Drought-wary govt readies contingency plans for 500 districts

Banikinkar Pattanayak, Sandip Das Posted online: Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 at 0000 hrs
New Delhi : Given even the first forecast of the met predicts a 60% chance of El Niño and a 23% chance of a deficit monsoon, the government is taking no chances and is finalising a comprehensive contingency plan for 500-odd districts to deal with any exigency, official sources said on Friday.

As of now, the agriculture ministry has asked states to plan for the diversification of crops, ensure adequate input supplies as well as better adoption of drought-tolerant crop varieties and firm up strategies to augment fodder output, among other measures. In case of a bad drought, the government may plan to offer financial assistance including subsidy for irrigation and bonus for procurement of paddy, apart from supplying more inputs to states, as it did in 2009.

It was in 2009 India last faced a drought — incidentally, the worst in 37 years — and the villain was El Niño, which is predicted to recur this year.

In 2009, the country’s grain production hit 218 million tonnes, 6% lower than in 2008 but still around the levels achieved three years earlier. However, inflation in grains and fruits and vegetables hit 14.49% and 9.56%, respectively, in the 2009-10 fiscal, mainly owing to the drought.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) on Thursday forecast below-normal monsoon showers for 2014, at 95% of the benchmark long-period average (LPA), citing the impact of an emergent El Niño weather system. The government is getting battle-ready for even a severe drought given that the IMD’s April forecasts have often been wrong. In 2009, the last El Niño, the met had initially forecast 96% rain against the actual 23% shortfall.

According to the sources, the Hyderabad-based Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (Crida), which is firming up the plan along with the Union agriculture ministry and state universities, has divided the country into five zones for the detailed planning covering 500 districts. The plans for each district will contain basic agricultural statistics, physical characteristics of the district (soil mapping) and details of the crops and methods of cultivation to be adopted in case of exigencies, including a monsoon failure.

The government will complete the plans for 100 more districts, which are relatively less vulnerable to a drought, during the next one year, an agriculture ministry official said.

“The focus of the contingency plan is to prepare farmers in various districts against delayed monsoon, excessive rains and uneven rainfall so that they can grow appropriate varieties and save their crops,” said B Venkateswarlu, who is anchoring the project at Crida.

States would be asked to ensure effective nutrient management (for example, foliar spray of KC1 or KNO3 to partially reduce stress during drought) as well as large-scale demonstrations of climate-resilient agronomic practices, including direct seeding options for short-duration paddy varieties, roughly in step with the strategies followed in 2009.

“No need to panic, but be on the alert. Every El Niño does not turn out to be a drought for India. Keep the import policy for edible oilseeds and oils open, and so also that of pulses, cotton and vegetables,” said Ashok Gulati, chair professor (agriculture) at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. El Niño is a warming of sea-surface temperature levels in the central and east Pacific and cooling of the west that occurs every four to 12 years.

While tackling a drought is the primary responsibility of a state, the Centre provides all possible assistance, once sought. Upon the declaration of drought by a state, a central team visits the affected regions and, based on its recommendations, the Centre decides on extending financial assistance to the state.

At stake is farm sector growth apart from the livelihoods of millions of farmers, as roughly 60% of the net-sown area is rain-fed, accounting for 40% of food production. It impacts the lives of at least 40% of human and 60% of livestock population in the country, according to a farm ministry assessment. As much as 87.5% of coarse cereals as well as pulses, 77% of oilseeds, 65.7% of cotton and 48% of rice in the country are predominantly grown in the rain-fed areas.

"Although the IMD's forecasts in recent years have been more accurate than many global agencies, they are far from the exact mark. But such is the nature of monsoon predictions. So the government will ask the states to prepare for even the worst possible scenario," said a senior government official. "If the geographical spread of the rains is good, we have less reasons to worry," he added.

This leaves an enormous task for the government at the centre, as it will have address not just an industrial slowdown and other economic woes, but also a possible drought and resultant drop in farm production.

However, the government officials said the country is a better position to deal with a drought now than in 2009. Granaries were brimming with 48 million tonnes of grain stocks as of April 1, more than double the buffer requirements. Supplies of sugar, which had to be imported in large quantities at zero duty after the 2009 drought, remain plentiful due to a fourth straight year of rising production through 2013-14. However, pulses and edible oils face the maximum risk of a price rise in case of a likely drop in domestic production, as the country imports nearly one-fifth of its pulses and more than 50% of edible oils requirement annually. Vegetable oil stocks, at ports and in the pipelines, hit 12 million tonnes as of April 1, slightly lower than a year before.

While there is no cause for panic as the government has prepared district-specific contingency plans, it should ensure sufficient availability of seeds, particularly of short-duration crop varieties in case of below-normal monsoon, said Ramesh Chand, director at the state-run National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research.