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Why is India drought-prone?/Dr Rita Sharma

Droughts are not unique to India. During 1967-1991, the world over, drought affected half of the 2.8 billion people who had suffered from any kind of natural disaster. Drought has implications both for food and water security. In the past three decades or so, India has acquired a measure of drought proofing against food scarcity consequent to the Green Revolution, which was propelled by irrigation. Tubewell technologies in particular were instrumental in spreading modern agricultural practices from Punjab, Haryana and western U.P. to the hitherto by-passed, high-groundwater potential, eastern regions. Development of active water markets enhanced access to groundwater. In this manner, food production became insulated from the adverse effects of drought.
Further drought proofing, through irrigation technologies, is projected in another 20 million hectares over the next 25 years. This would still leave 63 million hectares vulnerable to the vagaries of the monsoon. For these rainfed areas, located in the western region and the Deccan plateau, the appropriate strategy would be watershed development. This approach, through an array of low-cost, location specific, rainwater harvesting and supplemental irrigation technologies has shown significant promise for increasing groundwater recharge and crop yields. Village tanks and ponds and other traditional water harvesting structures under village panchayats, are being rejuvenated through active involvement of user communities. Success stories based on watershed development are legion, demonstrating the potential of the watershed approach in generating complementarity between conservation and productivity enhancement. Watershed development as a people’s movement is gaining ground as accounts of cornucopias in treated watersheds spread across water-stressed villages.
Tubewell technology is proving to be a double-edged sword. Careless on-farm water management and indifferent agronomic practices are leading to water scarcity and inequitable distribution of this common property resource. Inequities get aggravated as high-powered irrigation tubewells bored by the resource-rich dry up the marginal farmer’s dugwell. The over-exploitation of groundwater is leading to rapid depletion of underground aquifers.
There cannot be a single ‘silver-bullet’ approach for alleviating drought and water scarcity. In recent times, rainwater harvesting, a traditional system, has gained in profile as an effective instrument for recharging underground aquifers. Very important is the issue of sustainable utilisation of the aquifers. Gujarat and Rajasthan have highlighted various implications of water stress on the rural poor, especially women, as well as livestock. Of significance is the question whether deprivation should be associated only with hunger and food security. Growing water scarcity suggests that the poverty-line definition move beyond calories. Water security should be recognised as an important element of poverty alleviation.
A holistic approach encompassing a suitable mix of policy reform, institutional changes and technology options is needed to achieve longer term immunity, which may comprise of the following: (i) watershed approach to rainfed farming, (ii) water pricing reflecting opportunity costs, (iii) water use efficiency, (iv) entitlements to water users, (v) community based mechanisms to regulate over-exploitation and inequitable mining of groundwater, (vi) support price mechanism inducing appropriate cropping patterns, (vii) conjunctive use of ground and surface water, (viii) improvements in on-farm water management, (ix) promotion of water-saving micro-irrigation technologies such as drip-irrigation, (x) development of drought resistant varieties.
Dr Rita Sharma
Joint Secretary,
Union Min. of Agriculture
(The views are personal)
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