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Wednesday, Jul 17, 2002

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Monsoon let-down

IS A DISASTER in the making? Ten weeks into the South West monsoon, nearly two-thirds of the country (320 of 523 districts) is facing deficient to scanty rainfall. According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), 20 of the 36 meteorological sub-divisions received deficient rains as of July 10, while the average rainfall for the country as a whole is 15 per cent below normal. If in the southern and western States moisture-stressed crops thirst for water, in many northern States there has been little precipitation even for sowing. Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, two major producers of foodgrains, oilseeds and cash crops, are bone dry. Except Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bihar, Uttaranchal and Assam, the rest of the country is facing what can now be declared as early-season drought.

But it may also be too early to write-off the 2002 South West monsoon as it still has some ten weeks to run its course and at the end of it, the country may still have had a normal monsoon as per IMD's definition. However, there can be no two opinion that farm output will be affected. Paddy, coarse grains, pulses, cotton, groundnut and soyabean are some of the major kharif crops sure to face a certain drop in output. Extant shortages in edible oils, cotton and pulses can worsen and lead to price rise. The market is taking cognisance of the emerging crop losses. As each day passes without rains, the situation is turning potentially explosive. What are the options before the policy-makers? Rather limited. Primarily, the Centre and the State governments must, without loss of time, recognise the problem and start implementing contingency plans, if any. A shift to short-duration crops in seriously rain-deficient regions may be necessary. It can also seriously think of using the huge foodgrain buffer-stocks to fight inflationary tendencies.

Even as the Government tries to mitigate the rigours of a highly probable setback to agriculture, there is no escaping from the fact that the initial damage wrought by the aberrant monsoon can put paid to the hopes of an agriculture-led economic growth this fiscal. The country recorded poor agricultural growth in 1999 and 2000, which only partially recovered last year. The emerging crisis serves to highlight once again the dangers of dependence of this essentially agrarian economy on the weather gods. Just about 40 per cent of the cropped area is irrigated while less than 25 per cent and 15 per cent of the area respectively under oilseeds and pulses cultivation is not monsoon-dependent. Rainfed agriculture is complex, diverse and risk-prone, and characterised by low levels of productivity and low input usage. Vagaries of monsoon result in wide variation and instability in yields. For agriculture to grow at not less than 4 per cent per annum, as envisaged in the National Agriculture Policy, rainfed areas will need to contribute substantially to the incremental output by producing surpluses more reliably. For the medium-to-long term, more intense efforts should be directed at a holistic and sustainable development of rainfed areas through integrated watershed development approach.

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