Monsoons, Water, and Ag: India's Troubles at Home

Delayed monsoon rains are accentuating the dire water crisis facing India. The weather patterns, tardy an entire week, arrive as water shortages are engulfing the nation. Chennai, India’s sixth largest city, is subsisting by just a thread. With just one percent of last year’s water available at present, Chennai has endured tough water rationing amid daily scorching temperatures. Policy specialists have forewarned that Chennai, alongside nearly two dozen more Indian cities, could witness the complete degradation of groundwater resources by 2020

India’s farmers too are heavily afflicted by the monsoon’s late arrival. Growing seasons for vital crops could be slashed by weeks, and the overdue monsoon could restrict the amount of precipitation India receives, compelling farmers to plan alternative crops. Cyclone Vayu’s early-June presence in the Arabian Sea drained moisture and strength away from the incoming monsoon. Notwithstanding rainfall in surplus of current predictions, this year’s monsoon will be perceptibly weaker. Consequently, yields on mainstay crops, including rice, wheat, cotton, maize, and others may be severely depleted. Following last year’s lackluster monsoon, the prospect for high yields was already on tenuous footing.   

India’s reliance on a timely, plentiful monsoon is enormous. Nearly 70 percent of the nation’s yearly precipitation arrives from the four-month downpour, contributing mightily to the health of the agricultural sector and rural economies countrywide. Over half of India’s workforce is employed by agriculture, contributing nearly one-fifth of the nation’s GDP. Inevitably, India will grapple with more pronounced renditions of water scarcity and environmental volatility in ensuing decades. With the current situation morphing into a fully-fledged crisis, the Modi government must work steadfastly to address chronic water shortages, provide farmers relief, and hedge against considerably worse possibilities in the future. In doing so, the government should adopt a flexible and determined policy which leverages the economic, governmental, and diplomatic powers of the state in providing holistic approaches to the crises.

Resolving India’s water shortage is a mammoth task confronting the world’s second-most populous country. Groundwater mismanagement, intense water pollution, and failure to sensibly store and reuse water have impaired the livelihoods of untold millions. By neglecting the most essential source of sustenance, India is gambling with social upheaval. A multidimensional solution is necessary to reverse this disturbing trend. 

Currently, India only captures just 8 percent of its yearly rainfall, a rate significantly below the global average. Failure to retain rainfall deposits exhausts groundwater sources and prevents their vital recharging. Extreme urbanization throughout India has caused developers to construct new neighborhoods on existing wetlands and remove lakes, rivers, and streams. These ecological features are natural hubs for storing water and recharging local aquifers. With their widespread elimination, it’s evident why water levels across India have plummeted. Urbanization, a relatively new phenomenon on the timescale of India’s national development, has hardly completed its course. Until mid-century, India will be a predominantly rural nation, and across these decades it will observe immense in-flows of people into urban and suburban areas coming from the sprawling rural landscape. Accommodating the millions yet to arrive will necessitate greater land development, infrastructure improvement, and demand for water. Urban planners may be forced to supplant remaining natural habitation for neighborhood expansion, ultimately forgoing the natural methods of water conservation. Given the calamity at present, government at all levels, from local municipalities to the Lok Sabha, must reform the manner in which urbanization is strategized and implemented. Priority should be given to natural conservation, especially wherein water reservoirs are concerned. Jurisdictions should not seek to expand beyond available resources, nor should they subvert their natural endowments to acclimate to influxes. The obvious lesson for us today is the realization that contemporary policy is unsustainable. 

India must pursue innovative policy ideas to successfully navigate the water crisis. Developing a robust water capture system should be a top priority. India can look to Tamil Nadu, the first state to make rainwater harvesting mandatory. Buoyed by infrastructure growth and a strong public relations campaign emphasizing conservation and personal responsibility, the program has engineered great success in the state. Indeed, it has been branded as a model for others to follow.

Additionally, India must embolden the full power of its entrepreneurial spirit. Social and technological startups have sprung to the call to provide clean, accessible, and sustainable means of water procurement. These companies alert local residents about water scarcity in real-time, contribute to smart city planning, and purify contaminated water sources, among other matters. One such startup, named Khyeti, distributes modular greenhouses that need just 10 percent of water resources to grow up to seven times more food. For India to thrive and survive, the Modi government must heavily invest in Khyeti and others to advance their technological progress, national reach, and expansion to scale. 

