Learning Lessons From A Drought Year!
Now that the monsoon deficit has been placed on record, and strategies to mitigate the ‘drought-like conditions’ are taking shape, it is time to reflect on the long-term implications of the agriculture development strategy that India and most other countries are following. The main assumption of this strategy was that in a world of ‘infinite resources’, all one had to do was manage the logistics of moving agricultural inputs, initially from within the country, and then globally. The global networks to ensure fertilizer supplies, the grand plans of linking rivers and establishment of CGIAR centres on crops across the continents were part of this grand design. Yes, there would be an occasional bad year when some parts of the world may face weather aberrations, and these could be ‘managed’. However, when drought-like situations begin to recur every few years, then the definitions of what is normal poses a question mark by itself. Comparisons are already being made with the previous drought year of 2009, and that is not too far back in time. On a more fundamental level, we should ask, why do we not look for an ecological perspective to the crisis… why are we rushing in with our ‘knee-jerk administrative response’ simply because there is a precedent for it in previous ‘drought years’?
Thus, the strategy being followed in the ‘food bowl of India’—Punjab—is to provide additional power and a subsidy on diesel to draw even more groundwater from the soil for the Kharif paddy. In a state which typically runs a deficit of 20 billion cubic metres of water in a normal year are we not committing a great blunder by increasing the deficit even further, and for what? For more rice which we cannot store in our godowns. Moreover, after the success of the BGREI (Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India), the deficit regions in the country have been well provided for, and they can also cater to the requirements of the North-east.
The question therefore is: what should be done? Is crop holiday an answer? Should farmers be compensated for ‘set asides’ as practised by some US states, and European Union? Should the response come from the Rural Development Ministry in terms of livelihoods and asset creation strategies? Or should we continue with the ‘time-tested strategy’?
Agro-Watch’s view on the subject is as follows. Crop holiday is not an answer but changing the cropping pattern is. Why are we not looking at the entire range of millets and pulses which were traditionally grown in the areas before the political economy of ‘assured irrigation’ brought about changes to the agrarian landscape on an unprecedented scale? It is important that we undertake an exercise to map the traditional crops of India in each of the agro-climatic zones. It is true that the farmer must produce for the market and that finally the market dictates the production process, but today we also have the institutions and processes to create market-friendly products from what is produced. Thus, Ragi and Jowar biscuits, and Mandua-based cereals are gaining a lot of ground, and if the production of these is undertaken in the organic mode, the farmers can also look to a good realisation. Thus, we have to create niche markets for what is locally produced, rather than destroy our ecology for what the market wants because as many of us are aware, advertising and corporate marketing has a lot to do with demand. That is why campaigns about the ‘nutritional value of milk’ are always undertaken during the ‘flush’ season, and never in the lean summer months.
In fact, one should go one step further. The change in cropping pattern should not be for this year only. It should be a permanent, long-term strategy to restore the ecological imbalance that has been created over the last three decades. Anecdotal evidence shows that prices of agricultural lands in several parts of Punjab have plateaued, and in some water stressed areas have started falling down as farming is becoming less remunerative by the year on account for the very high costs of groundwater extraction. Therefore, our strategy should focus not just on economic models, but also draw from the ecological perspective.
Thus, the case that is being made out is not one of Non- Intervention, but intelligent intervention. Yes, rural livelihoods will get affected, and this must be addressed and the creation of water-harvesting structures and large-scale plantations of traditional tree species, including those for fodder, especially those which withstand two to three years of drought can bring about a positive change in the landscape. A multi-pronged strategy can be in place, with traditional varieties, including those of mango, ber, jamun, neem, figs and apricots on public lands and high density plantations with micro-irrigation on farmers’ fields to meet the market demand.
Agro-Watch is clear that a strategy on the lines suggested above is not difficult to conceptualise. It will also call for fewer resources than the current strategy. However, this strategy has to be followed through year after year, and this is where the problem lies. If the next year’s rainfall is normal again, the conventional route will be preferred, and all these thoughts will have to wait for the next crisis. It is said that the wise person learns from the past… the question is… Are we?
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)