Shashanka Bhide

Nature's fury and farm sector

SHASHANKA BHIDE | Updated on May 24, 2011

The recent US floods are a reminder that the risks from natural disasters cannot be wished away. India, on its part, could consider putting aside resources to protect farm assets from floods and droughts.

As we await the unfolding of the monsoon, we are once again reminded of the uncertainties of Nature. The US has been hit by floods, following heavy rain and snowfall in the winter months. Back home, the Kosi floods a few years back were singularly devastating. This is also the time when hurricanes and summer fires strike. It is not clear if climate volatility has increased and is here to stay. However, measures to protect agricultural assets are as important as food security. They will remain important in view of the need for stable farm output.

IMPACT OF US FLOODS

In the US, it became necessary to allow the the flooding of over a million hectares of farmland to tame the flow of the Mississipi. The choice before engineers was between protecting densely populated cities or the less populated farmlands; they obviously weighed in favour of diverting the flood waters to farmlands, with the necessary support for relief, relocation and rescue.

However, the impact in such a situation is not only on crops in the field but also on the land, the structures and the storage of output. Logistics would also be affected as the river is also mode of transport. The livestock and wildlife would be affected by floods.

In the end, for a large economy like the US, the impact may not be significant. The crop area affected may be a fraction of the total crop area. But the impact at the local level, at the individual farm level, would be devastating. What is striking is that there are defensive systems in the present case which minimise the adverse effects. The spillways, the diversions, built decades back become useful now. The crop losses may be insignificant in relation to the total output of the country, but in view of the tightness in demand conditions and not-so-favourable production conditions elsewhere, there could be some adverse impact on prices.

However, the generally efficient distribution systems probably will keep the price and supply impact of the floods at a low level.

Defences against floods were built years ago in India. They were built both to assist agriculture and also protect populations.

DISASTER PREPAREDNESS

There have been many such investments in irrigation dams, canals and reservoirs in India essentially to utilise the flow of river waters for irrigation and power. Although large investments of this kind are now fewer, the need for infrastructure investments to ward off Nature's occasional fury is rising because of the growing number of vulnerable people. We have larger cities and more population everywhere.

There are more resources now for disaster management now than before. There is perhaps also a higher degree of preparedness. But there is a need for greater preparedness in agricultural strategies. Much more has been accomplished in terms of passive strategies.

In comparison to a few decades back, there have been improvements on many counts — in distribution systems; alternative seeds or varieties of crops which can be used when crop season gets truncated due to floods or drought; and cheaper credit. There is also the famous PDS. Farmers may be smarter today than before in the use of technologies and better administrative systems to handle relief.

Where should India invest, in order to protect agriculture from natural calamities? The requirement of more resources when it comes to better embankments or protective structures makes the choices harder.

As the economy gallops ahead, the share of agriculture in total output will decrease. Will that also make voice of agriculture for fresh investments weaker?

INVESTMENT STRATEGY

Ironically, just when the economy is getting stronger and has more resources to offer, there may be less attention to the needs of agriculture.

Given the growing perception of ineffectiveness of input subsidies in agriculture, it may be more important to consider investments that protect agriculture's assets: Land, water, livestock and structures especially in areas which are vulnerable to adversities of weather.

The soft defences such as insurance and information systems to warn of impending adversities are as important as the hard defences.

Floods and droughts have been the bane of Indian agriculture. Insulating agricultural output from these shocks has been a fairly high priority in policies. It is also difficult to set aside for the potential man-made calamities affecting agriculture's performance. The experience even in developed economies has shown that there is a need to recognise the potential risks arising from Nature's volatility. If this were to be achieved, agriculture would have shifted from an uncertain to a sheltered environment. But that has not happened so far. The need to invest in managing floods and droughts will remain important even as India's non-farm economy runs ahead.

(The author is a Senior Research Counsellor, NCAER. The views are personal. >blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

Published on May 18, 2011

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