Enigmatically dry
Down To Earth|September 16, 2021
Drought haunts India as a normal monsoon season nears end
SHAGUN KAPIL AND AKSHIT SANGLOMA WITH PRIYA RANJAN SAHU AND JUMANA SHAH

ON SEPTEMBER 1, 2021, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) announced that the monsoon this year was well within the normal range, with a deficit of just 9 per cent. The weather agency went on to assure that by the end of September, the last month of the four-month-monsoon season, the overall rainfall will be comfortably “above normal”.

The optimistic picture painted by IMD conveniently masks the fact that farmers across 10 states and Union Territories are battling drought-like situations. Despite “normal” rains, almost 90 per cent of the districts remain drier than usual even as the Kharif (summer) crop season is underway, suggests the latest Aridity Anomaly Outlook Index released by IMD for September 2-8, 2021. The index monitors agricultural drought, a situation when rainfall and soil moisture are inadequate to support healthy crop growth till maturity, causing crop stress. The index, released week-on-week, shows the dramatic increase in the aridity levels this monsoon season. Of the 733 districts in the country, only 30 are currently nonarid (see 'Stark contrast', p14). This is much worse than the situation that existed in the week of August 19-25, when almost half of the districts were in the non-arid category.

India’s only real-time drought monitoring system, developed by the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, Gujarat, also captures the alarming situation. Its Drought Early Warning System, on September 3, showed almost 28 per cent of the country was under drought.

India recorded a deficit rainfall in July and August, the most crucial period for sowing Kharif crops. August has been the driest month in the current monsoon season with 24 per cent less rainfall than the normal. As a result, sowing was completed only on 104.3 million hectares (ha) till August 20, according to the data with the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. When compared with last year's data, the area sown this year is 1.65 million ha less, which is roughly the size of Delhi.

“The loss is irreversible, even if it rains enough in September. The standing crop is already in the flowering stage and needs water now,” says Sagar Rabari, a farmer leader from Gujarat, one of the driest states this monsoon. As on September 6, the state had received a cumulative deficit rainfall of 41 per cent; 32 of the 33 districts reported less rainfall. Valsad district, the only exception, had also received 19 per cent deficit rainfall, which as per IMD is only borderline normal.

J K Patel, a cotton farmer in Surendranagar district, says farmers are now dependent on the Narmada dam. By mid-August, farmers had started using pumps and pipes to divert water from the Narmada branch canal to their farms using a process locally referred to as bucknallis. Since this unorganised system is controlled by the water mafia and local politicians, it leaves the farmers at their mercy, Patel says. By September 6, Surendranagar had a recorded a cumulative deficit rainfall of 64 per cent. The farmers from Surendranagar and Aravalli, which has reported 67 per cent deficit rainfall, have submitted formal requests with their respective district collectors to declare the areas as drought-hit.

In Odisha, which had received 29 per cent less rainfall till September 6, the state government has finally pressed alarm bells. The state is working on a contingency plan for the affected districts where farmers who have lost standing crops will be given new seeds and provided irrigation facilities. “The deficient rainfall has created problems for paddy crops,” says state chief secretary Suresh Chandra Mohapatra. Paddy, cultivated across 3.5 million ha, is the state's main crop.

Yet, not even a single district in the country has so far been declared drought-hit.

DELIBERATE DELAYS

State governments are responsible for declaring a drought, as per the Manual of Drought Management, 2016, released by the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. The manual says a state government can declare a drought through a notification that should clearly specify the geographical extent (gram panchayats, blocks, mandals, taluks, subdivision and districts) and severity of the drought (moderate or severe). “Drought declaration during August month may be carried-out, if the seasonal conditions signify drought-like situation, reads the manual.

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