Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Drought revisits India

She is 11-year-old, lives in Bonewadi, a small town in Maharashtra, with her mother, two sisters and one brother. She is in Class 6 and walks 3km to reach her school. In the evening, she walks 7km to feed the cattle at a cattle camp. Her day starts at 7am and goes on till 10 pm. Meet Asha, a young girl born in a farmer’s family that owns 11 acres of land, the land which is usually sufficient to earn enough money to make a living under normal conditions.
Then, there’s Digambar Pandurang Atpadkar, a 70-year-old farmer who owns 60 acres of land and four wells in Vartuke Malwade, a small village, also in Maharashtra. He and his wife have walked 10 km to reach the cattle camp to save their eight animals.
Asha and Atpadkar are just two among the many who have been hit by drought in India. And surprisingly, majority of the farmers and cattle taking refuge in the cattle camp are from Mann taluk in Satara district, which is under the parliamentary constituency of Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, who had recently claimed to have spent millions of rupees supporting irrigation facilities in Maharashtra.
Moreover, it is also adjacent to the sugar belt - not to forget the fact that sugarcane is infamously a water-intensive crop - which politicians consider their stronghold, having poured in a lion’s share of Maharashtra’s development funds here. Yet, the region, popularly known as Manndesh in Marthi folklore, continues to remain at the mercy of whimsical rains.
Triggering concerns of poor farm output and higher inflation, India Meteorological Department (IMD) has predicted less rain in June-to-September, which would be 15 per cent below the seasonal average.  "We expect 15 per cent shortfall in the seasonal rains," LS Rathore, director general, IMD, told reporters.
Agricultural sector output which accounts for 20 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP), would be hit considerably due to the deficient rainfall. “The prevailing drought conditions could affect the crop prospects and may have its impact on the prices of essential commodities, such as shortfall in domestic supplies relative to demand,” Food Minister KV Thomas had said in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha.
Cattle camp
Four states - Karnataka, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra - are facing drought-like situation and Between June 1 and August 5, the monsoon rain has been 17 per cent lower, according to the IMD. Satara district in western Maharashtra has 21 cattle camps, including the biggest Mann Deshi Cattle Camp, a makeshift camp set up at Mhaswad, 190km west of Pune, this year; the last such camps were in 2003 and 2009 when drought was severe in this sugar belt.
“We are here because there is no water in our village. Neither for the animals, nor for us. Our cattle get sugarcane, corn, fodder, dry fodder, green fodder. We get rice and pulses,” said Atpadkar who has left behind his house and land to save the lives of his cattle, the invaluable assets he owns.
The Mann Deshi Camp has rescued over 11,000 animals from going to butcher shops. People are migrating to other places in search of not occupation, but in search of water for their animals. In 2003, there was water, but this year, there’s no water. “Farmers here are ready to buy fodder, pledging their gold, but ask us how and where to buy water?” Chetna Gala-Sinha, the founder-president of the Mann Deshi Mahila Bank, the only women’s bank in rural Maharashtra, which has set up the cattle camp, said.  
Women walk 5-10km every day to fetch drinking water. When men migrate in search of better opportunities for their animals, women turn to the cattle camps and now the camp also gives shelter to more than 3,500 families. Looking like a small township in itself, the cattle camp, which is spread across the five acres of land, originally meant for the housing colony for villagers, provides nearly 3.5-4 lakh litres of water and 140 tonnes of fodder to the animals every day.
“Each big animal gets 15kg of dry grass, sugarcane and corn every day and three kg of processed cattle feed every week. People carry water stored in the big tanks, in buckets, around the camp and four water tankers make five trips a day to a pipeline 11km away to fetch the required four lakh litres of water daily,” said Sinha. 
All the wells in the region have dried up due to the “mismanagement of water”. The lake in Dhakani has water, but is not suitable for drinking. When asked Atpadkar why he left behind such a vast land and his house and took shelter in the camp, he says: “Why? What do we eat there? Soil? There’s no food, no water… There’s no option. We take this as our home. Death is inevitable, here or there. No food, no water… If our animals die, what are we left with?”
