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Parched in the Monsoon

Millions of people across the rural hinterlands of India continue to be excessively dependent on unpredictable monsoons. Rachit Seth discusses the adverse impact of falling monsoons on farmers...

Rachit Seth
Publish Date: Nov 18 2015 7:31PM | Updated Date: Nov 23 2015 11:44AM

Parched in the Monsoonphoto by Hrishikesh bhatt

India is a parched land, even after the monsoons. This is the second consecutive year when India has experienced a deficient monsoon. This time the weak south-west monsoon is a matter of great concern, especially for the agricultural sector, because it is the third straight shock after deficient rains in June-September 2014 and the unseasonal downpour in March 2015.

 

About 39% of the country's area, home to over 66 crore people, nearly half the country's population, has received deficient or scanty rainfall, this year after the monsoon was officially declared as over on  September 30. According to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), 302 districts out 614 districts in the country have received less rainfall.

 

In June, this year the IMD had forecast 12% shortfall in rains, but the actual deficit turned out to be 14%. India got the lowest monsoon rainfall since 2009.

 

Five states have witnessed a rainfall deficiency of more than 20% or more. Uttar Pradesh, which is a home to almost 20 crore people has seen the highest rainfall deficiency of 45.8%, which is nearly as bad as last year’s 47.2%. This is followed by Haryana with a deficiency of 36.7%, Punjab at 31.7%, Maharashtra at 25.2% and Karnataka at 19.9%.

 

This year’s water storage in 91 reservoirs is also lower than last year. Like all weather patterns, the monsoon is erratic. It is abnormal every 4 years out of 10. These sorts of droughts happen once in every 18 years.

 

Interestingly, the Indian Monsoon depends upon warming of sea surface waters in faraway Pacific. This is called the El-Niño effect. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) USA, defines it as in a specific area of the east-central tropical Pacific Ocean. Typically, this anomaly happens at irregular intervals of two to seven years, and lasts nine months to two years. The average period length is five years. The condition weakens the Asian monsoon, often causing drought in north-west and central India and heavy rainfall (or even floods) in north-east. In the last decade, El Niño was one of the factors responsible for two of India’s most severe monsoon failures (2002 and 2009). According to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, El Niño this year is the strongest since 1997-98.

Almost half of India’s GDP comes from rural areas. About 40 per cent of India’s households engage in agriculture and within this group, two-thirds are heavily reliant on it. Food grain producing regions in the country are bearing the brunt. Together, Maharashtra, UP and Karnataka account for close to 30% of India’s Kharif food grain production.

Marathwada region in Maharashtra, this year, witnessed the longest dry spell. Despite abundant rains in June, which supported sowing, a prolonged dry spell that began in early July increased rainfall in this region to 54%, damaging sown crops such as pulses, soyabean and cotton.

 

The eastern part of Uttar Pradesh has also been under a prolonged dry spell with acute rainfall deficiency since the last week of July. The North Interior part of Karnataka also suffered from a very dry spell from the second week of July to the second week of September, resulting in even drinking water crises.

 

The rainfall deficiency at all India level peaked at 16% in September, but improved slightly in the last two weeks. This does not auger well for the kharif crops, as the rains are most crucial for them in the months of July and August. Although in some regions water storage in reservoirs has stabilized, it is an alarming situation in the rainfall deficient states.

 

Last year’s unseasonal rains and hailstorm in several regions had wiped off Rs 10,000 crore of rabi crops and this year’s below par monsoon has added to the misery.

 

Kharif sowing picked up in July because of abundant rains in June. However, as rains receded by July-end, sowing slowed and lagged long-term trends, even though it was better than last year.

 

Overall kharif sowing this year is 1.3% higher than 2014, but 2% below the long-term trend. Foodgrains sowing is 2.7% more than 2014, but 3.5% below long-term trend.

 

While overall sowing of pulses is more than last year, that’s not the case for crucial crops such as tur (arhar) because of dry spells in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, which are the key growing areas. The most affected crops are tur (arhar), jowar and soybean.

