At a time when as many as nine states in the country are facing an acute water crisis, the Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the Union government not to “turn a blind eye” towards drought-hit states. In particular, the court, hearing a public interest litigation filed by the Swaraj Abhiyan, highlighted the delay in MGNREGA payments. “Relief has to be given immediately and not after one year. Temperature is soaring at 45 degree Celsius, there is no drinking water, nothing is there,” said the court. The latest rap for the Centre comes close on the heels of a similar snub in February when the apex court expressed its strong disappointment over the implementation of the National Food Security Act across several states. The country has been suffering an extended bout of El Niño, which adversely affects rains and overall productivity. According to the Economic Survey, “average agricultural growth in El Niño years since between 1981-82 and 2015-16 has been minus 2.1 per cent compared with a period average of 3 per cent”.
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Reduced productivity is just one part of the farmer’s problems at the current juncture. Unlike in the past when reduced productivity was partially offset by better price realisation, this time even that has not happened due to depressed global commodity prices. This is the main reason why consumers still face retail inflation within the RBI-mandated range of 5-6 per cent. Farmers need immediate help both in terms of food and work availability. And it is here that the Centre and several drought-affected states have been lagging behind. According to one estimate, wage payments of close to Rs 10,588 crore are pending under the MGNREGA — the main programme to counter extreme rural distress. Worse still, the pendency is most severe in states most affected by drought.
Every major agrarian crisis in the country has yielded some breakthroughs. Droughts and famines in the mid-1960s paved the way for the adoption of the high-yielding seed varieties that helped bring in the Green Revolution. The massive famine in Maharashtra in the early 1970s led to the enactment of the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Act in 1977, which later became the blueprint for the MGNREGA. The time is ripe for another revolution — this time in water-use efficiency. Research shows that India uses two to four times more water to produce a unit of major food crop than China and Brazil. The Centre must take the lead in shifting the focus from high-cost large irrigation projects towards increased ground water recharge and efficient water use, such as drip irrigation, by constructing check dams and farm ponds.