Spectre of drought

The first impact of a deficient monsoon has already been felt on the prices of essential commodities, including foodgrains, which have gone up by about 10 per cent in the past one week. The rain deficit is expected to hit the kharif output badly and it will have serious consequences.

Meteorologists have started whispering the word drought two months after the sputtering onset of the monsoon, which saw the rains deficient by 22 per cent, with some areas in Punjab and Haryana experiencing even a 70 per cent shortfall. In  2009, which was a drought year, the early deficiency was somewhat made up by late rains. This year there is no expectation of the situation improving in August also, as agriculture minister Sharad  Pawar has said.

This has led to fears whether the looming drought will be worse than in 2009 which saw the food inflation rising to near 20 per cent levels.

It is estimated that there may be a shortfall of about 8 million hectares of sowing area and the production of rice, pulses, oil seeds, cotton and coarse cereals will be hit as a result. The availability of adequate stocks will ensure that the shortfall in rice production will not have any immediate negative consequence. But the slowdown on the farms will hit rural employment and incomes which will affect livelihoods and reduce demand. The demand constriction will impact industry. Edible oils and pulses will have to be imported when their prices are already high in the world market. Inflation can surge further, and the import bill  and the higher government spending on various counts to counter the situation will make the fiscal position worse.

Unfortunately the government did not heed the early warnings and now has to implement contingency plans in a hurry. The agriculture ministry was lackadaisical and the Prime Minister’s Office has advised state governments across the country to take immediate measures.

Drought-resistant and short duration seeds, fertilisers and other inputs and extension services will have to be immediately made available to farmers in distressed areas. Karnataka and parts of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan are the worst hit and special attention should be given to these areas. There are reports that traders have started hoarding of foodgrains and essential commodities.

Strict action should be taken against them and speculative trading in farm commodities should be banned. Now that the drought may be at the door, the efforts should be to reduce its severity.

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