On Wednesday, Tamil Nadu declared a drought. The state government also announced that more than 140 farmers took their lives between October and December 2016 because of crop failure. The agrarian crisis in the state is a fallout of a weather vagary that hasn’t received much notice. The northeast monsoon — critical to the southern peninsula, particularly Tamil Nadu — has been a failure, with overall rainfall between October and December 45.2 per cent below normal. This is the worst since the 48.3 per cent deficit recorded in 2011. In October 2016, 22 districts of Karnataka were declared drought hit. As 2016 drew to a close, South India’s combined reservoir levels were 22 percentage points less than the average water availability over the past 10 years. The situation has serious implications for crops like paddy and coconut and will impact milk and sugar production, especially in Karnataka.
The poor northeast monsoon, this year, is a double blow for the southern states. Tamil Nadu, Kerala and south interior Karnataka and coastal Karnataka had already reported respective shortfalls of 19 per cent, 34 per cent, 21 per cent and 21 per cent during the southwest monsoon (June-September). The corresponding deficits of 62 per cent, 61 per cent, 70 per cent and 63 per cent reported for the northeast season makes matters worse for these regions.
The deficit in the northeast monsoon is likely to have implications for the economy. It may also accentuate inter-state river disputes, especially the sharing of Cauvery waters. While it is too early to predict the exact shortfalls in crop production, sowing figures from South India do not portend well. Tamil Nadu, for example, had targeted 14.5 lakh hectares under rice in 2016-17, according to the agriculture ministry. But barely seven lakh hectares was under the plough by January 5. This is 33 per cent less than the five-year sowing average of 10.68 lakh hectares. The shortfall will also impact livelihoods and have repercussions on the mechanisms to deal with crop failure. So far, less than a third of the drought hit areas in Karnataka have been covered by the Pradhan Mantri Gram Fasal Bima Yojana. The northeast monsoon is considered a fringe player in the agro-climate story. But imperatives of the economy and the needs to secure people’s livelihoods require a rethinking on that front.