Sunday, July 15, 2012

Five reasons why a drought in India won't matter

Droughts are those creeping sorts of natural disasters that grab us unawares. Or are they? The south-west (June-September) monsoon, that gives almost 75% of India's annual rainfall, is erratic in one out of four years.
With wide variations in agro-climatic zones, drought is guaranteed somewhere in the country each year, affecting about 50 million people.

Changing weather patterns have accelerated drought attacks. There were six between 1900 and 1950 and 12 in the following 50 years. We have already faced three droughts between 2000 and 2009.

So, if this monsoon produces droughts in some areas - we are nowhere close to that possibility right now - do we have to worry? Not really. There are five reasons for this.


After the 2002-03 drought, the government developed a standard operating procedure on how to tackle water shortage for humans, cattle and crops. Once a drought is officially declared, several things happen at once. The Central government starts rescheduling farm loans, moving water and fodder by rail, hiking food allocation to poor families, creating more jobs. A ministerial task force is set up to take rapid decisions.

Drought-declared states are monitored individually by the Centre. The Essential Commodities Act is used to prevent hoarding, and states get cash for relief programmes. The upshot of these moves is that even though the majority of India's poor families live in rain-fed areas, destitution from loss of farm income is considerably less.


Even a 20% drop in rice production this year will not impact supply after the record harvest last season. The government is holding enough rice and wheat to supply ration shops for three years. This puts a ceiling on consumer foodgrain prices. A sugar shortage is unlikely because sugarcane is grown on irrigated land. Besides, India has plenty left over from last season that can be diverted from exports to the domestic market.

Punters may be betting on a shortage in edible oils and pulses. But the summer's production loss can be compensated by a good winter crop of oil-rich mustard seed and chickpea, India's largest pulse crop. As almost half the edible oils and a fifth of the pulses consumed annually are imported, price and availability are anyway decided by international markets.

Importing a tad extra won't send the market into frenzy. Even coarse grain, mostly fed to livestock and chickens, may eventually not be scarce as more land is being planted with these hardy crops. But consumers will feel the pinch of more expensive green vegetables as fewer farmers in rain-fed areas would be willing to invest in these high-value crops. Milk and meat will also become dearer as fodder prices rise.

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