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The other green tech

How we should use technology to drought-proof our farms....

Written by Raghav Gaiha |
August 29, 2009 2:41:09 am

Widespread deficiency of summer rains that constitute about 80 per cent of annual rainfall has led to dire predictions of droughts in no fewer than two hundred and forty six districts spread over ten states. From June to mid-August,when most planting takes place,the rains were 29 per cent lower than the (long-term) average. In UP,for example,the deficiency was more than 60 per cent. Rice,which is sown during the monsoon,is the worst affected,followed by sugar cane and oilseeds. In a panic reaction but with an unmistakable touch of bravado,the UPA announced a familiar slew of measures: imports,higher food subsidies,expansion of NREGA,early planting of winter crops and deferred repayment of loans. But the lessons that should have been learnt from the experience of dealing with droughts of varying intensity over several decades remain as elusive as ever.

Droughts involve not just loss of agricultural output and food shortage. Hardships manifest in malnutrition,poverty,disinvestment in human capital (e.g. withdrawal of children from school),liquidation of assets (e.g. sale of livestock) with impairment of future economic prospects,and,in extreme cases,mortality,given lack of easy access to credit and insurance markets.

That much of this devastation is avoidable is frequently glossed over. A recent study (Gaiha,R.,K. Hill,S. Mathur and Vani S. Kulkarni (2009) “On Devastating Droughts”,NBER Conference on Climate Change: Past and Present,Cambridge,MA,30-31 May,2009),helps delineate some major concerns in an entitlement protection strategy. As state governments and village institutions (village councils or Panchayats) have key roles in organising and implementing relief,there are some pointers from a political economy perspective.

Analysis based on drought relief and voting patterns reveals that state government responsiveness is greater when the severity of the crisis is greater. Also,voters punish incumbent politicians for crises beyond their control. But voters also reward politicians for responding well to climatic events but not sufficiently to compensate them for their ‘bad luck’. So the incentives for effective drought relief are not unimportant.

Even within a state,however,there are marked differences in the ability to prevent starvation deaths. Competitive local politics and decentralised structures of governance are crucial in preventing deaths. Specifically,local political parties and vigilant village councils act not just as conduits of information on distress but also pressure district administration to take appropriate action.

But,more importantly,and largely from a medium-term perspective,drought-prevention through advances in agricultural research and technological choice merits serious consideration.

Agricultural research intensity (i.e. ratio of agricultural research expenditure to agricultural GDP) is estimated to be as low as 0.62 per cent in developing countries. In India,the corresponding estimate is even lower,0.29 per cent,as against about 2.6 per cent in developed countries. Worse,the allocation of research resources to rainfed areas — specifically to address abiotic constraints such as drought and submergence-is a small fraction (barely 10 per cent) despite their high equity and efficiency impacts.

Considerable progress has been made in developing drought-tolerant rice germplasm. Complementary crop management research for avoiding drought stress,better utilisation of available soil moisture and enhancing plants’ ability to recover rapidly from drought are likely to substantially enhance returns.

Technologies must display greater flexibility in crop choice,and in the timing and quantity of various inputs. Current rice varieties and general crop management practices are so rigid in drought-prone regions that they hardly change between normal years and early season drought. Rice technologies that allow for late transplanting in early season drought,for example,would help protect yields better. However,in some cases,late season droughts are more common and disastrous. In addition to low or no harvest,farmers lose their investment in seeds,fertiliser and labour. Development of technologies that reduce the severity of the impact of a late season drought are thus a priority.

Crop diversification is yet another drought coping option. In rainfed areas,for example,short duration rice varieties could facilitate planting of another crop using the residual moisture.

In recent years,emphasis has shifted to small-scale irrigation schemes and land use practices that generally enhance soil moisture and water retention. For example,watershed-based approaches provide opportunities for achieving long-term drought-proofing by improving the overall moisture retention within the watersheds.

Recent advances in meteorology have contributed to greater accuracy in forecasting droughts. Various indicators such as the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) are now routinely employed in several countries to forecast droughts. A challenge,however,is to match the scientific advance with better preparedness to deal with droughts.

Raghav Gaiha is a professor of public policy,Faculty of Management Studies,Delhi University and Vani Kulkarni is a lecturer in South Asian Studies,Yale University.

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