ARE we going to get into trouble following the alleged failure of the current monsoon? The answer is: it is hard to say. One view is that there is no need to be unduly disturbed because the monsoon may still catch up by August. Another view is that even if the South West monsoon is not upto expectations, post-monsoon and winter-rain can substantially alter the overall agricultural picture and prices as well. Attention is drawn to the 2004-2005 rainfall when the South West monsoon proved erratic with a 13 per cent deficit. But the immediate winter rains turned out to be exceptionally bountiful, reducing the overall rain deficit to a mere 9 per cent. But that is being over – optimistic.
As of 11 July, when normal rainfall should have been 261.00 mm, nation-wide, we received only 202.7 mm, showing a rough deficit of 22 per cent. It hardly needs to be said that rainfall is not uniform all over the country. This year there have been heavy floods in Assam causing untold damage and scant rains in Saurashtra, Kutch and Diu (minus 71 per cent), Daman (-49 per cent) West Rajasthan (-67 per cent) Punjab (-72 per cent), Haryana (-70 per cent) and Himachal Pradesh (-45 per cent). No sub-division has received excess rain. Normal rain (+19 per cent to -19 per cent) has been received in 15 sub-divisions and deficit in 17 such. Four sub-divisions have had little rain (-60 per cent to -99 per cent). Madhya Maharashtra has had a deficit of 36 per cent and Marathwada 17 per cent. So has Telangana (17 per cent).
Does that amount to a likely draought? Not yet, assures Union Minister Sharad Pawar who wants us to wait and see. But it is one thing to be hopeful and quite another to be alert and plan ahead for dire circumstances. Poor rainfall has taken a heavy toll of farmers’ lives, even when overall foodgrain output across the country for the year 2011-2012 touched an all-time high of 257.44 million tones representing a 5.17 per cent growth over the final output of 244.78 mts in 2010-2011. In just 4 months (January to April 2012) there were 332 cases reported of farmers’ suicides in Vidarbha alone that has been feeling the pinch. And suicides have been committed not because only of lack of water but must be attributed to a lot of other factors such as unrepayable debts. It might come as a shock to learn that the total number of farmers who have taken their own lives in Maharashtra alone since 1995 is closing in on 54,000, in part because of poor farm output.
Thus, cotton growers were affected as the cash crop over 40 lakh hectares was damaged due to poor monsoon last year and a dry spell in September 2011. All this suggests that every effort should be made to store water wherever it is possible and there are several ways, depending on geographic conditions, of doing it. One way is to go in for deep wells. Over a decade ago, the Saurashtra region in Gujarat (and this was before the Naramada Dam became operative) could boast of 700,000 deepwells, indicating the presence of extensive groundwater aquifiers, but the use of pumpsets for water-intensive agriculture lowered the ground water level from about 9 meters to about 46 meters. Depletion of ground water has turned from a dream into a nightmare. The number of wells and borewells in Saurashtra increased 16 times over from 25,824 in 1961 to 425,00 in 1998. The ground water table was once about 12-15 meters below the surface in most areas of Saurashtra and Kutch a decade ago. This dropped to an unbelievable 215 to 305 meters! At that point in time it was said that there was no need to despair considering that even if an average of 550 mm of rainfall was harnessed, there could be no shortage of water, provided wells and borewells could be adequately re-charged.
The Narmada Dam project, of course, has changed the scene. According to media sources, the entire region of Saurashtra along with neighbouring Kutch has become the engine of a farming revolution in Gujarat propelling the state into one of the fastest growing agricultural economies in the country. Gujarat’s agriculture is reportedly growing at 9.6 per cent a year but again the point is made that the “most important turning point in the state’s agriculture has been the innovative management of its ground water resources”. The biggest casualty of agricultural development and its intensity in Punjab, according to Economic & Political Weekly has been ground water. A very large part of the state’s cultivated area, 97 per cent, is irrigated, 75 per cent with groundwater from 13.15 lakh tube wells, 80 per cent of them electrically powered. What is disturbing is that of the groundwater blocks in the state, 79 per cent are classified as over-exploited or critical. Punjab has a tube well for every nine acres of land. M.S. Gill, former Union Minister, is quoted as saying that nine lakh shallow tube wells now dangle dry.
The rich have started digging deep to 300 ft or more to grab the water. Shall landholders cannot afford to big deep or own wells to draw water even if electricity is free. They end up as water buyers. This means that proportionately they earn less for what they grow. This has resulted in many farmers selling their land or going in for more profitable crops like potato—rather than rice or wheat—or for leasing out their land for corporate farming. A farmer who has leased out two acres of farmland can, hypothetically earn Rs 90,000 p.a., compared to the Rs 50,000 he would have earned as gross output if he had a wheat and paddy crop cycle. Punjab has evidently been corporatising its farming sector since the 1990s and one major organisation has leased out 4,000 acres of land and employs the former owner-cultivators as farm managers. Fresh fruits and vegetables grown on this vast land are exported to the European Union, Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, Eastern Europe and South East and West Asia. The company claims that the livelihood of its lessors have improved. The point to remember is that lack of rainfall, even lack of underground water is quietly giving way to new ways of living and sadly, quite a number of small farmers are quitting the scene unable to earn a meaningful livelihood.
According to a recent study noted in the Economic and Political Weekly just during the last decade, 1,28,000 small land holders have leased out their land and opted out of farming, and joined the rank of agricultural labourers with an assured income. The other option was “honour suicides”. In Punjab, small and marginal holdings has fallen by as much as two lakhs! It is a sad state of affairs.