Tamil Nadu’s move to declare a drought, ironically on the eve of the harvest festival of Pongal, is an important step to address the agrarian distress that is sweeping the State following poor rainfall during the northeast monsoon. Even with relatively better governance structures, desperation among farmers has resulted in a spate of suicides, particularly in the Cauvery delta rice belt that has received little water from Karnataka in recent times. An official declaration of drought brings relief: postponement of loan recovery, waiver of land tax and alternative employment through schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The challenge now is to infuse confidence among farmers that the government is fully behind them. As agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan has pointed out, there is a need to look ahead and institute reforms in drought management for effective distress mitigation.
These should be founded on a participatory approach, one that intensively engages the farm community year-round. A monsoon management centre drawing upon the expertise of multiple departments would, for instance, help use scarce resources conservatively during a drought, and maximise their potential in good times. It is also crucial to preserve the health of cattle and other livestock, as they tend to suffer irreparable harm during drought, with cascading effects on their future productivity. The Centre should provide all support to achieve this under the National Disaster Response Fund and the Prime Minister’s crop insurance scheme.
The importance of welfare support for small and marginal farmers cannot be overstated, given the vagaries of the monsoon. More than a decade ago, the National Commission on Farmers pointed out that successive droughts, illness, high expenditure on social obligations and asset loss push farmers to the brink. Yet, not much has changed in the management of drought from the low-budget practices of the colonial era, as the Swaraj Abhiyan case in the Supreme Court last year revealed. No more time can be lost in making the administrative system for agriculture responsive to today’s needs. The Centre has to ensure that the Drought Management Manual is updated to reflect farmers’ concerns, chiefly, giving weightage to the amount of rainfall deficit and declaring a drought without delay. In Tamil Nadu, excessive reliance on water-intensive rice cultivation, and lower priority for hardy millets have raised the risk for many farmers. Active recharging of groundwater and harvesting of surface water are vital to meet the challenges.