23 April 2019 13:06:39 IST

Scanty rainfall, farm distress and helpless farmers

In 2017 and 2018, India received below normal rains, and predictions say 2019 will be no different

Though India’s fields and farms are fed by various irrigation sources, almost 50 per cent of the country’s net cultivated area depends on rainfall.

The key water sources, including underground aquifers, lakes, rivers and reservoirs get replenished only through monsoon rains. But the rain God has not been too kind lately. After two consecutive below normal monsoons in 2017 and 2018, for 2019, forecasters again predict a below-normal or a near-normal rainfall. We run a check on the water levels across regions, to see what’s in sto re for the growth-starved farm sector this year.

While 50 per cent of the total area sown is monsoon-dependent, the remaining 50 per cent is irrigated from ground water and surface water sources. With water levels in key reservoirs receding fast, the situation is alarming.

Declining water level

According to data from the Central Water Commission (CWC), water levels in key reservoirs have been declining since October 2018 — from 112 bcm (billion cubic metres), which is 70 per cent of the storage capacity of these reservoirs, to 44 bcm, about 27 per cent of capacity. Of the 91 reservoirs monitored by the CWC, the western and southern regions have the highest number of reservoirs, 27 and 31 respectively, though the volume of water has declined sharply in the last six months.



The reservoirs in the western region, which covers Gujarat and Maharashtra, were at 55 per cent total live storage capacity in October 2018 but, as of April 18, they are at 20 per cent capacity. In the 2018 monsoon, these regions (Gujarat and parts of Maharashtra) received deficient rainfall (ranging between -21 per cent and -34 per cent).

On the other hand, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, in the south, received normal rainfall during the 2018 monsoon, with Kerala registering excess rainfall. However, reservoir levels fell from 66 per cent of capacity in October 2018 to 18 per cent now.

This decline not only impacts irrigation needs but also drinking water, industrial cooling, power generation, and commercial and recreational fisheries.

Ground water is not reliable either, as 54 per cent of country’s ground water is declining at a faster rate than it is getting replenished. For instance, in Tamil Nadu’s (Kancheepuram district), ground water was available at a depth of 2.8 metres in March 2018, now it has receded to at 4.8 metres — one has to dig nearly 2 metres deeper to access ground water.

Significance of monsoon

Rain-fed agriculture accounts for about 44 per cent of food production, according to Agriculture Ministry data.

The south-west (SW) monsoon provides nearly 80 per cent of the country’s rainfall between June and September, while the north-east (NE) monsoon is active from October to December (the southern regions receive most rains during the NE monsoon). Timely onset and spatial distribution of rainfall is important, especially for kharif crops (sown during the SW monsoon season) — 90 per cent of rice, 70 per cent of coarse cereals and 70 per cent of oilseed are produced during the kharif season.

The total food production, the livelihood of farmers, food security, and the growth of allied industries are severely impacted by a deficient monsoon. The year 2014-15 saw deficient rainfall across the country with some districts in States such as Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Rajasthan declaring a drought. The total food production, which was 265 million tonnes the previous year, fell to 252 million tonnes that year — a decline of nearly 5 per cent. This not only resulted in food security issues but also farmer suicides.

Above all, it also pushed up the cost of diesel needed to power the irrigation pumps (as water level receded), forcing farmers to borrow from non-formal financial institutions at high interest rates to keep farm operations running.