A game of chance
In June, rainfall was 32.8 per cent deficient on an average across India and the prospect of a monsoon failure loomed large. And with the dry spell extending from September in many parts, the return of food inflation, it seemed, would present the re-elected Narendra Modi government with its first big challenge. But in July, the rains turned out 4.6 per cent more than the average. In this month, till August 17, they have been a whopping 34.9 per cent above normal. As a result, cumulative rainfall for the southwest monsoon season (June-September), which was almost one-third deficit till June-end, has now become 1.9 per cent surplus. Such a dramatic turnaround is, perhaps, unprecedented. There has been only one year in recent times — 2012 — when the monsoon ended up being normal despite a massive June deficit. The current revival has also helped substantially close the gap in kharif crop plantings: Till July 5, the total area sown by farmers was 26.7 per cent lower than last year’s corresponding coverage. That has since narrowed to just 5.3 per cent, which should considerably assuage food inflation fears.
The relief, however, should not take away attention from the underlying problem — the monsoon’s increasing unpredictability, with fewer rainy days and more extreme precipitation. Thus, Kerala, southern Karnataka and Gujarat, which were heavily deficient till July, have moved to the surplus zone within days. For the farmer, this is a nightmare. When the rains don’t come on time, pour when they do, or take extended breaks, it disrupts the entire cropping cycle from the sowing, vegetative and reproductive growth stage right up to harvesting. Agriculture is a gamble in the best of times; but now it becomes a game of pure chance embodying risk as well as uncertainty. And blaming it all on climate change is hardly helpful.
The right approach would be to take monsoon vagaries as a given, and plan accordingly. So long as the overall rainfall in the season isn’t showing wild variations – there’s no proof of that yet — it should be possible to harvest this water from above to the maximum extent. India has some 107 major reservoirs with over 166 billion cubic meters’ active storage capacity. A time-bound programme for lining of irrigation channels — or even better, replacing all open canals with pressurised HDPE/PVC piped distribution networks — will enable the water filled in these dams during the monsoon to be used for a longer period. The same water can be further conveyed to farmers’ fields through drip/sprinkler irrigation. Harvesting of rainwater, whether in large reservoirs or farm ponds, and which can take place any time during the monsoon season, will give farmers greater flexibility in their cropping operations. A significant part of the country’s agricultural production today is already happening in the non-monsoon rabi season. With efficient rainwater storage and use, the monsoon’s timing and schedule should matter even less.