Famine of political intent condemns India to droughts
By Shankkar Aiyar
29th July 2012 12:52 AM
Later this week, the Government of India will come out of the closet. It will accept that the nation is faced with a drought. Don’t expect the acceptance to be explicit; the exact phraseology defining the condition is yet being coined. The possible implications for the economy are grave: lower output, higher prices, higher subsidies, higher deficit, higher inflation and lower GDP growth. On Tuesday, the Empowered Group of Ministers on drought will meet to discuss the steps that the government will take. There will be a lot of motion—PDS, supply of diesel, seeds and power, and of course, MGNREGA—but don’t hold your breath for any strategic movement.
The question that begs to be asked is why the spectre of drought should haunt India 65 years after Independence. It is the famine of political intent that condemns India to the spectre of droughts. This will be the third officially accepted drought in 10 years. India faces at an average two every decade. Across India, nearly 90 districts are classified as drought-prone and over 60 districts are notified as flood-prone. Which simply means, in any year, nearly 70 million hectares of cultivable land is prone to the vagaries of the rain gods.
Consider the challenge. India has 2.5 per cent of the world’s land and 4 per cent of fresh water resources to support 15 per cent of the world’s population. By 2050—probably earlier—the population is estimated to touch 1,650 million which means demand for food will touch 450 million tonnes as against current output of 250 million tonnes. Also, demand for water will rise. Already water is being mined by farmers in nearly 100 districts; of the 400 towns, nearly 200 are face water scarcity; glaciers are receding; and water bodies being concretised. India in 2012 must know it has to act.
The equation of supply promises a solution for rising demand. India receives an annual precipitation—snowfall and rain—of 4,000 billion cubic metres. Allowing for evaporation/transpiration, the runoff available in rivers is 1,869 BCM, of which India uses barely a third, or 690 BCM. Very simply, two-thirds of the water we receive is wasted, draining into the ocean. Rainfall is asymmetric, varying from 100 mm in Rajasthan to 11,000 mm over Brahmaputra. More importantly, 70 per cent of rainfall occurs in 100 days while the need for water is spread across 365 days. India obviously needs to upgrade storage and management of water. It is not an alien thought. India’s track record though is pathetically poor.
Over 553 irrigation projects are running behind schedule, over 150 dating to 1960s. Of the 253 projects sanctioned under the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme between October 1996 and March 2008, only 100 projects were reported as completed, of which 12 were found “incomplete”. Not surprisingly, 65 years after Independence, India can store only 225 BCM of water—or less than 14 per cent of potential. Per capita storage at about 190 cubic metres is miniscule compared to 2,486 cubic metres for China, 3,388 metres for Brazil and 5,961 metres for US. As a result, half the 192 million hectares of cropped land is dependent on rains.
Maybe dams are damned. It is arguable that an alternate idea—a combination of modern micro irrigation and heritage conservation methods managed by communities—could work. Sorry, but there is no grand idea visible. The track record on the bits and pieces isn’t any better. The Planning Commission in its 12th Plan talks about millions of water bodies wherein “storage capacity has been eroded by poor maintenance and siltation”. Restoration would require resources, manpower and a capacity to involve communities. Since 2009, the government has spent a total of Rs 1,000 crore. So how many have been restored? Point is: is that enough and do we know where it has gone? In 2010, the government created the mission on micro irrigation but it would need micro forensic probe to figure out the outlays and outcomes. It could be a hot thought so why do it in homeopathic doses? Indeed, India spends barely Rs 26,000 crore on irrigation. To get an idea of neglect, figure out the ratio to GDP.
The first step to a solution is awareness. The government by its own admission is unable to track the magnitude of scarcity or surplus. There is no record of destroyed water bodies. It tracks the levels of only 81 reservoirs. Ground water depletion is a serious issue but it has only 60,000 observatory wells in a country with 30 million ground water structures. Can we trust the government’s judgement?
In February this year, the Supreme Court asked the government to set up a panel to implement the interlinking of rivers project. The project was mooted first in 1970s by irrigation minister K L Rao and then expanded upon by Captain Dinshaw Dastur. Costing over Rs 4.5 lakh crore, the “garland canal” would transfer water from surplus river basins to deficit regions by building 32 dams and use a web of 29 links to deliver 173 BCM of water to irrigate 34 million hectares, generate 34,000 MW of power and deliver drinking water to 100 towns.
The idea was revived in 2002 by the Vajpayee regime only to be dumped by the UPA. The challenges of environment and cost are significant but so are the benefits. In 2008, an NCAER study said that over “a 13-year
period, gains amount to more than 5 per cent of GDP on a cumulative basis” and that food grain output would jump to over 390 million tonnes. Although the Supreme Court asked the government to act in February, no movement is visible.
This is not an argument for a solution or the occasion to argue one solution versus another. It is about the lack of urgency within the government about what is a persistent crisis. In a democracy there is a cost to doing anything. There is also a cost to doing nothing.
E-mail the writer at email@example.com
Shankkar Aiyar is a senior journalist who specialises in the politics of economics
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