Managing the monsoon

Aberrations in monsoon behaviour are not uncommon. What is new is the difficulty in forecasting caused by factors coming under the generic title, ‘climate change’, writes M. S. Swaminathan in The Hindu.

Forecasts by the South Asian Climate Outlook Forum and the India Meteorological Department indicate that the south-west monsoon rainfall may be deficient. Also, there is a possibility of the evolution of an El Niño event during June to September. There is a 45 per cent probability that central, west, north-west and south India will receive below normal rainfall. There is also a 40 per cent chance that eastern States like Odisha, West Bengal, the north-east, and most of Jammu and Kashmir may get normal rains during the south-west monsoon period. Paddy arrivals in the market are also sluggish, indicating that actual production is either lower than the estimated production of 107 million tonnes of rice, or that some of the stocks is being held back in the anticipation of a higher price.

Enhancing water security

In the current scenario of climate change, predictions of extreme weather events are becoming difficult. In March to April this year, we had unexpected hailstorms and heavy rainfall in parts of central and north-west India. Outside India also, most of California is experiencing extreme drought with storage levels in the major reservoirs as well as lakes well below historic levels. Australia experienced what has been described as the Millennium drought which led to the growth of water markets and to renewed emphasis on water security measures.

In India, unlike in the United States and Australia, agriculture is not just a food producing enterprise but also the backbone of the livelihood security of nearly 60 per cent of the population. Therefore, there is no time to relax in the area of taking anticipatory steps to safeguard food, water, energy and livelihood security in rural India, in the event of an erratic monsoon. We should initiate proactive steps immediately to ensure food and drinking water security for not only people but also for the over one billion farm animal population. Aberrations in monsoon behaviour are not uncommon, having been with us throughout our agricultural history. What is new is the difficulty in forecasting caused by factors coming under the generic title, “Climate change.”

The recent report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change has warned of higher mean temperatures and a rise in sea level if we do not take action on cutting down greenhouse gas emissions. The low carbon pathway of development still remains a topic for academic discussion rather than for political and practical action. International prices of food and other agricultural commodities tend to remain volatile. The right to food enshrined in the National Food Security Act can be implemented only with the help of our farmers, unlike the right to information which can be implemented with the help of files. Right now, the government has enough stock to fulfil the legal obligation of providing 5 kg of wheat, rice or millets per month to nearly 75 per cent of our population. With one widespread drought, the current food stocks may disappear. Even this year, market arrivals of paddy have been as low as 42 per cent in West Bengal, 34 per cent in Bihar and 23 per cent in Odisha. Hence, there is no time to relax in the areas of food production and safe storage

Need for a grain storage policy

Fortunately, we still have a large untapped production reservoir in most foodgrains even with technologies available on the shelf. What is important is the mobilisation of group endeavour among farm families with small holdings in areas such as plant protection, water harvesting and post-harvest technologies. The new government must accord priority to both water security and water use efficiency. Water harvesting in homes, farms and factories must become mandatory. Tamil Nadu has already initiated steps in this direction. The rain-cum-solar energy centre functioning in Chennai is a source of credible public information on rainwater harvesting and solar energy use. Such centres need to be replicated in all our cities, towns and block headquarters.

Besides causing food and water shortage, deficient rainfall adds to the problem of energy shortage

The latest technologies for using the available water in the most efficient manner possible should be adopted. On fertilizer use efficiency, there are technologies such as those developed by the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) in the US which can help improve the efficiency of urea use by about 50 per cent. Methods of managing the triple alliance of pests, pathogens and weeds must be popularised.

Besides causing food and water shortage, deficient rainfall adds to the problem of energy shortage. In every calamity lies an opportunity for progress. Harvesting of the sun in homes, offices, fields and factories should also become mandatory; it can help increase energy supply in rural and urban areas. At the post-harvest stage, a national grain storage policy with these three components must be adopted — we should promote the use of small storage bins, like the Pusa Bin, at the farm level. Second, we should implement the rural godown scheme for safe storage of foodgrains and perishable commodities at the village level. Such a rural godown scheme was introduced as early as 1979, but the programme has yet to take off in a manner that can make a difference to preventing the loss of food items at the village/block levels. Third, we should establish a national grid of ultramodern foodgrain silos in at least 50 locations in the country, each capable of storing about a million tonnes. Unfortunately, there is still a mismatch between production and post-harvest technologies, with producers and consumers unable to get the full benefit of higher production.

For the food and water security of farm animals, we need to earmark potential areas for establishing cattle camps where the animals can be looked after during a drought emergency. These camps should have access to water. A suggestion I had made over three decades ago that we should identify and establish groundwater sanctuaries at appropriate places is yet to be implemented. These are concealed aquifers which should be tapped only when absolutely essential. Like a wildlife sanctuary, they should be protected from exploitation. The establishment of such sanctuaries — at least one each in the 130 agroclimatic zones generally identified in our country — will help us to save precious cattle and other farm animals, both from distress sale and starvation deaths.

Coarse cereals and food security

As the speaker in the “Sardar Patel Memorial lecture” series on All India Radio, which I delivered in 1973, I had suggested that we should develop drought, flood and good weather codes to minimise the adverse impact of unfavourable monsoons and to maximise production in a good monsoon year. The drought code consists of a series of dos and don’ts during deficient rainfall. As in the case of drought and flood codes, seed banks consisting of seeds of alternative crops should be maintained. Seed reserves are as important for crop security as grain reserves are important for food security. For example, during the recent and severe drought in California, it was found that some of the earlier crops like millets had survived with a reasonable yield, while wheat or rice could not withstand the severe drought.

Fortunately in our National Food Security Act, there is provision to procure and supply under the Public Distribution System, local grains like ragibajrajowar and a whole series of minor millets. Since such crops require milling, they have been referred to as coarse cereals. They should be referred to as climate smart nutri cereals. They are now being provided at Rs.1 per kg — an extremely attractive price from the point of view of resource poor consumers. Such underutilised crops are now known to be rich in macro and micronutrients and could help in the fight against protein hunger caused by the deficiency of protein in diets and hidden hunger caused by the deficiency of micronutrients such as iron, iodine, zinc, Vitamin A and Vitamin B. If the Food Security Act is backed by a nutrition literacy movement, the demand for climate smart nutri-cereals will grow. This will help in promoting the cultivation of crops which may do better under drought conditions.

Toward climate smart farming

In each of the major agroclimatic zones, at least two members (a woman and a man) of every panchayat or local body should be trained to be climate risk managers. They can help the rest of the community in implementing the provisions of the proposed drought, flood and good weather codes. The government has recently introduced a national policy on agroforestry. Agroforestry combines the benefits of carbon sequestration and local food security. The inclusion of fertilizer trees in agroforestry systems can help build soil carbon banks.

This year is the International Year of Family Farming. Family farming is both a way of life and a means to livelihood. India has probably the largest number of family farmers. Our aim should be to make every family farm a climate smart farm, equipped with the knowledge and technologies essential to manage the expected El Niño triggered adverse rainfall conditions.

Prof. M.S. Swaminathan is founder chairman and chief mentor, UNESCO Chair in Ecotechnology, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, and former Member of the Rajya Sabha. This post originally appeared here.

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