Drought-proofing India

If the drought, which now threatens to be one of the worst in recent memory, has left you depressed, do this on this Independence Day weekend. Just drive out of Delhi and go as far as you want, up north. Go to Shimla, Chandigarh, or as far as Amritsar, but drive, don't fly. Because an incredible — and happy — surprise awaits you. Totally lush, bounteous fields of paddy stretch endlessly into the horizon on both sides of the highway. So where is the drought? Where are the caked, cracked and dried mud-flats with withered saplings that characterise drought? And mind you, Punjab and Haryana are among the worst hit states this year, notching up a rainfall deficit of 50 to 70 per cent in most places. What's gone wrong, or right, here, you might ask?

You speak to the governments of the two states and they tell you how severe the drought actually is, how stressed their reservoirs are, how little rain has fallen this year. But then they also tell you with surprising confidence, even smugness, that "one drought we can manage, at a pinch even two in a row". This drought, one of the severest ever for this region, will devastate farm economics to an extent, making the farmer spend more on diesel and power, but the yields — even in the water-guzzling paddy flats — are going to be more or less protected. In fact, Manpreet Badal, Punjab's very modern and talented finance minister, and himself a farmer of no mean size, tells me the Punjabi farmer has been quick to recover from initial setbacks as the monsoon deteriorated unexpectedly. (This year's monsoon forecasting has been probably the worst ever in our recent history, but that is a different story.) Because of poor forecasting, which kept on promising a monsoon recovery, many farmers missed the early paddy sowing window. But they more than made up for it by quickly switching to basmati which can be planted a little later. This will in fact mean more money for them — but a smaller contribution to the national paddy reserve.

The reason Punjab and Haryana, and to an extent western Uttar Pradesh across the Yamuna from Haryana's grain bowl, can grin and bear at least one terrible drought is the foresight of regional leaders and some Central governments that made such decisive investments in irrigation in the fifties and the sixties. That, even more than any improved seed varieties or pesticides, is what made this the green revolution zone. The division of the Indus system rivers almost to the last litre between India and Pakistan also provided an impetus to plans to trap as much surplus water as possible in so many reservoirs which also, in turn, helped constantly recharge underground aquifers with constant recharge. Of course, it helped that most of this was done in decades when the most retrograde environmental and jholawala movements in the history of mankind had not yet arrived on the scene.

The sixties also saw the rise of farmer (or Jat) politics in the region, producing a string of farmer leaders, Kairon, Badal, Charan Singh, Devi Lal, Ajit Singh and now Bhupinder Singh Hooda. While Left ideologues and sundry poverty "specialists" dismissed these as mere kulak leaders, together they ensured that governments continued to invest in irrigation and power. At least every farmer, of any size, in this region has the one thing that will save his life in a drought: a pumping set, whether running on power or diesel. The result is these endless expanses of paddy greens when most other parts of the country, with even less rain shortfall than Punjab-Haryana, have seen their crops wither away entirely. This, actually, is most of the remaining planes of north-west and eastern India, Rajasthan, Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh and much of Madhya Pradesh. Most of these, barring parts of Bihar, have had a little more rain than Punjab and Haryana. Also, quite ironically, many of these, particularly Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and some parts of Madhya Pradesh, have vast underground aquifers sitting much closer to the soil than those up north. They don't have pumping sets, though — which, to think of it, do not cost that much — or the energy to run one.

The answer to why one region can deal with a terrible drought and another can't lies basically in its politics — because in a democracy votes and voter awareness decide where the state invests. Another remarkable success story is of Gujarat where, again, the empowerment of Patels led to the building of a robust irrigation system. It was also because of the astuteness with which the same political class (irrespective of party affiliations) sold the idea of the Narmada dam to fellow Gujaratis that our most well-organised, publicised and globally-supported anti-dam movement failed to block it. The dam got built because the Gujaratis won't brook any obstruction to it. Today, Gujarat is another state capable of weathering a drought year. The reason I did not use that example already is simply that it seems to have received reasonable rainfall this year. Maharashtra is a limited success story. Parts of it, particularly those under Sharad Pawar's influence, have sorted out irrigation. But parts, like Vidarbha, struggle without the rains. Yet another state to have sorted out its politics, at least on the farm front, is Andhra Pradesh. Rajasekhar Reddy is making humongous investments in irrigation, and because some of these are in really ambitious plans they will still take some time securing the south's agri-powerhouse fully against a drought. But he is getting there.

Today you can either fret over the poor state of politics and decades of lousy governance in Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and, to some extent, Madhya Pradesh, or use this drought as an opportunity to fix this problem. As the old line says, you should never waste a crisis. Because we have been passing through what weathermen would call a good monsoon epoch for nearly two decades we have been able to put the irrigation challenge on the back-burner. There was a touching, sweeping line in the Common Minimum Programme that simply said: all pending irrigation projects will be completed. But nobody, even in the Left, ever reminded UPA-I of that pledge. Over these "easier" monsoon decades all our governments have treated the water resources ministry as the most inconsequential. I have, for years, stumped my colleagues in our newsroom with the same question: who is India's water resources minister? That is a trick question because that portfolio usually goes to someone only by default. Do you know who has that portfolio in this cabinet?

If this is an opportunity to restore the focus to irrigation, on the larger management of our water resources (what happened to the grand plan of linking even intra-basin rivers?), it is also a chance for Sharad Pawar to redeem himself as agriculture minister. A man most eminently suited for the job has made nothing of it so far, distracted by exaggerated ambition on the one hand, and cricket on the other, and reduced, unfortunately, to some kind of an agri-commodities minister. He has to get out on the (agricultural, not cricketing) fields now, and use this, resurgent India's first real drought, to launch new green revolutions. A country our size, after five years of 8 per cent growth, can do better than having just two and a half green revolution states in a federation of 28.

sg@expressindia.com

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