Cities drought-proofed, farms and farmers left to die

As millions of Chennai residents are faced with a severe water crisis, Tamil Nadu is requesting Kerala to supply two million litres of drinking water every day. Chief Minister E K Palaniswami said his government has also decided to ferry by train 10 million litres of drinking water daily from Vellore to Chennai for the next six months. While extraordinary steps are being taken the meet the water exigency in the metropolis, in neighbouring Karnataka, a few kilometres outside Bengaluru city, life comes virtually to a standstill. With 88.6% of Karnataka -- 156 of the 176 talukas -- hit by a raging drought, it will take several years for the rural economy to bounce back -- if the rain gods do not play truant in the future, that is.

Karnataka’s Economic Survey 2018-19 has painted a distressing scenario. It has projected a -4.8% growth rate in agriculture. With a shortfall of 22% in pre-monsoon rains between March to the end of May, and a total deficit of 41% in the southwest monsoon rains till June 19 across the country, agriculture in the southern peninsula – Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Goa – has been badly hit because the rainfall deficit encountered in these areas is a lot higher at 56%. A joint survey to access the loss suffered in the rabi season is underway in most places. Delayed and scanty rains expected in the weeks to come may add to the prevailing rural distress.

Bengaluru is among the four metropolises -- the other three being, Chennai, Hyderabad and Delhi -- that will run out of ground water by 2020, as per a NITI Aayog report. The city requires 1,400 million litres per day, with reports putting the current availability at 65 litres per capita per day. Strangely, while the rest of the state has been reeling under a series of droughts – at least for 12 of the past 18 years at a stretch, Bengaluru city remains insulated. This is despite 79% of its water bodies drying up in the past four decades.

Hyderabad too doesn’t give an iota of the sense of the terrible water crisis prevailing on either side of the city in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh – a clear reflection of the drought-proofing accomplished over the years in urban areas.

In Maharashtra, where 72% of the state is engulfed in a severe drought -- some consider it to be the worst since 1972 -- the total crop loss in rabi production has been pegged at 63%, as compared to a year before. The output of cereals has fallen by 68%, pulses by 51%, oilseeds by 70%, wheat by 61% and maize by 75%. As per Economic Survey 2018-19, agricultural output in Maharashtra has declined by 8%.

Such is the magnitude of the water crisis that more than 50,000 farmers in Ahmednagar district alone have abandoned their homes and migrated to live in the 500 makeshift cattle camps that have been set up. When there is no water for daily use, and crop fields have turned barren, what else could have been expected from the villagers, who find it safe to move into the cattle camps. There are at least 10 lakh cattle in the 1,500 cattle camps that have been set up across the state.

Numerous reports have highlighted the grave water crisis that prevails in Maharashtra, where the water-guzzling sugarcane crop alone consumes as much as 76% of the available ground water. And yet, I haven’t seen any effort to encourage farmers to shift from sugarcane to other less water-consuming crops. Ironically, not more than 6% of Maharashtra’s cultivable land is occupied by sugarcane. This is primarily because of the politically powerful sugar lobby, which is not willing to make a change in its business proposition. 

While 60% of the orange orchards have also reportedly dried up in the Marathwada region, the prediction of a shortfall in monsoon rains expected in the central regions of the country adds to the prevailing rural misery. No wonder, Maharashtra has officially recorded 12,021 farmer suicides in the past four years. Yet, farmers have not given up on hope, returning to their villages to plough their land and be prepared in time for the rains to arrive. Cotton sowing in the famous black cotton soils should finish by the first week of July, any further delay in sowing would be detrimental.

With 43.4% of the country reeling under drought, affecting 600 million people, the continuing blight in several parts of the country –- Jharkhand, for instance, had faced seven consecutive years of drought till 2017 –- the prevailing rural misery and continuing distress over the years cannot even be imagined. But with the cities being increasingly insulated from the drought that prevails in the countryside, the dominant narrative very conveniently shifts to the decline in rural consumption, as if it is a measure of rural deprivation. That the tractor sales have fallen by 31% in the southern states is being seen as the economic fallout of the continuing drought. Similarly, the slump in sales of cars and automobiles occupies a large space in the media.

The human cost of the resulting rural tragedy has never been estimated. Perhaps, an indication was provided by the Economic Survey 2016, when it worked out the average farm income in 17 states of India, roughly half the country, at Rs 20,000 a year. In other words, on an average, a farm family is somehow surviving in half the country on less than Rs 1,700 per month. That is why farmers in Maharashtra have been quoted as saying in the media: “People have stopped expecting a decent life.”

(The writer is a food and trade
policy analyst)

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