Perfect storm

The reality of rural distress is sinking in only now for policymakers.

By: Express News Service | Published: November 20, 2015 12:00 am
Commuters carry their motorbikes on a submerged cart as they wade through a waterlogged subway in Chennai. (Source: AP photo) Commuters carry their motorbikes on a submerged cart as they wade through a waterlogged subway in Chennai. (Source: AP photo)

There can be no better illustration of the vagaries of the weather than Chennai’s streets being inundated with water and the second India-South Africa cricket test in Bangalore suffering washout due to rains, even as drought stalks much of the country. That really is the case today, with Tamil Nadu, Kerala, southern and coastal Karnataka, Rayalaseema and south coastal Andhra Pradesh receiving copious rainfall during the ongoing northeast monsoon season (October-December), while it is dry weather all the way from north Karnataka and Telangana upwards across virtually the rest of India. Worse, the dry spell has extended right from August or the second half of the main southwest monsoon (June-September). As a result, not only has the kharif crop been impacted, but the precarious residual soil moisture conditions have impeded sowing for even the current rabi season. Thus, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra farmers who sought to compensate for a poor soyabean or arhar crop through early plantings of wheat or chana are now bracing for a double blow. Coming on top of last year’s monsoon failure and the damage to the rabi crop from unseasonal rains/ hailstorms in March, it adds up to four bad harvests in a row.

Simply put, the stress in rural incomes visible for over a year now is showing no signs of going away. It is, moreover, a result of both weather setbacks as well as lower produce prices following the collapse of a decade-long global commodity boom. The agrarian crisis that this perfect storm has unleashed poses a major economic and political challenge for the Centre and also state governments. Unfortunately, only Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have submitted memorandums seeking Central assistance for drought relief. Many are still to even declare drought despite obvious signs of farm distress. By the time Central teams undertake their visits and assess the assistance required, it is a safe bet that the actual relief reaching farmers will be too little too late. Nor can the Centre escape the blame: While promoting organic farming and conservation of indigenous cattle breeds may be well-meaning initiatives, the same enthusiasm has not extended to addressing the more immediate and tangible crisis facing Indian agriculture.

The time has come to institute a proper farm income insurance scheme, protecting against both crop loss and adverse price movements. The payouts here should be automatic, linked to measurable area-specific weather and price parameter deviations. The premiums on these are worth subsidising more than urea, water or electricity. The large sums spent on subsidies that only encourage inefficient resource use need to be redirected towards farm income support and public investments in irrigation, roads or R&D.

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