The Big Picture – Fighting the drought: Is it all about funds?
The country is facing one of its worst droughts in recent years. It is said that after the situation in mid 1990s this is for the first time that many states have faced shortage of rains for two consecutive years with the third year also likely to follow. 33 crore people living in 256 districts across 10 states which constitute almost one third of the population are said to be affected by the drought condition. Maharashtra, Karnataka and parts of UP are said to be the worst affected. Taking a serious note of the situation, the Supreme Court recently directed the centre to release the MGNREGA funds on time. The court also asked why some states had not been declared drought affected. Some states have also been slow in declaring drought affected. Meanwhile, the PM has held a series of discussions with CMs of drought affected states to devise a common strategy to tackle the drought.
Previous droughts were inevitably accompanied by a surge in food prices. This time’s drought has been unusual in this regard, as consumer food inflation has been relatively benign at 5.2-5.3% and there isn’t any evidence of hoarding by unscrupulous traders. Prices of many crops have actually fallen, making it a drought essentially for farmers. But since urban India hasn’t been affected as much, it has also not drawn attention of the kind that would have forced Parliament to take more than cursory notice.
Drought in 10 states is estimated to impact the economy by at least Rs 6,50,000 crore. There is also likely an impact on children and women health besides farm debt increase due to loss in livestock and farm economy in the drought-hit districts. The drought would create inflationary pressures making the food management an imperative challenge for the government and the policy makers.
Why the crisis has aggravated?
- Despite having prior information about the impending drought, governments did little or nothing to face the challenge.
- Unscientific and over usage of freshwater resources has aggravated the crisis.
- By putting the onus on states, the Centre washed off its hands.
- Some states have also been reluctant to declare a drought.
- The crisis is also the result of failure to regulate water extraction, storage, wastage and patterns of use. The excessive use of deep borewells to extract groundwater has eroded the capacity of aquifers to replenish.
- Poor reservoir management has led to silt accumulation, among other issues limiting water storage.
- Lack of water harvesting and over-irrigation owing to cropping choices and patterns have depleted water tables.
What needs to be done?
- Agricultural practices should be made drought proof. Cropping pattern has to change. Water intensive crops should not be growth in arid areas.
- Water usage has to be judicious with new techniques such as drip irrigation. Better water management is particularly crucial because India’s water map is uneven.
- Sustainable water management also requires local solutions. Large-scale national projects like the National River Linking Project are simply too unwieldy to be effective. What we need is a drastic overhaul of farm and power policies and the promotion of new irrigation and harvesting techniques that need low capital investment and land.
- With nearly 33 crore people affected by drought, the need for a nationwide water pricing mechanism as well as a model water law that penalises over-exploitation of water is more urgent than ever.
- Preparation for drought and ipso facto for a deficit in annual rainfall must go beyond mitigation and include steps to address this man-made scarcity.
- A coordinated effort at all levels of government is required.
Supreme Court’s directions:
- It has directed the Centre to take proactive steps in drought mitigation as well as in assessment, planning and relief as mandated by the Disaster Management Act, 2005.
- Establish a National Disaster Response Force with specialist cadre in six months.
- Set up a Disaster Mitigation Fund within three months.
- Frame National Plan on risk assessment, risk management and crisis management in respect of a disaster.
- Update 60-year-old Drought Management Manual keeping in mind “humanitarian factors” like migrations, suicides, extreme distress, the plight of women and children.
For a water-scarce country like India, managing such a valuable resource is essential and immediate steps must be taken to fix lopsided priorities.