going to get worse and ‘half of India drought-hit’ might prove to be an understatement by then.
As per official figures, the monsoon season this year has brought 29% less rainfall than normal.
The agriculture minister has officially declared that a weak monsoon is going to hit the kharif season crop badly, with the production of rice expected to decline by a staggering 10 million tonnes this year. The country had produced nearly 100 million tonnes of rice during 2008-2009, according to official figures.
"Due to the expected reduced production of rice, there could be pressure on availability and market price," Pawar warned. To tackle the crisis, the government has already said it would sell wheat and rice from its godowns in the open market to keep prices under tab.
Another fallout of the drought situation is the rising number of suicides among farmers. Within days of the minister announcing that nearly half of the country was drought-hit, authorities in Andhra Pradesh were investigating whether this was the reason behind the suicides of 20 farmers.
For India, a failed monsoon is nothing short of a natural calamity. The rains that the southwest monsoon brings are crucial to India’s economy, as agriculture accounts for a sixth of the country’s GDP.
Nearly 60% of India`s farmers depend on rains for irrigation and a failed monsoon means crops such as rice, soyabean, sugarcane and cotton take a severe hit. To cushion the farmers against an expected fall in production, the government has hiked the minimum support price for paddy and pulses by Rs 100 and up to Rs 240 per quintal, respectively.
While both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia have tried to allay fears of an adverse fallout of a weak monsoon, the situation on the ground is alarming. Food prices are already at historic highs. Whether it is vegetable or pulses, the prices of some of the commodities have increased more than 300% compared to last year.
It is only an irony that the inflation is in the negative at a time when most of India (read poor and middle class) has begun to exercise the option of not choosing to eat the ‘luxurious’ vegetables and pulses.
Can dependence on monsoon be reduced?
This year’s drought, like in the past cases, serves us with one simple warning – that we need to improve our irrigation facilities and reduce our dependence on monsoon rains.
Even the International Water Management Institute has warned in a recent report that countries in Asia 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. And it is not a hidden fact that India is going to have the biggest share of these additional numbers.
Colin Chartres, director general of IWMI, believes it is not feasible to expand rain-fed agriculture.
"There`s very little land ... it`s all being used. You can`t expand laterally, therefore you`ve got to increase productivity on existing land and it`s easier to increase productivity with irrigation than it is by rain-fed (agriculture)," he states.
Is agriculture out of fashion?
Yes, if Nobel Peace Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus’ words are to be believed. According to Prof Yunus, who is also called `banker to the poor` for launching a micro-finance revolution in his country Bangladesh, says Asia has of late neglected agriculture which is why the region is facing a food crisis.
Coupled with an ever-growing population, the food crisis is assuming alarming proportions in the region, say analysts.
Explaining why agriculture had gone out of fashion, the Nobel Peace Prize winner says agriculture is now being seen by many as a boring sector of "cows and poultry".
"When you bill it as a global issue, about how we live our lives, then immediately agriculture comes to the fore," he said recently, adding the youth wanting to change the world and save the environment needed to become a party to the transformation of agriculture so it can feed today`s population and withstand growing threats from climate change.
"(Agriculture`s) not simply a question of survival, it`s not a question of subsistence agriculture or helping the poor farmers. It`s an exciting way of changing the world. It`s a part of the total philosophy of how the world should be," he says.
"Food became a very uninteresting subject. It was neglected for years and now we`re suffering for that," he adds.
Whatever be the experts’ views and opinion, every human – educated or not – knows that he/she would need food to survive. And if we continue to ignore agriculture and fail to make farmers a priority in the governmental policies, God save the world from this crisis.