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Still All About the Monsoon

Around 250 districts in the country have been under drought conditions for five consecutive years, and deficits have plagued 13 monsoons since 2000

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“This is the most risky profession one can find; there are no guarantees,” says Bhimsha Koganoor from Nellur village in northern Karnataka’s drylands, standing over his barren one-acre plot of land that produced just three kilogrammes of tur dal in the past year instead of the normal four quintals. “Earlier we knew what to expect just from experience. Now there is zero certainty when it comes to rains. This year the situation is so bad, the reservoirs and all the wells have been dry since November. Practically everyone has suffered total loss of crop.”

On April 15, The India Meteorological Department (IMD) released its first long-range forecast for the 2019 monsoon. The prediction pegs rainfall over India during the monsoon at 96 per cent (+/-5 per cent margin of error) of the Long Period Average of about 89 cm with well-distributed rains in the months between June and September. The forecast is far more optimistic, however, than other private and international forecasting agencies that see the weak ongoing El Nino impacting monsoon performance more than what the IMD anticipates. While the “near normal” forecast stole the headlines, lurking underneath is the fact that the same estimate also indicates nearly 50 per cent probability of deficient rains this year.

The “good news” announced by IMD director general KJ Ramesh evoked an enthusiastic response from the markets, pushing the Sensex up by 370 points, or nearly one per cent. However, these numbers have come to matter little for people like Koganoor whose fates depend directly on the monsoon. Likewise for Sidhanna Yelalinga, a farmer from neighbouring village Ladchincholi who lost both his crops of jowar and tur in the past year. “All we have been able to salvage this year is fodder. It would have been better to leave the land untilled. Now we cannot even make our input costs,” he says.

Around 250 districts in the country have been under drought conditions for five consecutive years whereas deficits plagued 13 monsoons since 2000. Koganoors’s sentiments echo those of the majority of small and marginal farmers whose security has rapidly and successively depleted in the face of failing rains. “This year the situation in this region is quite severe. Reports from farmers indicate an 85-90 per cent loss across the area. Normally, farmers can cope with poor rainfall but this year the timing was also off. Since whatever rain came at the wrong time, it affected the crop as well as water storage. Since rain was not useful, irrigation tanks have been used more and have gone dry earlier,” says Raju Teggeli, the programme coordinator at the Kalaburagi Krishi Vigyan Kendra.

Couched In Semantics

Teggeli has hit upon a nuance that is at the root of the IMD’s forecasting woes. The monsoon is no longer an entity which can be described with a single simplistic set of numbers. The global teleconnections that dictate monsoonal winds have all been in a state of volatility owing to rapid and differential heating across the globe. For the Indian subcontinent, the dual effect of increasing extreme rain events and declining overall rainfall, that has come to define our entry into this post-monsoon era, has been projected for over a decade now and these factors have not gone unnoticed by the IMD. Recent years have seen forecasts and reports trimmed while terminology has been modified to indicate neutrality such as “deficit rainfall” rather than the erstwhile terms such as “meteorological drought”, ostensibly to shield itself from the increased liabilities. Forecasting troubles aside, IMD’s observational and disaster preparedness failures are routinely highlighted by natural calamities such as last year’s floods in Kerala or the many catastrophes that occur every year in the North-East where the observational network is especially pitiable.

And it isn’t just the IMD. The government as a whole has been woefully underprepared to deal with changes in the monsoon despite having been warned decades in advance. The government’s climate action is broadly guided by the 2008 National Climate Change Action Plan (NCCAP) that includes eight specific missions. But after more than a decade the activities remain poorly coordinated and implemented especially in areas related to adaptation to climate change. This is most readily seen in the way the government has responded to the current intensifying rural economic squeeze that is deeply linked with the changing nature of the monsoons. A 2018 study by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) found that 76 per cent of Indian farmers wanted to quit the profession while 70 per cent reported their crops had been destroyed because of unseasonal rains, drought, floods and pest attack.

While returns from agriculture are becoming increasingly uncertain, alternate employment has also been scarce. Agricultural job loss bleeds primarily into the rolls of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the situation in Kalaburagi offers a glimpse of the situation. “Our survival has become a daily endeavour, our main income this year has been through the MGNREGA works. This is the case with most landless labourers, there is simply no work on the fields,” says Ambaraya Biradar, one of the landless labourers who has found seasonal employment along with 180 others cutting a canal near Nellur as a part of the scheme. “The number of people at MGNREGA sites have increased by about 40 per cent compared to last year since crops have all failed,” informs Sudhananda Jamadar, one of the local technicians hired to oversee the progress of the projects. The increase in the number MGNREGA card holders has culminated in non-payment of dues as wages since December have been held up in several states including Karnataka. Recognising the ballooning MGNREGA dues, the Centre announced an additional `6,000 crore towards the scheme in January 2019 but this is unlikely to bridge the funding gaps as the outstanding bills towards MGNREGA from all states is currently upwards of `12,000 crore.

An Affliction Of Jobs

Like the afflictions of the Biblical Job, India’s rural hardship is ever increasing. The surge in applications for MGNREGA usually implies fewer days of employment per person. An indication of the severity of the crisis is that in 2018-19 MGNREGA was able to offer only about 38.5 days of employment per household, as compared to 45 days the previous year. Consequent to the abundant labour in the rural economy, rural wage growth has declined alarmingly since 2011. The government this year once again announced that rural wage growth had fallen another 20-30 per cent from the already low 3.09 per cent seen last year. Still the government’s response to improve agricultural adaptability has been the tepid National Innovations in Climate Resilient Agriculture or NICRA – one of the eight missions under the NAPCC. So far, the scheme has by and large failed and has not expanded beyond the 151 villages that were chosen for the pilot programme – this is a mere 0.0023 per cent of the total number of villages in the country. For the past year, the project has remained in limbo with few ideas on how expansion can be achieved. While insurance has more or less failed to protect against meteorological uncertainty, the government has aggravated matters by introducing stricter norms of at least 50 per cent crop loss for declaration of drought, a measure which has hit small farmers harder.

As the impact on the rural economy becomes clearer by the day with hundreds of thousands of crores of rupees having been lost to damaged crops in the last decade, a creeping concern across the country has been the impact monsoonal changes are bound to have on water availability. Barring Himalayan rivers, all of India’s surface water is rain-dependent and declining rains have left a deep impact. According to government projections, per capita availability is expected to drop by over a quarter to 1,340 cubic metres by 2025 compared to 2001 levels of 1,816 cubic metres. Anything below 1,700 cubic metres is considered to be a water-stressed condition. The deficit in surface water has been sought to be made up with groundwater which has seen a precipitous decline of over 60 per cent across the country between 2007 and 2017 according to the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB).

Last Dregs Of Groundwater

According to EnviStat 2018, the monsoon accounts for 67 per cent of the 447 billion cubic metre (BCM) of replenishable groundwater available to the country of which nearly 60 per cent is already being extracted. Probable shifts to resource-intensive industrial agriculture and overall peaking of the Indian economy in the next 15-20 years is likely to intensify a situation that is already looking untenable while the National Water Mission, a part of the NAPCC, looks to have failed to take off, much like NICRA. Despite the passage of a decade, state-specific action plans of only 16 states have been submitted so far while only 1,237 water bodies have been rejuvenated as against a target of 10,000.

There is little doubt that India has entered its post-monsoon era, and by the looks of government engagement with the idea of adaptation, there is little doubt that it will be one marked by existential uncertainty for much of the country.

(Shreeshan Venkatesh is an environmental journalist who writes on earth sciences, natural disasters and climate policy)

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