42% INDIA FACING DROUGHT? WHAT? OF COURSE NOT!!

about 6 months ago
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We are not yet truly into full blown summer yet; it has just about started. There are two more months to go before raingods come calling.

Yet, the worry over monsoon is making the heat wave even more unbearable. Two reports are worrisome – first the real-time drought-monitoring platform, Drought Early Warning System has said that about 42% of India’s land area is facing drought, with 6% exceptionally dry--four times the spatial extent of drought last year. Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, parts of the North-East, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Telangana are the worst hit. These states are home to 500 million people, almost 40% of the country’s population.

Second news is the monsoon forecast from private sector weather forecaster, Skymet. It has said that this year’s South-West Monsoon (June-September) is likely to be ‘below normal’, at around 93% of the long-period average (LPA).  Prior to this, on 25th Feb, Skymet had predicted ‘normal monsoon.’ What changed this stance is the rapidly emerging El Nino conditions on the Pacific Ocean. Model projections indicate 80% chance of El Nino conditions during March-May, dropping to 60% for June-August. Thus the monsoon this year could have sluggish beginning in June and July with most spilling over into August and part of Sept.

Yes, its too early and maybe the situation will change? After all, it changed from Feb to April?

But the drought like situation in 42% of India’s farm lands is very true. This is reality, something which is seen and will only get worse. Yet, the Govt may not declare a drought ‘officially’ simply because the rules and regulations, the boxes to be ticked off to declare a drought are too tough.

In Dec 2016, the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, prescribed the Manual for Drought Management. And based on that, declaring a drought would indeed be very, very tough.

The manual follows three steps – first step is to look at two mandatory indicators — rainfall deviation and dry spell. The second step is to look at four impact indicators — agriculture, vegetation indices based on remote sensing, soil moisture, and hydrology. If all three chosen indicators are in the ‘severe’ category, it amounts to severe drought; and if two of the three chosen impact indicators are in the ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’ class, it amounts to moderate drought. The third step comes in after both previous triggers have been set off.

These are expected to give the state Govts a more scientific assessment of drought instead of depending on traditional practices like annewari/paisewari /girdawari system of eye estimation and crop cutting experiments.

For example, consider this: before the manual, Maharashtra used to follow the paisewari system for declaring drought wherein in case of rainfall deficiency, if crop yield is less than 50% of the 10 years average, then it declared as a drought year.

Based on paisewari, 9000 villages in Maharashtra were facing a drought, which included 3500 villages in Marathwada. But the Govt went by the Manual and none of them were facing a drought. Some 136 talukas approached the state govt to be declared drought hit but based on the manual, only three were declared as ‘moderately drought hit,’ which does not make it eligible for any relief funds.

The Manual sates that only if the calamity is of “severe nature” can the state govts submit a memorandum for financial assistance under the National Disaster Response Fund. For mild and moderate droughts, the states have to shell out their own funds.

Maharashtra and Karnataka has recorded objections to the Manual yet a complete overhaul is long way off.

And IMD takes the cake – it has expunged the word ‘drought’ from its vocabulary. This means, officially, IMD cannot ever use the word drought; instead if India’s monsoon rainfall were to dip below 10% of the normal and span between 20 and 40% of the country’s area, it would be called a “deficient” year instead of an “All India Drought Year” as the IMD’s older manuals would say. A more severe instance, where the deficit exceeds 40% and would have been called an “All India Severe Drought Year,” will now be a “Large Deficient Year”. IMD states that declaring a drought is not it’s but the state’s prerogative.

The Govt and IMD, as much as possible, do not give out drought predictions as it could lead to a panic situation and in most cases, leads to hoarding, pushing up the prices even before the effects of drought are actually felt. Yes, a drought prediction in advance could help farmers prepare themselves better but the effect of hoarding is said to be even worse.

We Indians do not like bad news; always want “happy endings”. And the IMD sometimes plays on this. That is morally wrong but it is better than bearing the ill effects of telling the truth. So when there is a drought and IMD is diplomatic, you now know why…

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