At least two global weather forecasters have pointed to a 50 per cent chance of an El Nino developing in the second half of 2023. The impact of a warming of the Pacific Ocean on the South West Monsoon, and in turn on crop output, is subject to a number of variables. A 2014 ICRIER paper on El Nino and Indian droughts by Ashok Gulati et al observes that not all El Nino years converted into droughts (where rainfall falls below 10 per cent of the long period average) for India but most droughts happened in El Nino years.

The paper observes that there is a higher chance of an El Nino turning into a drought if the warming of the oceans were to occur between April and November, rather than between October and April. Whatever the outcome this time, it is better to be proactive rather than reactive in drought management. The National Crisis Management Plan for Drought, brought out last year, as well as earlier such documents, spell out a plan of action, as well as some early warning indicators, such as rising fodder prices, dipping reservoir levels, migration of rural population and shortage of drinking water in rural areas, leading to water tanker movements. Fodder inflation is at about 30 per cent already, without the monsoon having set in, an issue that needs attention. Reservoir levels are 92 per cent of what they were at this time last year and higher than the 10-year average level for this period, but there are signs of stress in the southern States.

According to the Drought Management Plan document of 2017, northern Karnataka, Telangana, Rayalseema, Marathwada and almost all of Rajasthan are India’s most drought prone regions, with the States having declared drought in 10 or more out of 16 years since 2000. These States should be on alert, beefing up fodder and drinking water levels, while cutting down on wasteful use of groundwater. Centre-State coordination on this score should rise above political differences.

An International Water Management Institute-Tata study on drought proofing strategies adopted by farmers in southern States provides interesting pointers. It says that farmers prefer drilling new borewells despite its high investment and 70-90 per cent failure rate, over deploying drip irrigation systems. Investment in farm trenches and field plastic mulches does not evoke interest either. Banks and the district administration should work in tandem, as debt distress has often been linked to borewells. Above all, as the Prime Minister has said, India must realise its potential as a millets producer by diverting crop under paddy and sugarcane towards millets in a dry year. The need to revive traditional, hardy crops, besides late sowing, heat-resistant, short-duration varieties developed by ICAR cannot be overstated. But for that the extension system must be revived, as crop planning and diversity cannot entirely be left to the private players.