Harvest of Misery and the Perpetual Politics of Drought

Published: 01st May 2016 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st May 2016 07:38 AM   |  A+A-


In August 2013, Raju Shetti, an MP from Maharashtra, asked Government of India about the plans to create a National Drought Relief Commission on the lines of the National Water Commission (NWC). The sequence and logic of the question underlines the stark failure of the many institutions like the NWC—and of successive governments in water management. If there will be drought every, or every other, year in some part of the country, why not a National Drought Relief


Drought—for a large section of the population in India—is a perpetual condition and a calendar event. It is also a perennial topic for the political class. Every year, MPs ask around 20 questions on drought—between 1991 and 2016, there have been over 500 queries. From the 12th to the 15th Lok Sabha—between 1998 and 2014, drought has been mentioned, discussed or debated on 492 occasions. Indeed, between 2014 and 2016, the issue of drought has come up on Parliament records 27 times. The point is not so much about the numerical parade as it is about the permanence of drought politics and the

harvest of misery.

To appreciate the state of perpetual fault line, one must review the history of drought management. The Drought Prone Areas programme has been in existence since 1973-74. It was accompanied by a Desert Development Programme and a Wasteland Development Programme. In 2009, the many alphabet soup programmes were merged and renamed as the Integrated Watershed Management Programme (IWMP). Today, the IWMP is part of the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayi Yojana.

So how has India done in the past four decades? In 1974, the government identified 54 districts and parts of 18 districts as drought-prone. In 2015, government informed Parliament that 972 blocks in 195 districts across 17 states are listed as drought-prone.

Drought was discussed last week too—in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. There was much politics—who did better on what. There was also much lament over relief to states—and argument about what constituted relief and compensation. As with the previous debates/mentions/calling attention/adjournments, the political class agreed to disagree on most issues. But they did agree that something must be done. What exactly must be done—the big idea, the great plan if at all articulated—was lost in the din.

On the face of it, India is estimated to have 2.5 per cent of the world’s land mass and 4 per cent of water resources. So although theoretically there should be no water shortage, availability is affected by geography and time. The problem is two-fold. Annual precipitation is 4,000 billion cubic metres, which translates into 1,869 bcm of water in rivers. India is able to use barely a third of this —the rest flows into the sea. Also 70 per cent precipitation occurs in 100 days. This imbalance of short-term availability and 365 days need is the challenge governments have struggled with.

The inter-linking of rivers was projected as one solution to address this skew between access and availability. The theory is that if water that currently flows into the sea is stored, it can provide both electricity and water. In practice, issues of funding, perplexing definitions of surplus for water in river basins, and tedious politics have all combined to stall the idea. Add the sordid saga of delayed projects —over 312 dams are delayed for decades, of which 152 are from Maharashtra. In fact, the coexistence of the largest number of dams (delayed and existing) and severe drought in Maharashtra raises questions.

The moot point is about usage. The reality of climate change—effects include erratic rainfall and receding glaciers—underline the fact that availability is finite and shrinking. Given that irrigation accounts for the bulk of consumption, India needs a new pattern for cash crops and cereals. Must farmers in Maharashtra grow sugarcane? The answer is not to force them to grow jowar or millets. The quest must be to seek replacement cash crops that don’t impact the economics of the farming community. What about sugar beet instead of sugar cane—it is a shorter duration crop, has better yield and consumes less water?

The UN World Water Report estimates that agriculture in developing economies will need to produce 60 to 100 per cent more food by 2050, and that water demand will exceed availability by 2030. Clearly, the status quo is not sustainable. India must reclaim ideas from its heritage—on sustainable use and maintenance of  water bodies. It must also innovate and adopt new ways. One idea awaiting its Victor Hugo moment is incentivising drip irrigation—look at Israel. Another idea is creating a private-private partnership between farmers and the market, a form of contracted risk-shared farming.

The pressure of urbanisation makes it an imperative for India to reassess how it will store, price, recycle and supply drinking water. Can a country with a rising urban populace and over 7,500 km of coastline evade options like recycling of grey water, reclaiming of waste water, desalination and thermal hydrolysis? Can India continue without a modern ground water usage policy? How about integrating space technology capability further with water management—for recharge and usage? There is also the issue of the structure of governance—should water be taken off concurrent list and reverted to the Centre; can water be better managed by local bodies?

It is these questions that the political class must ask and address. Typically, the system and discourse focuse too much on the consequence and too little on the causatives. The aspiration of super power status demands India resolves its most basic problems. Water tops the list.

In 1974, 54 districts and parts of 18 districts were listed as drought-prone. In 2015, government informed Parliament that 972 blocks in 195 districts across 17 states are drought-prone.

Shankkar Aiyar is the author of  Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change


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