Worse than You Think

Jatin Gandhi has covered politics and policy for over a decade now for print, TV and the web. He is Deputy Political Editor at Open.
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India faces a drought unprecedented in scale and impact. A crisis that will test the government’s aam aadmi agenda to the limit.

India faces a drought unprecedented in scale and impact. A crisis that will test the government’s aam aadmi agenda to the limit.

India faces a drought unprecedented in scale and impact. A crisis that will test the government’s aam aadmi agenda to the limit.

India faces a drought unprecedented in scale and impact. A crisis that will test the government’s aam aadmi agenda to the limit.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has reason to worry about the poor rainfall this year. India’s drought, which officially has about a third of India’s districts in its clutches, might be worse than the one in 2002. A badly affected rural economy will make Manmohan Singh’s Independence Day promise of getting the country back to 9 per cent growth even more difficult to keep.

The gravity of the scenario is not lost on the Government’s top leadership. The PM has promised help to farmers so that no Indian goes hungry. Yet, it’s the details that count. A few hundred kilometres away from the seat of power in India, in a place called Tikamgarh in Bundelkhand, Shanti Bai has no time for speeches made from the Red Fort. She has too many problems of her own. A 45-year-old tribal without a ration card, she lives with her family—a husband and 11 children—on the outskirts of Bada Gaon in Tikamgarh. The circumstances she faces are severe. Fighting starvation is a daily battle. Along with her four daughters, she spends hours sifting through a vast wasteland that boasts of nothing but ankle-high grass—a local variety called samai. Shanti pulls out a piece of cloth, which looks like what was once a sari, and unties some knots to unveil her most prized possession: a few hundred grams of samai seeds. She handles the little bundle cautiously. They’re precious.

It is these seeds of grass that keep the family from dying. They mix these with rice or wheat flour and feed a family of 13. The rice (or wheat) grains come from the half-acre farm that Shanti’s husband Ram Charan Saur, 50, tills with the help of their eldest son.

Five of their kids go to the nearby government-run school, where they get a free meal each working day of the week. “They get a few grams of food,” says Ram Charan, cupping his hands to indicate the paltry size of the serving. At home, the family often skips meals. “I have to roast the seeds and then pound them before they can be mixed with rice or baked with flour to make a roti,” says Shanti Devi. “This grass only grows during the monsoon. This year, there hasn’t been enough samai,” she says.

The family’s hut is part of a cluster by the rocks. In their free time, the family and their neighbours, all Saur tribals, pound pieces of rock into smaller bits that can be used as construction material. “Every few weeks, we sell a tractor trolley worth of rocks. They pay us 800 rupees,” says Ram Charan. When he saves enough money from this, he buys seeds to sow in his farm. He managed to sow less than half of his land this time round. With the rains failing him, even these saplings dried up.

Last year it had rained well, so Ram Charan’s farm gave him some urad and til crop, which he sold in the nearby market and bought rice and wheat for the family. Now, his stocks are fast depleting. And there are fewer customers for crushed rocks. Everyone is hard up this year.


Bhupendra Kumar Naik, 54, would have been a customer for crushed rocks. The Naiks and their neighbours belong to a cluster of 150 Brahmin households in the village who collectively are among the largest landholders in the region. But, like so many others, he has put off plans to extend his house. There are other worries. With 28 acres in Behrana village, Naik is better off than most farmers. More than two-thirds of Tikamgarh’s farmers are ‘small or marginal’; together, they own less than a third of all the farmland. (Across India, 78 per cent of farmers are classified as small or marginal, owning less than 2 hectares each.)

Naik is a powerful man, though. He is chairman of the Krishi Sewa Sahkari Samiti, the local cooperative society that lends money to farmers. This year, he had to use pumps to draw water from under the ground, the diesel for which drained his savings from last year’s harvest. “We have had to use nearly 3,000 litres of diesel for the pumps to draw water,” says Naik. Even his savings weren’t enough. He took a Rs 50,000 loan from the cooperative society he heads.

Between the Naik clan and hapless Saurs in Bundelkhand lie thousands of farmers who are up to their noses in debt. Among them is Udgyan Yadav, 40, of village Mokhra. After his crop dried up, Yadav tilled the land again back into an empty field. He lives in a one-room house with his wife Beti Bai, daughter Suman, and a cow—tied inside the hut in fear of theft. “When crops fail, cattle thefts go up,” says Yadav. He cannot take chances on survival. It was the cow’s milk that saw his family through the previous spell of drought that lasted three years before it rained well in 2008.

The last monsoon saw 997 mm of rain here. Yadav had taken a loan of Rs 50,000 in 2007 against his farm, which measures a little less than two-and-a-half acres. Since then, the only progress Yadav has made has been in accumulating debt. The figure continues to rise in his Kisan Credit Card (KCC) passbook. On 31 January last year, the loan stood at Rs 52,816, and by the beginning of this year, Yadav’s debt had swollen to Rs 58,629. His neighbour Damra Yadav isn’t breathing any easier. The 50-year-old who heads a family of six now owes a figure close to Rs 35,000. But his current hopes are modest. He just wants enough to eat, let alone paying off his dues.

The region abounds with such stories. Phulchand Yadav is just 27 and already a father of five. (Nationally, 276 children are born to every 100 women. In Tikamgarh, the figure is 610. But they also die faster. The district has an infant mortality rate of 195, which is about two-and-a-half times the national average.) Phulchand took Rs 10,000 on his KCC for his 4.5-acre farm. With so much land to himself, he should be better off than others around him. But he isn’t.

