|Preparing for the worst|
|Thursday, 12 July 2012 00:02|
If the Met’s wrong, the fallback plan is important
Though the India Meteorological Department (Met) still hopes the July and August rains will make up for the 23% deficit till July 10 (40% in north-west India and 28% in south peninsula) and there is some evidence the rains have picked up (the deficit till July 5 was 30%), it’s a good idea to prepare for the worst. There are enough experts issuing warnings about the El Nino strengthening. It is El Nino which, perhaps, explains why the Met has been quite wrong in the past—in 2009-10, the Met got it wrong a whopping 23%. In that year, the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices chairman Ashok Gulati points out, while there was a 47% deficit in June, July was down by 4% but the deficit rose to 26% in August and was 20% in September. In 2002, the other drought year, while June rains were 9% above normal, there was a 54% shortfall in July.
Given India’s huge foodgrain stocks of over 80 million tonnes, the shortfall in foodgrains may not hurt too much—in any case, the fact that large grain areas are irrigated, production is unlikely to fall by more than 10-15 million tonnes according to Gulati. What is important, in this context, is how well the government has prepared for a disaster and how well the contingency plan gets implemented. In the past, despite the famed poor implementation qualities of the government, the response has been quite good. In 2009-10, for instance, the government increased the distribution of high-yielding seeds to 12 lakh quintals. And, as then agriculture secretary T Nanda Kumar says, the government’s focus was to increase food production in areas that received adequate rainfall in 2009.
It is pulses—given that just 16% of crop areas is irrigated (4.5% in the case of arhar)—which are the real problem area since the largest pulse-growing areas are also those which have, till now at least, the highest deficiency. There is a 36% shortfall in rain so far in Maharashtra (35% of India’s tur production comes from here) and a larger one (82% shortfall in the west and 29% in the east) in Rajasthan which accounts for 45% of the country’s moong production. Eastern UP, similarly, has a 31% shortfall while western UP has a 56% shortfall. Prices of pulses, given the general supply shortage which results from poor Indian yields, have risen around 12% each year since 2005—indeed, prices of protein sources in the WPI have risen a whopping 113% while everything else in the WPI basket rose 59% in this period.
Which is why the ministry’s contingency plan is critical. The agriculture ministry’s website has an impressive list of seed availability in each state for short-duration crops—2.5 lakh quintals of seeds are available for paddy, bajra, urad, moong etc to cover 3.6 million hectares in Rajasthan, 6.7 lakh quintals to cover 4.4 million hectares in Maharashtra, and so on. Given the level of concern, it’s important that the ministry publicise the plan, including the strategy—like roping in private seed suppliers and cooperatives—to ensure it works.