August 3, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/Union Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh

'We should not press the panic button' 'We should not press the panic button'

Union Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh admits the drought in several parts of the country is far more serious then envisaged initially. But he says India has enough grain, and that there is no need to press the panic button.

The minister has advised the governments of 13 drought-affected states to collect relevant information from its district magistrates so that the Union government can start disbursing financial assistance. In an interview to Onkar Singh, he denied the charge that the Centre is discriminating between states ruled by the National Democratic Alliance and those ruled by the Opposition.

What reports have you got from various states on the drought situation in the country?

The drought is widespread. It has engulfed 13 states that include Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Delhi. Though there have been droughts in India before, the situation has never been so serious as it is now.

The water level in 70 major water reservoirs has gone down substantially. It is almost 48 per cent. In western Uttar Pradesh, Bundelkhand, Rajasthan, Haryana and Chhattisgarh the rain deficiency is as much as 80 per cent.

How many states have been affected by the drought?

In all, about 13 states have been affected. The worst affected are UP, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, some areas in Maharashtra, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The drought in these states is very severe.

Some states like Rajasthan and Orissa have suffered droughts year after year. What effective steps has the government taken to ensure the supply of drinking water or to make water available for irrigation?

The Government of India has been telling the state governments, particularly those that suffer from drought, to start schemes that would encourage people to go in for water conservation schemes. In the last 10 years, 28 lakh hectares of land have been treated through water conservation schemes. In rain-fed areas the water level has gone up. So this is possible. But in many areas the farmers go in for paddy crops without realising they have to depend upon good rains for a good harvest. Paddy needs more water, hence it should be encouraged only in those states where there is more rainfall like the states in the Northeast.

You are right. Water management is going to be the main problem in the years to come. Unfortunately, this is not going to be easy to handle because it is a state subject. There are so many unresolved disputes already going on. People should remember the monsoon comes only for a limited period and unless you conserve water during the rains, the problem of water management is going to become more and more acute in the years to come.

You need more dams to store that water. But a climate has been created in the country against dams. You cannot allow water to go to the ocean and then hope things would sort out themselves. The traditional methods of holding rain water by creating small reservoirs have to be employed to meet the growing demand for water.

What measures is the central government taking to counter the current crisis?

I held a meeting of chief ministers of the affected states a few weeks ago. The states have to declare how many districts have been affected. The norm is if 50 per cent of the crop is damaged only then is a particular district declared drought affected. There is a Calamity Relief Fund that has been provided for by the 11th Finance Commission. While the Centre contributes 75 per cent of the total sum allocated to a particular state, the state has to contribute 25 per cent. Some states have not even taken the CRF because they want the entire money to come from the Centre.

This is given in two equal instalments -- the first in March/April; the second in October. The states have to account for the first instalment before they claim the second. Then, we have a National Calamity Contingency Fund. If the CRF is not sufficient then we give money from this fund, but again based on specifications and needs.

If the crop is destroyed, then we give Rs 1,000 per hectare for unirrigated land and Rs 1,500 per hectare for irrigated land to farmers.

I know this is not enough, but at least it takes care of the money spent by the farmer on procuring seeds, fertilizers etc. We have asked the cooperative banks and other banks to put a freeze on collection of loans from farmers. The states that have not paid Rs 1,000 crore to the farmers for procurement of sugarcane have been asked to make the payments to the farmers immediately.

Since there would be no work on the farms for landless workers we are starting food for work schemes. Under this 50 per cent payment would be made in terms of wheat or rice and 50 per cent payment in cash. We would supply the grains to the states.

Then there is the problem of finding fodder for animals. Rajasthan in the past got fodder from Punjab and Haryana, but this time both states have been affected by the drought.

In addition to this, we would have to take care of the shortage of drinking water. So the task ahead of us is huge and we have to deal with it.

Don't you think the time has come to press the panic button?

No, not at all. We should not press the panic button at all. We have enough buffer stock in grains to take care of the needs of the people of India. The Union government would ensure that food reaches to all the needy people. Nobody should die because of food shortage.

Some Congress-ruled states have alleged that the Centre is playing politics in the name of fighting drought.

This is not true. By simply stating there is a drought in the state they want money from the Centre. This won't cut ice. They have to follow procedure. The patwaris have to declare that their areas have been affected by drought. The district magistrates would give their reports to the state governments who in turn can declare the number of districts affected by drought. There is no question of the Centre discriminating between one affected state and the other.

Has the Centre taken any decision regarding restoration of tube wells in some states for purpose of irrigation?

Yes, we have asked all the states that had disconnected electricity supply to the tube wells to restore the connection so that farmers could till their land and irrigate them properly with ground water.

Which crops have been adversely affected by the drought?

Bajra, maize, wheat, oil seeds and paddy are the crops that have been hit badly. Rajasthan depends upon the bajra crop. Soya bean has been affected too. Paddy has been affected in rain-fed areas. Even in areas where the paddy is transplanted and where it grows mainly on soil moisture, the crop is going to be badly affected if it does not rain in the next 10 days.

Have you made any assessment of the total loss?

We are still in the process of getting the details of the damage from various state governments. Unless those reports come in we would not be able to give any kind of figure. But the loss would run into thousands of crores for sure.

Design: Uttam Ghosh

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