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The Government Can Handle Drought A Lot Better. Here's How

29/04/2016 8:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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An Indian man drinks water as he removes dead fish and tries to rescue the surviving ones from the Vastrapur Lake that got dried up due to hot weather in Ahmadabad, India, Sunday, April 24, 2016. India is grappling with severe water shortages and drought affecting more than 300 million people, a quarter of the country's population. Thousands of distressed farmers have committed suicide, tens of thousands of farm animals have died, and crops have perished, with rivers, lakes and ponds drying up and groundwater tables sinking. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

India is a country of extreme weather, where droughts and floods can occur simultaneously in different regions. Having said so, the intensity of damage caused by them can be massively avoided with appropriate disaster response mechanisms from the government. In fact, the responsibility of safeguarding the lives and livelihoods of its citizens against any disaster (natural or human-made) is the basic raison d'être of a State.

Unlike floods and earthquakes, droughts and famines are disasters where the State cannot easily shift the blame or dismiss accusations of mishandling, owing to their prolonged duration and multi-regional impact. Hence any government will do its best to mitigate droughts, especially the one brought to power despite its inglorious "anti-farmer" tag. Though the NDA's revamp of the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme (AIBP) and its amalgamation with various other irrigation-specific schemes to form an integrated Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY) is a positive step in the realizing of "Har Khet Ko Pani" (Water To Every Field), how effective do they prove in reducing the impact of droughts and restoring of the lost livelihoods of the people affected by them? How can the disastrous consequences of droughts be reduced in the future?

[F]ood security has been given precedence over perpetuity and the post green revolution phase has been marred by homogenization in terms of cultivation of cereals...

The data released by the Centre reveals that around 33 crore people are victimized by drought. Though there have been a few apprehensions around the inclusion or exclusion of a few states, the intensity is evident. Subsequently, the Central government has released considerable funds towards relief activities to the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. However, does the issue get solved there? Certainly not! A disaster like drought is bound to re-emerge if the situation is not handled appropriately.

What is crucial is a structured multi-pronged approach towards preventing drought situations before the onset of the short-lived solace of the upcoming monsoon, which till date has been a reason for the loss of vigour in the disaster assuagement process.

One primary consequence of a drought is the lack of availability of water for agriculture. The rainfall in the country is not uniform. The same holds true for groundwater availability, and the nature of soil. This warrants cropping to be area specific, thus resulting in produce marked by multitude. On the flipside, food security has been given precedence over perpetuity and the post green revolution phase has been marred by homogenization in terms of cultivation of cereals and short-sighted exploitation of natural resources.

Instead of taking the assistance route, alternative livelihood options need to be tapped.

A topical instance in this case is that of the Marathwada region where the rainfall isn't good enough to handle a crop like sugarcane. Its cultivation has deteriorated the health of the agricultural ecosystem to such an extent where recuperation now looks like a far-fetched dream. Instead, emphasis on dry-land farming, incentivization of millets like jowar or (and) bajra or promotion of cultivation of fodder crops would have been a perpetual solution to the agriculturalists of such regions. An industry around these would be equally profitable considering the growing demand for the said products in the market.

The other aspect of drought is the scarcity of water for consumption purposes. For this, the community needs to rise to the occasion by creating infrastructure to harvest water and replenish the groundwater table as well. An example would be Tuensang district of Nagaland where the community in tandem with local administration had evolved a means to implement a water harvesting initiative that involves collection of water in tanks and letting them flow into the ground. They chose to use bamboo that is available in abundance as a pipe between water-collection tank and the pit thereby making the initiative highly cost-effective. Considering the fact that mitigating a drought situation is a medium- to long-term process, enough attention needs to be given to sustaining lives till then.

Instead of taking the assistance route, alternative livelihood options need to be tapped.

At this juncture, it is imperative that the discourse stays need-centred as against one with shallow political agendas.

There are a number of schemes that have been envisioned or implemented by the government. At this juncture, the efficacy would be improved if the schemes are integrated--such as, say, MGNREGA and Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY). Additional manpower to help the district authority handle the development administration would make the process a lot more effective. This would reduce the dependency of farmers on agriculture, which would help farming as an occupation get consolidated on one hand and lighten the burden on cities by lowering migration rates. Above all, a rural area would be a hub of multifarious occupations like farm-tool manufacturing, handlooms, handicrafts, beekeeping, horticulture etc, thereby promoting development beyond growth.

News reports suggest that the opposition is set to raise the drought issue in Parliament. At this juncture, it is imperative that the discourse stays need-centred as against one with shallow political agendas. Among other things, structural reforms in the agricultural sector, enabling enhanced utilization of irrigation infrastructure and its expansion, bolstering agricultural research in the existing institutions, incentivizing alternative means of livelihood, and rationing of subsidies are the means to the creation of self-sustaining economic units in rural India. Owing to a strong majority in Parliament, an absence of coalition pressures and a charismatic figure at the helm, the responsibility of bringing in a plausible change fairly and squarely lies on the government of the day.

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