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Wednesday, Jul 31, 2002

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Drought: Blessing in disguise?

Sharad Joshi

IT RAINS most of the time in the British Isles. A rainy day is bad news there. Only the optimists look at the silver lining of every dark cloud. The Indian urban anglophile considers rains a nuisance. He, therefore, has adopted the English proverb, "Every cloud has a silver lining". For the farmer in India, every cloud is silver, particularly if it is dark. It is the silvery clouds that bring no rain that are considered bad news.

This year, the monsoons began well and the official meteorologists solemnly promised a 15th good monsoon in succession. South Gujarat (Vidarbha) even suffered from heavy lashings of early monsoons. Then, suddenly, the clouds disappeared. Now, it is official that this is going to be a year of drought, and maybe even famine. In several parts of the country, the early sowings were washed away by heavy rains and the second sowings are being parched out by a hot drought.

The Members of Parliament thought this was a good opportunity to wax eloquent on the jeopardy farmers are in and mount a verbal onslaught on governmental inaction.

The crops, it appears, are certain to fail in over 14 States, including Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, as also Andhra Pradesh.

The scarcity of drinking water might become a threat as early as in January 2003. Power generation will be crippled and the country might suffer a long hot summer with little water to drink and no power to lift groundwater. That is an awful prospect.

The industry and the service sector will start feeling the pinch soon after Deepavali. If the hostilities with Pakistan break out, we will be caught on the wrong foot. However paradoxical it may sound, the dark cloud of drought and famine may have a silver lining.

The super abundance of foodgrains had created an illusion in the minds of even knowledgeable people that the agricultural problem stood resolved and that the farm sector could stand some `benign neglect', in contrast to the urgent attention demanded by the industrial recession. The Indian establishment tends to take cognisance of the existence of farming and the farmer only in bad years. It takes agriculture for granted as soon as the food situation becomes easy.

In the 1960s, Ashok Mehta, the socialist stalwart, is on record as having said that, in view of the easy availability of foodgrains the world over, "agriculture in India could stand some benign neglect". The easy procurement of wheat and paddy over the last few years, and the embarrassment of plenty in managing the foodstocks had once again created the illusion that the agricultural question stood resolved forever. Everybody was rushing in to claim credit for the `food miracle' when suddenly the rain-Gods have pricked the balloon and made it clear that agriculture in India continues to be a gamble. The overflowing godowns of the Food Corporation of India will be soon emptied out and, if after 14 years of good rains we have one or more years of drought, we might be reduced to the begging bowl once again after four decades.

Once the monsoons fail, there is little that the government can do to mitigate the sufferings. Our weather intelligence has been caught unawares. Meteorological predictions in monsoon regions, unlike in tropical and equatorial belts, is a highly complex phenomenon governed by many things — from sunspots to the reproduction cycle of frogs. No wonder, the meteorologists, like frogs, are vocal in good rains and mute in droughts.

The Famine Code of the Raj days lays down the broad lines of action to be taken: Open camps for cattle and work camps for peasants so that those who produce foodgrains will be able to purchase them; relax the recovery of land revenue and taquavi loans. The chief ministers of the drought-affected States have started knocking at the doors of the Central Government for `calamity assistance' of hundreds of crores of rupees. The famine might help them refurbish their fiscal troubles.

The Agriculture Minister is simply feeling lost. He made a general announcement that all the schemes generally limited to the small and marginal farmers will be opened up for all the farmers. He has also announced a kind of moratorium on recoveries of loans and electricity dues. So, the government had to confront the stark prospect of widespread famine to concede the logic and the need for suspension of coercive recoveries from farmers. Mass suicides by farmers impoverished by decades of negative subsidies and threatened by global competition from outside, farmers who benefit from economies of scale, state-of-the-art technology and munificent subsidies, failed to move the Government to concede a reprieve; now the drought has driven home the point.

The monsoons have failed; the seed sown had parched out. On the horizon lurks not a Lagaan-like cloud but a bank recovery officer or a wireman of the electricity board come to cut power supply, making it impossible even to lift well-water.

Had the government not announced the moratorium on recoveries or, having announced it, if it fails to implement it in full honesty, the countryside would witness scenes of revolt and rebellion and manhandling of recovery officials. The foodgrain godowns will be emptied soon and the government will be forced to increase public investments and encourage private investments in agriculture, particularly to improve water harvesting, irrigation and infrastructure for marketing and processing.

If the famine succeeds in awakening the government to the stark reality of the weaknesses of Indian agriculture and drives it to launch an all-out campaign, particularly in the face of an armed conflagration with Pakistan, this year's drought turn out to be a blessing in disguise and might herald the beginning of a new era of advancement towards a global agriculture.

(The author is Founder, Shetkari Sanghatana. He can be contacted at

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