This time it has been a most unusual drought. Even with three consecutive bad crops (kharif 2014, rabi 2015, kharif 2015) and a fourth not-so-great one (thankfully, there’s been no big damage from unseasonal rains/hail unlike in March 2015), the annual consumer food price inflation is only 5.3 per cent.
In the past, droughts invariably fuelled speculation and hoarding by unscrupulous traders. This time we’re hardly feeling it in the cities. Barring sugar, where the price increase in recent weeks is more of a correction from unhealthy lows, consumers aren’t paying all that more for what they are eating compared to a year ago. No one’s talking much about onion prices, either. Even arhar dal is selling cheaper than when it consumed the BJP in Bihar’s assembly elections during October-November; the same goes for urad, moong or masur.
Simply put, this is a drought essentially of farmers and rural producers. And since it isn’t really pinching urban consumers, politicians even in Maharashtra – where the drought is most acute – have found it more important to discuss whether not chanting Bharat mata ki jai amounts to treason. Incidentally, Asaduddin Owaisi’s defiant speech that set off this most-important debate was made at Latur in the drought’s epicenter of Marathwada!
For farmers, the current crisis isn’t just of production loss from drought. It is also one of low price realisations. Farmers in Maharashtra are today selling cow milk at Rs 15-16 per litre, compared to Rs 25-26 a year ago.
This, despite a severe fodder shortage that would also means higher production costs. In most crops – whether cotton, rubber, basmati, guarseed or even potatoes, apples, kinnow and pineapples – producer realisations are below what they were a couple of years ago. The only reason nobody’s talking about onion these days is because the bulb is being sold in Maharashtra’s Lasalgaon market at below Rs 7/kg, as against Rs 12 last March and Rs 45-plus in early-September when pyaaz was grabbing all the headlines.
Drought, in a sense, has only added to the miseries of rural producers who are simultaneously battling the effects of a global commodity crash which has hit agricultural exports and farm prices. That, in turn, also explains why urban consumers aren’t particularly feeling the heat of the drought: they have been shielded mainly by low global prices. Compare this to the situation in 2007 when international prices were on the boil and we had food riots everywhere, including in places like West Bengal.
Right now, the drought is not about agriculture: The current rabi crop – whatever has been planted – is close to being harvested, if it has not already. The more immediate concern, instead, is about drinking water. With two-and-a-half months to go for the monsoon to arrive in the most parched areas and the country’s major reservoirs barely 25 per cent full, meeting peak summer drinking water requirements is going to be a challenge. It will be even more in Marathwada where reservoir water levels are down to 5 per cent of full storage capacity.
The one consolation we have is global climate models pointing to a “weakening” of El Nino, which was the main cause of the 2015 drought. The 2015-16 El Nino was one of the longest, starting around February last. It is even now in a “strong” phase and is expected to enter “neutral” zone only towards May, according to the latest forecast of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Since there is usually a two-month or so lag between its effects translating into actual rainfall, one cannot rule out a delay in the monsoon even if turns out normal.
The NOAA is also giving a 50 per cent probability of a La Nina – El Nino’s opposite, which is beneficial for the Indian monsoon – developing from August. But that again would deliver good rains not earlier than in the second half of the monsoon. A delayed, but good, monsoon is what seems most likely now. And that would mean a minimum three-month wait before things finally look up.