Sangita Jha/New Delhi
Although late rains have washed away drought fears, inadequate rainfall in some parts of the country may spell trouble for agriculture.
After touring some of the monsoon-deficient states, Union minister Jairam Ramesh commented "drought is good politics". His assertions were due to the fact, that some of the states put demands for relief to the tune of a whopping Rs 45,000 crore. But the monsoon, which is highly unpredictable by character, has showered most parts of the country with heavy rains in August. The August bountiful of rains, however, came after dry spell in crucial months of May, June and July.
Farmers failed to sow their Kharif crops due to lack of rains and hard soil. The damage has been done but late rains will ensure at least that people do not face scarcity of drinking water as has been the concern at the top of the echelons at the Centre.
By the last week of August, monsoon rains this year have been deficient by about 14 per cent. Four states have been worst affected by the below average Monsoon this year. Karnatka, Central Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan have been hit hard as far as sowing of the Kharif crops is concerned. While the drought conditions in these four states have been sever in the last four decades or so, there has been a little reprieve for India overall. The reason is that India will not see a repeat of 2009 drought at least this year. It's so, as the 2009 drought had taken in its grip a number of states, including Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh among others. These states are highly populous and thereby the drought conditions had left serious consequences on the people.
But much has changed since 2009. The most defining part of the change has been expansion of areas for foodgrains production.
Some of the foodgrains consuming states like West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Odhisa, North-eastern states have made remarkable progress in catching up with the major foodgrains producing states of Punjab, Haryana, UP and Madhya Pradesh. Clearly, India has got cushion against recurrence of droughts. Incidentally, it has been the North-western states along with Karnatka and Mahrashtra which have been hit hard this year due to deficient rains.
However, the 14 per cent deficient Monsoon this year will surely affect the foodgrains production in the year 2012-13. It will also come in the backdrop of bumper and record foodgrains production in the last financial year, as the total output stood at 258 million tones. The record production in the last year has given India a breather, with officials estimating that the country can rest assure on the food security front for at least two years. So, there is no need to press the panic button immediately.
As far as impact on the sowing is concerned, total area under kharif crops is down at 32.9 million hectare as on August 24, against 34.2 million hectare in the same period last year. Till the third week of August, main kharif crop rice was sown in 32.92 million hectare, against 34.20 million hectare in the same period last year. While area under coarse cereals was down at 16.53 million hectare from 19 million hectare, pulses area was lower at 8.83 million hectare, against 9.98 million hectare in the year-ago period. Area under oilseeds was also down at 16.43 million hectare from 16.99 million hectare in the review period. Among cash crops, cotton acreage was slightly lower at 11.15 million hectare as on August 24, against 11.77 million hectare in the same period last year. However, area under sugarcane was up at 5.29 million hectare, against 5.06 million hectare in the review period.
So, the area of concern is clearly pulses, coarse cereals and oilseeds. India continues to depend on import of pulses and oil seeds to meet its domestic demands. The impact of the likely shortfall in the productions of pulses and oilseeds can easily be seen in the retail prices, which have begun their northward journey. The Centre is in fact working on a proposal to revive the earlier scheme of selling subsidized pulses through fair price shops under the public distribution system (PDS).
The Union agriculture secretary Ashish Bahuguna is of the view that the gap in overall coverage is five per cent of the normal area. He is confident that the September rains will bridge the gap in sowing area shortfall as compared to the last year. But he admits that the last year's foodgrains production would not be met.
"Monsoon has improved and sowing has picked up in some parts of the country. Total output of foodgrains production this year might be slightly lower than the last year's 257.44 million tones. There would be some drop in production of pulses and coarse cereals. With respect to other crops, there should not be any problem," said Mr Bahuguna.
The ministry of agriculture is also of the opinion that with chances of El-nino weather pattern receding, the September rains would be better than the earlier forecast, which would help in bridging the shortfalls in sowing area to some extent.
The optimism in the ministry has come after India Meteorological Department (IMD) early in August had pegged below normal monsoon in September due to likely warming of the Pacific Ocean, popularly known as the El Nino phenomenon. But things appear to have changed midways. "According to IMD's latest update to us, there will not be El nino effect on monsoon as chances of its occurrence is receding. Temperature in Pacific Ocean is okay and in September, rainfall is expected to be better than the IMD forecast," said Mr Bahuguna.
Meanwhile, late August rains continue to play havoc in Rajsthan, where some places beat the previous records and reported flooding. In fact the impact of the rains had been so palpable that Rajsthan has postponed for a while to petition the Centre with its demands for drought relief. Incidentally, the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) on drought too has not met after the first meeting in a move which is being seen as a waiting tactics tp soo the impact of the August rains on the drought like conditions in few of the states.
However, the Centre is gearing up to take measures on price rise of essential commodities as a fallout of the drought like conditions. Union minister of state for food and consumer affairs K. V. Thomas told the Parliament that there could be some impact on prices.
The Centre has put in place the diesel subsidy for farmers upto 50 per cent to ensure that they can irrigate their lands. Further, contingency measures in over 325 districts have been activated.
The Centre has asked the states to focus on fodder cultivation to ensure that there is no adverse impact on the livestocks. As far as the consequent rise in unemployment is concerned, Mr Ramesh had announced during his visit to Gujrat in the comoany of agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, that states can enlist 150 days of works under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) against the norms of 100 days, with the Centre bearing the additional cost.
While the August rains have ensured that various parts of the country may not face drinking water scarcity, the upward trend in the foodgrains production has surely been slowed and much efforts may be needed to initiate long term measures to conserve water and put in place extensive irrigatuion infrastructure.