-The Indian Express
As drought pushes up food prices, India must invest in new irrigation methods
The speculation on the delay of the monsoons and below-normal rainfall this year is not new to India. But the drought in the maize belt of the United States — that is, in the Midwest — was unexpected. The impact of the drought will be felt on wheat and soya bean production. This will eventually lead to an increase in their prices as well as that of items like milk, poultry and meat in the near future. A significant impact on the global market can also be expected as the US accounts for more than 40 per cent of total world exports of wheat and soya bean.
The 2008 and 2011 rise in prices were due to a drought in Australia, followed by Russia and India. Response to the droughts, restrictions on the export of rice and wheat by countries like Vietnam, India, Russia and Argentina put additional pressure on prices, accounting for about 30 per cent of the increase in prices in the first six months of 2008. The rising cost of oil, biofuel subsidies in the US and Europe and the depreciation of the US dollar made prices go up even further.
This year in India, the cumulative rainfall up to July 25 was 22 per cent below the long period average (LPA). Some regions suffered more than others, especially the northwest, which received about 39 per cent below the LPA. The states of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan have been the worst hit. In Gujarat, sowing lags by 24 per cent.
A combination of new and long-running forces is driving the food situation worldwide, leading to a rise in prices. Uncertain weather conditions have been a major force in driving up prices of food commodities. Land-water constraints, underinvestment in rural infrastructure, poor access to key inputs and information for the farmers do not help either.
Interestingly, India has rice and wheat stocks exceeding 80 million tonnes, 125 per cent higher than the buffer stock norms. India has not only been meeting its effective demand for staple food items but also producing surplus for buffer stocks. The impact of the drought will be felt in pulses especially tur dal (pigeon pea), coarse cereals, oilseeds and rainy season vegetables. Increase in fodder prices will eventually lead to a rise in the prices of milk, meat and poultry.
The average annual rainfall in India is 1,160 millimetre, although this is erratic in four out of ten years. It has an irrigation potential of 140 million hectares —76 mha from surface water and 64 mha from groundwater — but every year, 16 per cent of the country’s total area runs the risk of drought and about 50 million people in the country are exposed to a crisis. Even if full irrigation potential is not achieved, due to poor management and low water utilisation efficiency, about 75 mha will be rainfed and remain a major source of foodgrain.
For the medium to long-term targets, policymakers need to work towards strengthening irrigation potential. India cannot afford to neglect investment in irrigation structures of all types, as well as in large-, medium- and small-scale water harvesting. For sustaining productivity, diversified land use and improved farming systems that require less water and yield higher returns have to be promoted.
Drip and sprinkler irrigation systems in scarcity areas will also help save water, by 30-60 per cent in case of sprinkler systems and by 50-85 per cent in case of drip irrigation. Using such systems instead of normal surface irrigation could boost yield by 10-50 per cent. The area used for fodder production needs to be increased by 5-10 per cent to cater to the demands of livestock products, such as milk and meat. These interventions would reduce costs and increase production, and help in controlling prices.
Farmers must be helped to make efficient use of the resources. This will improve the water and fertiliser use efficiency, among other things. The current public extension system focuses on input-intensive methods of production but is sometimes unable to address specific local problems. Cumbersome loan procedures and consequent delay in loan disbursement is also a major constraint. Credit availability needs to be made simpler, especially in drought hit areas. It is important to scale up rainfall insurance among farmers. Weather-based insurance products catering to localised requirements are the need of the hour. These products cover for low or high rainfall, cloudbursts, sudden changes in temperature and hailstorms. A synergy between insurance cover and farmer losses is a must in drought affected areas. It could be achieved by mapping risk parameters to make insurance more transparent.
Steps should be taken to link farmers to the remunerative markets through improved firm-farm linkages. There must be an integrated farm-to-fork approach to strengthen food value chains. Strong farm-fork linkages will induce farmers to adopt new farming technologies, trigger investment in logistics, save resources and protect farmers from the vagaries of the weather.
The writer is director, South Asia, of the International Food Policy Research Institute