Crops hit
The drought, India's first since 2009, will not bring a shortage of staples as the nation's grain stores are overflowing with rice and wheat, and sugar output is set to exceed demand for a third straight year. (If the rainfall records below 90 percent of the 50-year average, it is considered deficient or "drought" in layman's parlance.) But it will deal a devastating blow to grain crops used for animal feed. That would badly hit the vast majority of the country's farmers who - with cattle and small landholdings their only assets - struggle to survive at the best of times.
The cattle population would be adversely affected due to marginal availability of green fodders. Due to the damage of khariff crops, food grain production would be affected. But the food grains will be supplied through the Public distribution systems to the families below poverty lines, which would help the families living in poverty to cope with the situation,” said Amar Nayak, Knowledge Hub Leader, Land and Livelihood, Action Aid.
According to the data placed before Parliament, retail prices of some pulses, sugar, edible oil and tomato have risen in the last three months and prices of rice, wheat and atta have remained stable. In New Delhi, the retail price of gram dal has increased to Rs 67 per kg from Rs 53 per kg, tur dal from Rs 70 to Rs 74 per kg and masoor dal by Rs 8 to Rs 61/kg and sugar to Rs 39 per kg from Rs 35 per kg three months back.       
Drought prone
India is naturally drought prone. “Particularly in the areas removed from the core monsoon - that is in the Northwest of the country, the average recurrence time of droughts is 8 to 10 years. Severe droughts occur about every 30 years. The 2009 drought was not a major event,” Upmanu Lall, the director of Columbia Water Centre at Columbia University's Earth Institute, said.
And women like Sheelabai Digambar  Atpadkar, 60, has no other go but to find some source to save her family assets, who walked 16km with her animals to reach the camp. When asked about the situation in her village, she said: “The water tanker comes to our village once in 15 days. My six cows need more than 200 litres of water every day. Where can we store this? If I sell my cattle, I will lose my lifetime savings.”
Meanwhile, there are also reports putting the blame on IMD for not alerting the public about the failure of monsoon in advance. Even though in recent years, the IMD’s greater computer modelling capacity  has improved its ability to make seasonal forecasts of rainfall and help authorities and people with early drought warnings, “it is very difficult for climatologists to develop an accurate seasonal forecast, the one with a high degree of certainty,” Andrew Robertson, scientist, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, Columbia University, said.
Moreover, predicting the time and intensity of the rainfall accurately is not that easy. It involves significant uncertainties - looking decades into the future or even a few months. “It’s very tricky,” Andrew Robertson, scientist, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, Columbia University, Robertson said. "It’s not an easy task to predict in May whether the monsoon will be weak in a given year."
There is a correlation between monsoon strength and El Nino, generally. If sea surface temperatures rise due to an El Nino in the Pacific, monsoon rains may be weaker in that year and the weak El Nino this year may be playing a role in the current drought, according to Robertson.
Chances of recovery
Not all such episodes of severe drought correlate with El Nino-Southern Oscillation events, although there have been instances of El Nino-related droughts implicated in periodic declines in Indian agricultural output in the past.
Why is there such a scarcity of water in the country then? The general scarcity of water in the country - apart separate from the drought this year - is very closely related to the mismanagement of water in the country, most grievously in the agricultural sector. “The irrigation technologies employed do not promote conservation. Much canal water is wasted or lost to unaccountable use. The situation is quite tragic,” says Lall, adding: “The investments in agricultural improvements for the Green revolution lifted the country out of the problems... However, the cost of the complacency that set in subsequently, and the inability to continue to assess the implications of the trajectories that were put in place has led to the resulting problems today."
Not everything looks so bleak. “Still there are chances of recovery in the worst hit regions, monsoon rains may come, but again it’s another prediction, another probability. Everything is unpredictable when it comes to monsoons, especially in a country like India,” Robertson said.
Moreover, farmers have their own robust adaptation to climate variation. “We came across inspiring examples as how farmers used traditional seeds, how they have preserved seeds, adjusting the sowing periods as per the forecast of rain, managing the water harvesting systems,” said Nayak.
Maybe such adaptations, promoted with adequate resource and policy support by the government, can help the future generations like Asha to fulfill her “dream of becoming a doctor”.

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