The first reports of drought-related suicides have begun filtering in from the district press. Farmers in the eastern coastal state of Andhra Pradesh are taking their own lives - the toll is said to be 20 farmers over the last 40 days. The state is one amongst many which has so far been forsaken by the South-West monsoon in 2009. Its parched districts have received only 153 mm of rain as against a monsoon normal, till mid-August, of 624 mm. An official with the state agriculture department has called the conditions the worst in 50 years. But the state government has still not declared Andhra Pradesh as hit by drought. Such declarations have in India become politically charged positions that the state ruling is forced to take, instead of being policy conclusions that can quickly bring relief and rehabilitation.
The conditions in Andhra Pradesh are bad, and just how serious they are will have hit home only because of these saddening reports. For those who have been watching the uneven progress of the monsoon, the question is: the signs were there to see by end-June, so why did state administrations and the central government not react weeks earlier? The signs were indeed there. The first drought declaration came on 25 June, from the north-eastern state of Manipur. Its neighbours, the states of Assam and Nagaland, followed on 14 and 15 July. The central Indian state of Jharkhand followed with its drought declaration on 20 July. Between 25 and 30 July the huge state of Uttar Pradesh declared drought in various districts. On 6 August its western neighbour, Himachal Pradesh, declared drought. And on 10 August its eastern neighbour Bihar did so.
Today, 167 of India's 593 districts are declared as being affected by drought. Absent from this list are districts in the states of Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. The rain deficit is now at least moderate and otherwise severe in most of the meteorological subdivisions that cover these states. There are outright drought conditions in several states including major foodgrain producing states. The water stocks position is worsening in the country's major reservoirs - these are monitored every day by the Central Water Commission. Already, at the beginning of June, water stocks were under extraordinary stress with a number of India's major reservoirs recording levels under their ten-year lows.
The widespread rain deficit has led agriculture departments in the major states which grow foodgrain and commercial crops to begin revising estimates for the monsoon sowing season of 2009. Scanty rainfall has delayed the sowing of important crops - including paddy - in Uttar Pradesh, with state agriculture directorate officials already anticipating a drop of 20-30% in yields this season. In the big western state of Maharashtra, the coverage of crop land under cereals has declined 9% per cent, that of all foodgrain is down 5% already and land under oilseeds is down by 6%. The impact on urban India has come swiftly and harshly - retail prices of items in the basic food basket are rising with pulses recording the highest increases in consuming centres all over India. A kilo of one of the staple lentils is now over Rs 100 in several cities, a rise of 50% within a month.
India has on paper a Crisis Management Plan for Drought. The crisis plan has been designed because long experience with drought in India has taught administrators that:
What happens now? The central concern is that drought and allied conditions will adversely affect an economy that has showed signs of recovery after last year's global financial crisis. In his 15 August Independence Day address to the country, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh again mentioned the economic growth rate. "Restoring 9% growth is the challenge," he said. For those in the 167 drought-hit districts, growth is not the answer, resilience is, and for that need administrative India has very few solutions.
Instead, the worry in the ministries in New Delhi is that states with districts declared as being affected by drought will seek financial and foodgrain assistance. Already, the Ministry of Agriculture has issued its notification on providing a distress diesel subsidy - "to enable the farmers to provide supplementary irrigation through diesel pumpsets in the drought and deficit rainfall affected areas to protect the standing crops; this will help in mitigating the adverse impact of drought/deficit rainfall conditions on foodgrain production".
There is also the anticipation, at the central level, that more money will need to be allocated for importing foodgrain, pulses and sugar from international markets. The implication is that the widespread drought declarations will prompt the central government (and affected state governments) to cut back on social sector spending.