THE sudden chill that enveloped vast portions of Maharashtra last week, bringing the temperatures down to as low as eight degrees Celsius even in cities like Pune, will, however, not bring cheer to thousands of farmers and officials in the state’s agriculture ministry.
Large parts of Maharashtra, along with neighbouring states including Gujarat and Karnataka, are reeling under the impact of a drought. And this has expectedly triggered off a massive migration of rural folk, who plod to cities, some tagging along their starving animals.
With general elections due in April-May, followed by state assembly elections in Maharashtra a few months later, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power in the state (and also at the centre) is worried about the impact of the drought on voters.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis rushed to Delhi recently and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking about Rs80 billion to tackle the drought.
With the BJP having recently lost elections in three key states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — the party is extremely worried about its prospects in the general elections and in elections to states like Maharashtra in just a few months.
The central government sent a 10-member delegation on a two-day tour of Maharashtra to assess crop damage and the drought-like situation in many districts. The state government claims that more than 150 ‘talukas’ — out of a total of nearly 360 — are facing drought-like conditions because of deficient rains during the south-west monsoon season.
While the first-half of the monsoon this year was extremely good, the rains failed many states in the second-half, leading to fears of a looming drought. Farmers in Maharashtra were caught unawares by the fluctuations of the monsoons, which saw a virtual dry spell in August and September, when many had planted crops and were hoping for good rains.
But it is not just the farmers who are suffering. The drinking water situation in the state has also worsened and millions of people have to depend on tank water. Most of the tankers, however, are unable to meet the huge demand, leading to chaotic scenes across smaller cities and towns.
The acute scarcity of water has not only led to an agrarian crisis in many parts of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka, but has also led to sharply lower production, a shortage of grains and spiralling prices of pulses and other agricultural products.
According to estimates, there has been a 45 per cent decline in the sowing of coarse grains including jowar (sorghum), bajra (millet) and maize, while sowing of pulses has declined by nearly 20pc. The sowing of all rabi crops has fallen by more than 35pc.
Consequently, the price of these agricultural products has shot up sharply in recent weeks, especially in states like Maharashtra, where they have risen by nearly 35pc.
Worse, while the water in the major reservoirs in north and central India, which contribute significantly to rabi crops, is much more than the 10-year average, in Maharashtra, it is down by nearly 20pc as compared to the previous year.
THE Indian government has set a target of 283.7 million tonnes (mt) of food grains output in the 2018-19 crop year. This includes 142.5mt of production during the rabi season. Advance estimates by the government reveal that kharif production could add up to 142mt, but the rabi output could be in sharp decline.
Last week, Crisil — majority-owned by Standard and Poor’s — in its impact note, warned that reservoir levels have been impacted because of the weak monsoon in September and October.
Large parts of Maharashtra, along with neighbouring states, are reeling under the impact of a drought. With general elections due, the BJP is worried about the impact of the drought on voters
Water storage in the 91 major reservoirs in India in mid-December was 57pc of the storage capacity, down from 65pc a month earlier.
“With the rabi season showing clear signs of weakness, rural India’s contribution has come under a cloud,” said the report. “Unless the sowing situation improves in the next few weeks, there could be a trickle-down effect on the sectors being driven by rural India.”
Sowing by mid-December — which counts for more than 80pc of total sowing in the rabi season — was down by 5.25pc year-on-year to 47.6 million hectares (mha), compared with 50.25mha in the previous rabi season, it noted.
“This is of concern because the rabi crop accounts for around 40pc of India’s agricultural produce (based on key 14 crops which account for 97pc of total agricultural produce except sugar cane and horticulture crops), in both volume and value terms,” said the report.
While all major crops have seen a decline in area sown, coarse cereals have seen a sharp decline of more than 20pc year-on-year, with Maharashtra and Karnataka recording the maximum shortfall.
Wheat, which accounts for two-thirds of the total rabi production, has remained flat, while crops accounting for a little more than five per cent of rabi production have shown an increase in production.
India’s rural economy had fared well over the past two years because of the normal monsoons, triggering off demand for tractors, light commercial vehicles and two-wheelers. Even in the FMCG sector, there were indications that rural India was growing 25pc faster than cities.
But with weakness evident during the rabi season, the contribution of rural India to economic growth would be affected adversely.
In Gujarat, which has also faced an erratic monsoon, farmers are not taking any risks, with many opting for drought-tolerant crops such as jowar.
According to government estimates, there has been an 112pc increase in the areas sown with jowar as compared to a three-year average.
Over 33,000 hectares of the crop have been sown, while irrigated and un-irrigated wheat has seen a sharp 50pc fall in average sowing.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 24th, 2018