Warming world: Can India cope with drought?

Comment: With an estimated 300 million in 256 districts across India afflicted by recent droughts, the government needs a wide range of plans to cope with future events

(Pic: Joe Le Merou/Flickr)


Severe heat waves intensified across northern and parts of western India when temperature in some places rose to above 50C.

The meteorological department issued a warning of likelihood of further intensification of temperature, pointing to the impact of worsening climate change.

These changes led to drought like situations for two consecutive years affecting the economy of around 10 states across 256 districts and impacted livelihoods of nearly 330 million people in rural India.

This magnitude and scale of the impacts due to drought have rarely been witnessed in recent time in any other part of the world.

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Estimates by the Central Statistical Organization (CSO) indicate the share of agriculture and allied sectors (including agriculture, livestock, forestry and fishery) has declined to 15.35% of the Gross Value Added (GVA – 2015-16), but it supports nearly 70% of the population.

Given this, worsening of drought in the country could  stunt economic growth through direct and indirect impacts such as- loss of livelihoods, loss of agricultural produce, loss of soil health, distress migration to urban areas and increased expenses on relief, which adds up to the total cost to the economy.

Moreover, this would adversely impact on health of children and women besides increasing farm debt due to loss in livestock and farm economy in the drought-hit districts.

It is believed that if drought like situation prevails, farmers in some of the States like Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh will be worst hit due to agrarian crisis leading to farmer suicides which is currently over 160% higher than for all Indians excluding farmers, though direct linkage of farmer suicides to drought is not well established.

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However, despite two consecutive droughts in the country, Indian economy continued to grow at 7.9% in 2016 Quarter 1 and is expected to grow at 7.2% in Quarter 2 in the year.

The economy has diversified to the extent that consecutive droughts do not affect the economy in any significant way.

In addition, the drought resilience framework in India addresses drought in its multiple dimensions:

-Meteorological (through early warning systems, crop weather watch group, improved datasets)

-Hydrological (through improved irrigation, water conservation and management)

-Agricultural  (via drought resistant seeds distribution, soil conservation practices)

-Socio-economic (addressing the issues of livelihoods of people through relief, subsidized food, alternate employment opportunities)

Through these efforts, India has come to a situation, where droughts no longer lead to famine or famine like conditions.

While the economy as whole has achieved resilience from the impacts of drought, rural communities in large parts of the country continue to face the wrath of monsoon failure, leading to distressed selling of lands, movable assets, and migration.

This is aggravating poverty of the people affecting their nutritional standards rendering them more vulnerable to disease and ill-health and loss of productivity.

As per a recent industry study, total estimated impact on the Indian economy of drought in the year 2016 is estimated at $100 billion.

The Indian government is able to provide ex-post relief to drought sufferers through national and state disaster response funds, but there remains a wide financial gap.

The fund has an annual corpus of around 60,000 crores INR for a period of 5 years to respond to all types of disasters covering 29 states in India. This demonstrates an inadequacy of the funds for disaster relief in the country.

The Disaster Management Act, 2005 called for creation of the National Disaster Mitigation Fund, but the government in its wisdom has decided not to set up the fund.  However, the Govt of India has created the National Adaptation Fund on Climate Change that receives funding through budgetary allocation.

The fund currently has a total corpus of nearly 350 Crore INR to be disbursed across a range of sectors requiring adaptation support.

If the allocations under this fund is also drawn towards addressing drought related stress and losses, cumulatively the total financial requirements would remain inadequate.

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The prime strategy for India’s drought resilience plans therefore needs to be charted out in a way beyond the business-as-usual practices which will address drought resilience as an ex-ante measure.

The call by Prime Minister Modi to prepare a contingency plan for 67 districts in the country that are prone to drought even in years of normal monsoon is a welcome initiative.

This would ensure long term sustainability of the agricultural community against the recurring drought. Until, these plans are in place effectively, drought would continue to affect millions of poor people.

Therefore government initiatives need to be supplemented through community based interventions for climate change adaptations for drought resilience.

The Green Climate Fund should open a window of opportunities for such adaptation initiatives through grassroots level pilot projects, activities, and cross-cutting research which could be further improvised and replicated on a larger scale to all drought stressed regions in the country.

Swati Agarwal is a climate change researcher at The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), New Delhi. She works in the area of international and domestic climate policy and climate finance.

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