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Between the line

Can drought bring us closer?
August 19, 2009


MONSOON may well be a seasonal wind of the Indian Ocean. But it is accompanied by rains. The subcontinent comprising India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are dependent on them. Nearly two-thirds of the population of the three countries lives in the countryside. More rains make their life a bit easy and the less pushes them further to the edge.

I do not know about Pakistan or Bangladesh. But the crisis in India is deep. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has officially declared that the monsoon has failed. As many as 141 districts, nearly one third of the country, have been badly affected. The worst-hit states are Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Jharkand and West Bengal. Punjab is slightly better off because of the canals and water pumps.

Bihar has put 26 districts out of 36 in the drought-stricken area. Maharashtra’s Vidarbha, perennially caught between dismal poverty and farmers’ debt-suicides, has had no rains for the third year in a row. In terms of crops, paddy has not been sown in 60 lakh hectares. India consumes more rice than wheat. If rains fail the current kharif crop, the moisture in the land for the Rabi (wheat) will be affected. The Prime Minister, who convened a meeting of state chief secretaries this week, has emphasized on them to prepare contingency plans on how to deal with the drought.

But, unfortunately, most of these IAS officers do not know the countryside. They sit in their air-conditioned offices in state capitals and prepare plans which look good on paper but fail on the field. Even the experience transmitted to state governments seldom figures in the schemes meant for the countryside. The Union Agriculture Ministry in New Delhi is the nodal point. But Union Minister Sharad Pawar is the weakest link because he remains absorbed throughout the year in his Nationalist Congress Party and cricket board affairs.

The Union ministry has declared a stock of 253 lakh tones of wheat and 232 lakh tones of rice. But most of it is lying in the open and at least 25 per cent must have gone waste due to inclement weather and rats. Despite the drought in one area or the other, New Delhi is found wanting whenever a large-scale scarcity takes place. It has been suggested again and again that the areas dependent on rains should be decreased. Even after 62 years of independence, 60 per cent of the agricultural land is not irrigated.

New Delhi has announced an allocation of Rs 25,000 crore to meet the drought. Strange, the package to bail out Air India is Rs 20,000 crore. Come to think of it, what is described as Bharat is neglected by India. New Delhi is legislating for the Right to Food. It is a commendable step. Both Islamabad and Dhaka should emulate the example. A democratic state has to ensure that its people do not go hungry. If they do, they may be tempted to look for desperate remedies.

Basically, it is a sad commentary on the development in a region. Industrial growth cannot make up for the failure of crops. The West has done it otherwise. We have to realize that poverty has to be eliminated by hard work, not through the use of force or the deepening of religious faith. Industry would have to play a bigger role.

Steps to grow more food are linked with the land. Farmers have to be motivated to put in their best. India introduced some land reforms nearly five decades ago. It needs another dose to reduce the highest holding of 18 acres per individual so that the land is available to the landless.

Yet, Pakistan continues to be a feudal society where both President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani possess hundreds of acres of land. Once I asked a leading landlord in Sindh if he knew how much land he owned. He was frank enough to admit that he had no idea but took pride that two railway stations were located on it. Bangladesh may not have big zamindars. Still the inequality in holdings is too glaring to be ignored.

The Mehbub-ul Haq Human Development Centre in Pakistan has pointed out in its 2008 report that the number of deprived people in South Asia in terms of adequate income, health and education remain more or less the same in the last 10 years. “The region continues to be home to about one half of the world’s illiterate adults and about an equal proportion (47 per cent) of the world’s poor defined on the basis of people living below $1 a day earning.” In India, however, things are slightly better because the base is $2 per day. Yet the 70 per cent of the population is stuck at that income, many even below. The drought will affect them the most.

The three countries could coordinate their efforts on climate and ecology. I do not know why the Indian Meteorological Department fails every year in predicting the rains. In January, the department said that the monsoon were normal. But its forecast, as usual, turned out to be wrong. The then minister in charge, Kapil Sibal, claimed after the failure to know about Tsunami that best of equipments had been imported to predict the monsoon. The Meteorological Department has done no better this year. Should crores of public money be wasted on a setup which is dependent on hunches and the out-of-date methods? I am sure Pakistan and Bangladesh must have had the same experience.

In the midst of food crises, New Delhi’s export of rice does not make sense. There has been a ban since October 2007. As much as 10 lakh tones of rice have been exported on “human grounds” to African countries. The ships carrying the rice were diverted to other destinations. Some Rs 250 crore has been earned by many hands, including government servants. Had the matter not been raised in parliament, the scandal would not have come to light. New Delhi is reluctant to order an inquiry because it is still “studying the files.” The pressure of politicians and the vested interests has seen to it that the government remains “studying files.”

Already the bad news is that India’s growth rate has gone down by 1 to 2 per cent. But if the rains fail even in winter, the growth rate may go down by 3 to 4 per cent. The worst situation was in 1988 when even water and fodder had to be reached to distant places. India recovered from that crisis. There is no reason why it would not do this time. But the coordination with our neighbouring countries could do better because the entire region is hopelessly dependent on agriculture.

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