Time to change strategy on drought

Preparing for drought at a time when the rain gods are benevolent and a record food production is expected might strike a discordant note. But a recent UNICEF report on 2015-2016 drought in India, suggesting that we should do so now, makes good sense. It’s the best time to conserve rainwater and build drought preparedness of communities during bad times. The single major cause of distress in the farm sector, drought is a regular event in India occurring in some parts every year. Farmers have dealt with it all through history, but today they are incredibly more vulnerable to it. Unfortunately, the response of most states has been focused on drought relief, which invariably reached the affected population too late and too little. After the chronic drought in 2015-16, the Supreme Court had directed
the Centre to revise the drought management manual before the end of 2016 and had issued a slew of directions to state governments to beef up their drought preparedness. These are yet to be fully implemented and the apex court had to pull up defaulting states last month.

Drought is a complex, slow onset phenomenon of ecological challenge that affects people more than any other natural hazard. A UNICEF rapid assessment of the impact of the 2016 drought provides a glimpse of its multiple challenges. The results of the survey, covering 28 worst affected districts in nine states, have been summed up in a report evocatively titled: When Coping Crumbles. It underlines that the drought not only reduced production and availability of food, fodder and water, affecting human and animal health and mortality but also adversely impacted support institutions such as schools and hospitals. The children, women and marginalised sections of the society suffered the most in terms of access to whatever relief and rehabilitation the state could provide.

Since a drought can be anticipated in advance, this calls for a paradigm shift in India’s drought management policy. While early forecasting thro­ugh better technology will help, the focus should shift from relief and rehabilitation to prevention and mitigation. The Centre and the states must step up efforts toward water conservation and adoption of drought resistant varieties in drought prone areas. Implementation of the apex court’s directions will require sustained reforms in drought governance, such as empowerment of water regulatory bodies and regenerative development. The thrust of drought management should be greater involvement and empowerment of local communities at the grassroots. Community resilience must be strengthened by putting in place an adaptive social protection system to cushion shocks and stress. India must move toward greater drought resilience.

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