He spent Rs 5,000 on seeds, Rs 2,500 on manure and paid Rs 1,600 as tractor rent to have his land tilled for four hours. “If it had rained, I could have sold the grain for Rs 1 lakh in the market. Now everything is gone, and I have paid the tractor owner again to till the land back into an empty field,” he says. That’s Rs 700 more than what he borrowed from the bank. Until the next crop (April next year), making ends meet would involve selling milk from his two buffaloes.

If it weren’t for the grain grown on their own land or the milch cattle they own, these Yadav families would have been as badly off as Saurs, struggling to escape starvation.


It’s a grim scenario for Indian agriculture in other ways as well. Aquifers have begun drying up. Ground water is depleting fast. The Planning Commission, in a report on Bundelkhand a few years ago, pointed out: ‘In Tikamgarh, 76.36 per cent of the net sown area of the district is under irrigation. There are 67,362 wells, 243 ponds (under official/government control), 215 tubewells and 175 canals for irrigation. But still the rains affect it because wells and ponds are not independent of monsoon rains. It is to be noted that Bundelkhand receives average rainfall only in 6-7 years.’

The report had forecast a calamity. Well, it has finally come. And not just to Bundelkhand. Dryness is a nationwide affliction. In all, India loses 54 cubic km of groundwater every year, according to a report released last week by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite mission of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and German Aerospace Center. In other words, the country’s water table falls by over one foot every three years. Each successive drought cramps the country’s ability to cope.


Government statistics show that Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal have been hit the hardest by the sparse rains so far. These six states account for half of India’s kharif paddy production. “Most of these states have high dependence on agriculture,” says Dharmakirti Joshi, principal economist, Crisil, “This translates into a higher burden on the exchequer to provide relief to these states.”

That relief measures are needed is beyond doubt. The Tikamgarh district administration’s report, submitted to the state government to have the district declared ‘drought affected’, estimates that the poor monsoon could have damaged nearly half the crop. “We expect the crop loss to be between 40 and 50 per cent,” says Tikamgarh’s Deputy Commissioner Akhilesh Srivastava.

Of the 373 mm of rainfall that the district received till the morning of 17 August 2009, nearly 100 mm fell in the last one week. The sudden spurt in rainfall, an insider admits, could cloud the judgment of the officials who determine which district is drought-hit and which not. “The main problem lies in the fact that there was a 20-day dry spell that has badly affected crops here. The growth period of plants like til and pulses that comes before flowering, went completely dry. That will affect output badly,” says AK Rathore, assistant director, Department of Agriculture. On field visits, he found that even where crops had survived, stalks that should have been 4 ft high were less than 2 ft. “Even with the latest spell of rainfall, we don’t see recovery of the kharif crop,” he says, “At best, the late rain will contain 10 per cent of the anticipated loss.”

The suffering cannot be ignored. Sumita Ahirwal, 32, is a Dalit who lives in a Harijan basti not far from the Naik households. Her basti has three hand pumps for a population of 2,500. Of these, just one works, yielding dirty water. Sumita leaves her 3-week-old daughter Kajal with her neighbours when she goes out to fetch water. Her husband Bachhu Lal owns an acre of land and is a farmer for four months in a year. They have four children. The family spends every monsoon in the village. The older children get mid-day meals at school. “We get dal, aloo and roti,” says Poonam, the eldest of the siblings. “It is better than food at home,” she adds. It embarrasses her father, as the crowd that has gathered breaks into a laugh.

The family is set to leave for Gwalior in search of work—daily wage labour. Others in the cluster will follow. There’s little choice. Staying back would be to risk their lives, they know. But whether India’s overcrowded cities have enough jobs is another question.


What does the drought imply to the Indian economy? The 2002 episode should serve as a warning. India’s GDP growth in 2002-03 slid from 5.6 per cent the previous year to 3.8 per cent. While industry and services saw a sharp slowdown that year, the worst affected was agricultural growth, which tumbled from 5.7 per cent to a negative 7.2 per cent. “The drought this year is running parallel to the one in 2002,” warns Abhijit Sen, member, agriculture, Planning Commission of India, “The pattern is different, but overall the figures are the same, which leads to the inference that this is a bad year.” He worries that this drought could be even worse than the one in 2002.

Private sector analysts are also gloomy. A recent report by Edelweiss, a Mumbai-based brokerage firm, says that a 10 per cent rainfall shortage could result in GDP growth of 5–5.5 per cent instead of the 6.5 per cent projected on the assumption of a normal monsoon. “If the monsoon is deficient by 22 per cent, agriculture GDP will contract by 6 per cent and overall growth will decline to 4.7 per cent,” says Sajjan Jindal, president of Assocham, an industry lobby. The current estimated shortfall in rainfall is about 25 per cent.

If some economic analysts seem to be shrugging the drought off, it’s because the Indian economy is now at a peculiar stage. Agriculture is just 18 per cent of GDP now, and as the industrial and service sectors have outgrown it so swiftly over the last decade or so, its relative importance is in terminal decline. Yet, a vast majority of the Indian population depends on agriculture. So, overall economic figures present a grossly misleading picture of national well-being.

This is not about millions of dollars lost, it is about millions of people faced with starvation. Reports of farmer suicides have already started coming in. It is precisely a rural crisis like this that tests the efficacy of the Government’s flagship programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) scheme. “This is the first drought year since NREGA came into being,” says Sen, “It will be the test year for NREGA. By October, drought distress would have set in, in a big way. The Government will need to relax the 100-day limit for employment in certain areas to tackle the distress.”

Can the Manmohan Singh government ensure sufficient food and water for every Indian? It’s a question that should haunt the administration.

Additional reporting by TR Vivek