R Srinivasan

How not to plan for a rainy day

R Srinivasan | Updated on October 03, 2019 Published on October 02, 2019

The drastic change in the monsoon pattern in recent years calls for a holistic — and quick — policy response

First, credit where credit is due. India’s planning and administrative machinery grinds exceedingly slowly, but eventually, it does get there, provided there is a big enough spur, and the political will to see changes through. Nothing illustrates this better than the fallout of two super cyclones of near equal intensity which struck Odisha 20 years apart.

The 1999 Odisha super cyclone was the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the north Indian Ocean region. With wind speeds of over 260 kmph, its impact on Odisha, which bore the brunt of the cyclone, was nothing short of catastrophic. The powerful winds caused storm surges of over six metres, smashing seawater as much as 32 kilometres inland. More than 1.6 million homes were destroyed. While the government’s official death toll was 9,887, unofficial estimates put the toll as high as 30,000. Remember, this was the pre-Aadhaar, pre-mobile era. Many small, unenumerated settlements simply vanished, along with all their people.

Cut to Cyclone Fani, which struck Odisha in May this year, almost exactly 20 years after the 1999 super cyclone. With sustained windspeeds of 185 kmph, gusting up to 250 kmph, it was the second-most severe tropical cyclone ever recorded. But the impact, in terms of people killed, was dramatically different. The death toll was just 64. Out of the 64 people dead, 25 died due to wall collapse, 20 were crushed by trees, hoardings and fallen electric poles and six people were buried under collapsed roofs. This happened because this time around, the machinery was ready. More than 1.2 million people had been evacuated to pre-built storm shelters, more than 2.3 million text messages had alerted others to move out of harm’s way. More than 9,000 community kitchens kept people fed. The economic impact was still enormous, but thousands of precious lives had been saved.

Unpredictable behaviour

In the intervening years between 1999 and Fani, the government had learnt some valuable lessons. Coordination was improved between the Centre, the State and the communities at risk. Technology was extensively used to issue adequate and timely warnings, while extensive infrastructure had been built up to cope with the displacement caused by the storm itself.

Cyclones are (nearly) unpredictable natural disasters. But there is a more sustained, regular and predictable disaster which has been playing out every year in India. But since the impact is widespread, spread out over days, weeks or even months and occurs with such regularity that simple familiarity has made it a pattern, this has spurred little of the kind of response we saw after the 1999 cyclone, when politicians, bureaucrats and the public came together to say “never again”. I am talking about the great Indian monsoons.

The monsoon, which, since the Indian Meteorological Department started recording it, has been arriving in India by June 1 and departing by September 30 like clockwork, is no longer behaving. While the pattern itself has been changing for the past several years, this year perhaps saw the most severe deviations from “normal.” After the hottest summer on record (each month of the Indian summer was the hottest ever recorded for that month), the monsoons were delayed. Although they hit the Kerala coast with a delay of just three days, the monsoon didn’t progress much after that, leading rise to fears of drought.

Agricultural impact

Drought fears even spurred the government to hike the Minimum Support Price for the kharif or the summer crop, by 1 to 9 per cent. As late as the beginning of August, several parts of India were running a deficit of over 30 per cent from the long season average. Then came the deluge. Kerala wiped out its deficit in just one week (from August 1-8), triggering massive floods for the second year in succession and landslides killed dozens. Neighbouring Karnataka was worse hit. In the same week (August 1-8), Karnataka as a whole received 128 per cent of normal rainfall but it was highly concentrated. On August 8, Mysuru received 3000 per cent of its long-term average rain for that day. Kodagu (Coorg) received 700 per cent excess, wiping out large chunks of its plantation economy. Belgavi district got 652 per cent of normal rainfall. Yadgir district in northern Karnataka was deficit by 48 per cent.

The story was repeated all over India. While the season total now is in excess of normal and monsoon itself is set to retreat only by mid-October (the most delayed withdrawal on record), large swathes of the country, particularly in the North, are in deficit, while there has been late and massively excessive rainfall in other areas, triggering floods.

2019 has seen a new high in the variations in the spatial and temporal distribution of the monsoons, but it is now part of a pattern which has been seen for several years now. But our official machinery is yet to wake up to the altered reality. The IMD has been talking about changing the dates for the official monsoon for five years, but is yet to do it. This means the Agriculture Ministry’s advisory (as well as those from its State counterparts) hasn’t changed.

This means that farmers are not planting shorter duration crops, so delayed onset is killing early sowings, while late floods are destroying harvested or harvest-ready produce. Banks are still releasing (or not, depending on whom you ask) credit as per the timetable set in 1941. The Food Corporation of India’s procurement machinery kicks into action when crops have either not arrived or long since been sold at distress prices to traders.

Policy continues to focus on the kharif crop while the reality is that the rabi or the winter crop is now accounting for half the foodgrain output for the year and almost all of the oilseeds and pulses. And nobody even talks of the zaid inter-season crop which mainly produces fruits and vegetables. Even corporates take major bets based on timetables which are no longer accurate.

This needs to change, and quickly. We need to change crop cycles, credit cycles, create storage infrastructure to deal with flooding, change the type and variety of crops that we grow and change the kind of inputs we are using to deal with the altered reality. Otherwise, 1999 will start looking like a good year.

Published on October 02, 2019
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