 

In pulses, production has suffered due to lower output in 2014, damages due to unseasonal rains and hailstorms  in March 2015 and shortfall in sowing (especially tur) this year. As a result, inflation in pulses stands at an average 20% this year so far, with August inflation crossing 25% and surging to 42% for tur. It surged to 160% in September and 201% in first week of October.

 

Last year, the GDP growth rate in the agriculture and allied sectors was as low as 0.2%, that is below par for the second year in a row. In the fiscal 2016, it is expected to grow at 1.5%.

 

Almost half of India’s GDP comes from rural areas. About 40 per cent of India’s households engage in agriculture and within this group, two-thirds are heavily reliant on it.

 

This disproportionately high dependence on agriculture income, high agricultural indebtedness and farmer suicides, low irrigation buffer and poor crop insurance cover has accentuated the impact of the monsoon shock.

 

As agriculture suffers, the biggest impact will be on rural demand, which has already slowed in the past few years. Already rural incomes are dented due to falling wage growth. The massive cuts in Central Government’s social sector schemes, particularly – Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has rubbed salt on the wounds of daily wage earners. The delay in release of wages in many states has resulted in rural distress. The sharp slide in rural wages has meant off-farm income growth is also moderating. Farm incomes, have over time, suffered due to falling productivity of agriculture, unfavourable input costs and output price dynamics.

 

Add three consecutive monsoon shocks and what you get is a steadily worsening of farm income. Another factor that has hurt is falling export prices of agriculture commodities. India exports 11% of rice and 3% of wheat production. Their global prices have fallen by nearly 17% compared with last year. In addition, slower growth in rural wages has hit small cultivators, who supplement their income with off-farm wages - more so if they are small and marginal farmers.

 

Even as the agricultural sector is the largest employer in India, its share in India’s GDP has been steadily declining over the years. It was 23% in the year 2000-01 and has declined to just 17% of the GDP in the year 2013-14. Notwithstanding the high population pressure on land and other resources to meet its food and development needs, India ranks second in the world in overall farm output.

 

The overwhelming impact of erratic monsoons on India’s agriculture sector is something that needs urgently to be addressed. On paper, the erstwhile Planning Commission does have a document titled –‘Agriculture Policy: Vision 2020’ published by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi. In reference to the impact of monsoons, it stresses on “sustainability and natural resource management”, particularly in respect to improving watershed development, checking ground water depletion and irrigation to enhance production and productivity.

 

It emphasizes ‘Rainfed Ecosystems’ by which small and marginal farmers in the rainfed ecosystems practice less-intensive agriculture, and since their incomes depend on local agriculture, they benefit little from increased food production in irrigated areas. To help them, efforts must be increased to disseminate available dry land technologies and to generate new ones.

 

It will be necessary to enlarge efforts for promoting available dry land technologies, increasing the stock of this knowledge, and removing pro-irrigation biases in public investment and expenditure, as well as build efficient systems of credit flows for technology-based agricultural growth.

 

All this sounds very grand, but there is very little change on ground. Use of location specific technologies can help implement this vision. There is an imperative need for intensifying local technologies in watershed management so as to overcome the effect of dry spells.

 

Proper research and training of farmers at the local level with dry land technologies is the way to go. Crop rotation and diversification of agriculture are time tested methods.

 

The country must pay greater attention to the development of technologies that will facilitate agricultural diversification particularly towards intensive production of fruits, vegetables, flowers and other high value crops that are expected to increase income growth and generate effective demand for food.

 

Focused attention should be given to develop post-harvest handling and agro- processing and value addition technologies, not only to reduce the heavy post-harvest losses, but also to improve quality through proper storage, packaging, handling and transport. The role of biotechnology in post-harvest management and value addition deserves to be enhanced.

 

In this era of science and technology, we can use several methods for the farm sector to overcome an erratic monsoon. This will benefit millions of our small and marginal farmers. The trick is to locally make every grey area ‘green’.

 

But the million dollar question is, whether the Government really wants to implement these ideas or not?  Do they have the political will to increase the share of agriculture in India’s GDP?