Drought, Gods & Pawars That Be
Missing monsoon, absent agriculture minister, prolific praying and ineffectual irrigation. How much more do we have to suffer?
Monsoon rain, the lifeline of Indian agriculture, has been a staggering 22 per cent below average so far this year according to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). The June and July rains which bring about 50 per cent of the total monsoon rain have played truant, and the entire western half of the country is in serious rainfall deficit. Even the forecast is dismal.
Recent events in New Delhi, Maharashtra and Karnataka provide a fascinating insight into the incompetence of our elected representatives in dealing with the unpredictability of the monsoon and its impact on our long-suffering populace.
What signifies the importance of the monsoon is that only 48.3 per cent of the total land under food grain production is irrigated – according to the Economic Survey 2011-12 published by the Government of India. Union Agriculture Minister, Shri Sharad Pawar, underlining the significance of the monsoon to Indian agriculture, said that the unpredictable monsoon, “continues to challenge the farming community, scientists and the policy makers alike”.
Owing to this deficit rainfall, the area under all kharif crops so far has fallen by 14 per cent year on year to 53.4 million hectares. Kharif sowing begins with the onset of the southwest monsoon in June. While Kharif sowing has picked up pace, there are still concerns over rainfall in four states – Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan – where large tracts of land are still not covered. Agriculture Secretary, Ashish Bahuguna informed us that while rainfall deficiency is also acute in Punjab and Haryana, crop-sowing position is comfortable in these two states because of irrigation facilities.
While Mr Pawar is right about the unpredictability of the monsoon, which is “playing hide-and-seek” in his words, he fails to mention the impact of irrigation in alleviating the complete dependence of farmers on the monsoon – as in the case of Punjab and Haryana. It is not hard to see why when you look at Maharashtra.
A recent report by the Economic Survey of Maharashtra exposes the shallowness of Mr Pawar’s comments. The report had provided data that showed that although there was only a 0.1 per cent increase in area under irrigation in the last decade, a humungous Rs 70,000 crore has been pumped into roughly 1,200 major, medium and minor irrigation projects across the state during this period. A majority of them are incomplete and the area under irrigation barely increased. Yes, that’s 0.1 per cent. Yes, in a decade. Yes, Rs 70,000 crore.
Interestingly, the Maharashtra irrigation department, now renamed water resources, has been held by the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) that has been ruling the State for the past 15 years. Mr Sharad Pawar is the founding president of the NCP. Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, who is also Sharad Pawar’s nephew, is embroiled in it as he was the Irrigation Minister for many years. Sunil Tatkare, the present Irrigation Minister from the NCP, who is under the scanner as well, put the figure at Rs 42,000 crore and claimed 5.17 per cent additional land was brought under irrigation.
Concerned over the findings, the Maharashtra Chief Minister, Mr Prithviraj Chavan, demanded a white paper on irrigation. “I will ask the irrigation department to verify the exact amount spent on increasing irrigation capacity and what has actually been done and direct the concerned department to bring out a white paper”, Mr Chavan said.
Chavan’s remark angered the NCP who saw it as a direct attack on Ajit Pawar. After this came the saga of the No 2 position in the government recently vacated by Mr Pranab Mukherjee. It was widely reported that piqued over the perceived position of Defence Minister Mr Anthony as the new No 2, NCP ministers Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel have offered to resign from their ministries. They later denied that the No 2 position was their concern, and that they were unhappy at what they called “the Congress’ failure to coordinate with, and consult, allied parties”.
While demanding better coordination from the Congress, Mr Pawar failed to show any kind of coordination in dealing with the 22 per cent deficit rainfall over the first half of the monsoon – a deficit of more than 10 per cent over the season is defined as a drought. The government had to go through the ignominy of a drought situation in the country – including in key states such as Karnataka and Pawar’s native Maharashtra – being unattended to by its Agriculture Minister, who was refusing to attend office.
The GoM on drought was not convened as Farm Minister, Sharad Pawar and the Congress were busy trying to resolve the political deadlock. So far, Mr Pawar’s sum of actions seems to be a statement issued in the first week of July that the government is fully prepared to meet any rainfall situation and hoped that rainfall will pick up in July-August.
Neither Mr Pawar nor Maharashtra is new to the sufferings of the farmers. In 2011, Maharashtra showed a rise in numbers yet again, logging 3,337 against 3,141 farmers’ suicides in 2010. It remains the worst single state for farm suicides for over a decade now. Union Minister for Agriculture, Sharad Pawar has strictly avoided using NCRB farm data in Parliament since 2008 because the data is unpleasant.
With a figure of at least 14,027 in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the total number of farm suicides in India since 1995 has touched 2,70,940. The share of the worst (Big 5) states (Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh) as a percentage of total farm suicides is now around 64 per cent.
This brings us to Karnataka – the state with second worst farm suicide numbers. It is one of the states hardest hit by deficient rainfall. Staring at its worst drought in 42 years, this state provides another fascinating insight in dealing with the drought.
The Karnataka government has decided to spend Rs 17 crore to ensure that the state does not face a drought this year. However, the money is not being spent on drought-proofing measures; rather the government is handing out this amount for “special prayers and yagnas” to invoke the rain gods! According to the government circular, each of the 34,000 Hindu temples under the purview of the department of religious endowments have to perform special yagnas – Varuna Homa and Jala Abhisheka – on July 27th and August 2nd as the two days are considered auspicious. The government will grant between Rs 2,000 and Rs 5,000 to each temple, totaling Rs 17 crore.
Responding to a PIL filed in the Karnataka High Court the State Muzrai (Religious Endowment) Minister, Kota Srinivas Poojari, had told the state Legislative Council that expenditure for special pujas planned in over 34,000 temples would be met by collecting funds from devotees. Mr Poojari said that as soon as he issued the government order, there had been heavy rains in some parts of the state.
Who needs to take action when you’ve got gods!
Apart from pleasing the gods with their prayers, the Karnataka government also decided to please their hard-working legislators. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has been filed in the Karnataka High Court bringing attention to the government’s plan to send as many as 250 legislators on foreign trips at an estimated cost of Rs 15 crore. “Instead of giving importance to handle the drought situation and helping the farmers and the public, the legislators are planning a trip to foreign countries”, the plea stated.
The filed plea requested for the issuance of a writ of mandamus directing the state government to drop a proposed foreign trip of legislators in the wake of severe drought. Mandamus which means “command” is a order issued by the court commanding a government official to perform his duty.
All is not lost, though. The Central government claims to be in full readiness to address any situation. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) released a statement late July conveying extensive plans to deal with the deficiency in the monsoon. Let’s hope that some of these plans would be implemented before it is too late.
The erratic monsoon in India coupled with drought in the US is expected to lead to higher food prices in the international market. Food Minister, KV Thomas said edible oils and pulses are an area of concern. This will further burden the common man already reeling under the persistent inflation.
With the underprivileged’s dependency on nature and the overprivileged’s destruction of it, a dysfunctional political system, an apathetic government and utter lack of support systems, the Karnataka’s minister’s plan of invoking gods may not be such a bad idea.
Pray India, Pray!
Image By: [Sunayana Singh]