Monsoon failure

After a string of five good monsoons, India seems to have once again run out of luck this year. As rain-gods play truant, the government has declared drought in 161 districts. The kharif rice crop, about a quarter of the kharif  food-grain and oilseed area, is expected to be 20 percent lower than expected. Unless large parts of the country receive rains in August-September, the rain-fed paddy crop will have to be all but written off. And if rains fail after that, even rabi sowing will be severely affected, what with empty reservoirs and depleted aquifers.

However, things may not be as bad as the doomsday stories suggest. The way Indian agriculture responds to drought during recent decades is very different from the way it responded for millennia before. Earlier, a drought for Indian farmers meant an entire crop-year lost. The main kharif crop would of course be lost. Empty tanks and reservoirs would also mean loss of rabi and summer crops.

With rapid development in groundwater irrigation, however, this situation has changed. When managed well, groundwater storage lasts long after all surface storages dry up during a drought. Compared to tanks and reservoirs, groundwater storage plays a much larger ‘stabilisation’ role as distinct from the ’production’ role.

This has been evident in recent Indian experience. In 1965-66, when rainfall was 20 percent below normal, India suffered a 19 percent fall in food grain production over the previous year; but then, the groundwater revolution was just beginning. In 1987-88, in the middle phase of the groundwater boom, rainfall was 17.5 percent below normal; but food grain production was down by just over 2 percent.

But then India never paid attention to managing groundwater. Reckless expansion in groundwater irrigation without concomitant effort to replenish the resource left many aquifers depleted. As a result, in 2002 drought, which followed two weak monsoons, and when rainfall deficit was again 20 percent, groundwater failed to stabilise Indian agriculture. Farm output fell by 20 percent, as it had done in 1966. If 2009 ends up a drought, it may not be as bad as 2002, because it follows some good monsoons which are likely to have added to natural recharge.

A pecking order has now emerged in India with respect to drought-proneness of different areas. Rain-fed agriculture areas are hit the hardest by a drought. Areas in tank commands can salvage some of their crops by utilising some groundwater recharged by tanks for supplemental irrigation. Canal commands under run-of-the river systems are better protected than tank commands but not as well-protected as command areas of reservoir-based irrigation systems. Dugwell-irrigated areas in canal commands are less affected by drought than those dependent on recharge from rainfall because these latter dry up during a drought. By far the best protected areas are those irrigated by deep tubewells, especially in canal-recharged areas like upper Punjab and central Gujarat.

Hard rock areas of peninsular region—65 percent of India’s landmass—are far more dependent on tanks and dug wells which become useless during a drought in the absence of aggressive groundwater recharge in preceding years of good monsoon. Little surprise then that the 2000 drought hit farmers in the southern states much harder than the tubewell irrigated states of the Indo-Gangetic basin.

This year too, the impact of the drought will be muted in tubewell-irrigated areas provided farmers there get sufficient power and diesel. For example, North Gujarat has received much less rain than it normally gets. However, these are deep tube-well irrigated areas; and farmers of Gujarat receive adequate power supply. So these will easily survive the coming drought. However, if there is another drought in succession in 2010, things will be different.

Dairying has emerged as another bulwark  against the Indian drought. In the past, saving the cattle from starving was the major concern of the Indian farmer. Today, the situation is totally different; now dairying booms during a drought.  During the 2002 drought, the value of paddy and oilseeds output fell nearly 20 percent and of wheat, nearly 10 percent; but the value of livestock and milk production grew nearly 3 percent on an all-India basis; it grew much more in semi-arid western India. In states like Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, during the past 20 years, milk production has steadily increased, through good monsoons as well as bad, even as production of field crops has fluctuated widely.

Dairying has been the farmer’s adaptive strategy during droughts. As crops fail, most farmers divert land, water and other resources to produce more feed and fodder to preserve their livelihoods and income. And milch cattle respond strongly, and immediately, to better feeding by readily yielding more milk.

But dairying works as a drought-buffer only where there exists a strong network of dairy cooperatives. These help convert increased milk production into what Amartya Sen called ‘exchange entitlements’. Eastern India does not have strong milk marketing institutions. As a result, dairying plays no drought-buffer role here.  The small holder in Bihar or Orissa can not rely on milk to tide over a drought quite like small farmers can in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan or Tamil Nadu.

While the 2009 drought will have to be dealt with in a crisis mode, there is renewed demand for more large-scale irrigation projects and inter-linking of rivers as a long term response. However, by themselves, dams and canals have proved increasingly useless during droughts. Few Indian dams have carry-over storage that is available to drought-proof agriculture. More the use of dam storage is driven more by the demands of power generation than by the needs of the farmers. The only storage that can provide some measure of drought proofing is groundwater storage. Instead of pumping money on dams and canals, Indian agriculture will be better off investing in groundwater banking. This involves storing surplus flood waters in aquifers which can be drawn upon in times of need.

India needs to re-invent canal irrigation as a means to bank groundwater in times of surplus water availability. Instead, command areas of many existing irrigation projects are shrinking because of a variety of reasons. Many tertiary canals are in disrepair. When water does not reach tail ends, farmers flatten canals and bring the land under plough. Also, as farmers turn to groundwater, they lose interest in canals and their maintenance. According to government data, despite massive investments in the so called Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Program, India’s canal irrigation is decelerating and has lost 3 million hectares of canal-irrigated areas since 1991.

This trend does not augur well for insulating the country from drought. The best thing that can be done with India’s surface storages is to maximise their use for groundwater banking by spreading the water over as large an area as possible. For the Indian water establishment, however, using surface water resources for groundwater recharge is a blasphemy. But this is a common practice in arid and semi-arid regions like the western United States and Australia. Surplus surface water is dispatched to groundwater aquifers which evaporate far less and are therefore good storages. In times of need, stored groundwater is pumped and transported to areas in need. Such groundwater banking can insulate India from droughts.

Groundwater banking is an idea whose time has come in India. The concept must be adapted to fit our reality. India may not have vast unpeopled areas that can serve as recharge basins. But we can certainly evolve recharge technologies suited to our conditions. Groundwater banking can be done in a decentralised format as well; and National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) could be an ideal vehicle for doing this.

If the monsoon fails to revive, 2009 will be the year for NREGA. Many states have not been able to use the resources available under this ambitious scheme to provide employment guarantee to rural poor. In a drought, however, demand for work will increase manifold. And the best works to undertake would be structures to support groundwater banking. NREGA can provide employment to the needy as well as prepare the ground for dealing with future droughts. If every village were to construct five new water harvest-ing and recharge structures, and de-silt existing ones, it will be better prepared to survive the next drought when it comes.