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Drought Management and the Development of Agricultural Infrastructure


by Akhilesh K Prasad

Agriculture accounts for 14% of India’s GDP and about 11% of our exports. India has the second-largest arable land base at 159.7 million hectares after the US, and the largest gross irrigated area at 88 million hectares. In fact, 60% of the country’s population depends directly or indirectly on agriculture for their principal income and land continues to be the main asset for livelihood.

The bane of the agriculture sector is that 42% of India’s land is facing drought. States such as Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and parts of the North-East have been worst hit. Almost 40% of the country’s population reside in these states.

While the center has not declared drought anywhere so far, the state governments of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Rajasthan have declared many of their districts drought-hit.

Failed monsoons are the primary reason for the current situation. The North-East monsoon that provides 10-20% of rainfall in India fell short by 44% in 2018 as per the data from the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). The South-West monsoon which provides 80-90% of rainfall fell short by 9.4% in 2018. For perspective, IMD declares a drought if there is a deficit of 10%.

As a result of lower rainfall, water levels in reservoirs across the country have reduced by about 32-36% in just 5 months up to March 2019. As a direct fallout of the drought, farm distress has worsened, groundwater extraction has been exacerbated and there is an increase in migration to urban centers. It is noteworthy here that agricultural laborers hardly get 150-160 days of work and the droughts make the situation worse for them.

Even in the face of this crisis, government programs such as farm insurance and irrigation infrastructure offer negligible help to farmers. For instance, loans taken by farmers are insured on the payment of a small premium. In the event of crop failure, they are entitled to compensation. But several farmers are not eligible for these loans and have to resort to borrowings from informal money lenders. They are the worst sufferers.

The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) scheme which ensures crops against unpredictable weather has often been criticized for making meager payouts and benefitting only insurance companies. Due to this, while 57 million farmers had joined the scheme in 2016-2017, 8.5 million quit the following year. Besides, the implementation of the scheme has also been nothing to boast of. A survey conducted by BASIX in 2018 found that only 29% of farmers in 8 states were aware of PMFBY. Of these, only 12.9% could get crop insurance. Others couldn’t avail of the benefits.

The impact of the drought is less in areas where irrigation facilities are available. However, the net irrigated area is only 34.5% of the total cultivated area in India. When the BJP came to power in 2014, they promised to complete 99 irrigation projects by 2019 under the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY). Unfortunately, 74 of these were still without field canals till 2018 end.

A 2018 CAG report said, out of 16 water projects under the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme (AIBPO) only 5 were underway. The irrigation potential achieved from these projects is only 37% and does not include any drinking water or power generation.

In conclusion, while big projects have been criticized for not being helpful, the adoption of micro-irrigation techniques has helped manage drought in parts of Karnataka. A total of 69.5 million hectares of land in India has the potential for micro-irrigation. Out of this, as of 2018, only 7.73 million hectares has got it in the form of either sprinkler or drip irrigation. Such projects need to be scaled up as groundwater is constantly depleting.

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