Much like the water crisis, Indian agriculture is ailed by an assortment of afflictions. Weak linkages to consumers, inaccessibility to credit, and inadequate investment directed toward agriculture torment their plight. As mentioned earlier, farmers have struggled to sustain crops following consecutive substandard monsoons. Rural distress is the prevailing norm in India, and farmer suicide is not uncommon. While Indian farmers’ difficulties are many and varied, Prime Minister Modi’s government can achieve meaningful improvement for them by addressing these aforementioned items. 

From a fundamental standpoint, India’s produce market is broken. Farmers have little to no knowledge of the market to which they sell. Consumer demand is reduced to farmers’ heuristics, not by what demand truly entails. Their technological disconnect ensures a deep divide, which is consolidated by geographical distance from consumers, the likes of which farmers cannot bridge. Farmers are wholly reliant on traders to bring produce to market. And when their produce has been sold, it’s unlikely farmers will receive their due share from the transaction. The profit exchanges hands many times moving back to the farmer. Each middleman will take their own share, leaving the farmer poorer than the worth of his toil.

Moreover, the Indian farmer is eternally in debt. Every year farmers stake out loans to finance their yearly harvest because their earnings are simply too meager. Whenever a drought or flood results in crop destruction, farmers invariably fall into debt. This debt is accrued on a year-to-year basis, and it compounds on generationally as land ownership exchanges hands. Interest rates on loans to farmers can be astronomical and, irrespective of tampering by moneylenders, these alone could sink a farmer’s finances. Unfortunately, India’s farmers are easily exploitable and stifled. 

Meager agricultural investment rounds out the farmers’ troubles. Research and development in Indian agriculture sorely lacks relative to global standards. Business Today reported, “less than 1% of the Agricultural GDP in India is spent on research. This is abysmal considering this sector… provides livelihood to 60% of our population.” The sweeping technological amenities pioneered in the Green Revolution have not seeped into India. Beyond the advent of fertilizer, Indian agriculture is best characterized as archaic, labor-intensive, and non-mechanized. India’s farmers have not observed substantial increases in agricultural output for many lifetimes.

To alleviate these issues, India must fully embrace modernization of its agricultural sector. The national government must invest in communicative and mechanized technologies while incentivizing private investment to do likewise. Extending broadband internet access to rural localities can give, for the very first time, farmers direct connectivity to the market they serve. With the integrated technology, they can build the acumen to judge consumer demand, weather conditions, projected yield, optimal harvest time, and much more – straight from their fingertips. Establishing banking accounts via mobile devices ensures that farmers receive the whole sum from what they sell by automating transactions. Bringing mechanized agriculture into the mainstream will reduce the sector’s labor intensity and boost yield across the board. Time dedicated to both sowing and harvesting crops can be drastically lowered, giving farmers additional time to dedicate to productive use. Altogether, these policies would facilitate communication between both sides of the market and enhance farmers’ financial solvency. 

Further, India must stimulate private investment in agriculture and related sectors. While foreign investment is rather low because of notorious regulation, recent data indicate domestic investment has slumped sharply ahead of the unveiling of the Union Budget. To counteract these prevailing winds, PM Modi’s government must project a beacon of confidence on the economy. This can be done by sweeping away impediments to foreign and domestic investment and reinvigorating India’s commitment to infrastructure and agricultural projects. It is essential for agricultural research and development to take center stage in the new budget. PM Modi’s objective to double farmers’ income by 2022 is a bold measure that is sustained only by equally bold policy. R&d will deliver for India. Additionally, the Department of Farmers’ Welfare should conduct research studies into successful agricultural models elsewhere. Extracting best practices from high-caliber agricultural nations is an ingenious model to follow. By way of applying strategies learned, India can greatly strengthen the lives of its farmers. 

Lastly, PM Modi should strive to provide better institutional protections for Indian farmers. Because moneylenders can often be predatory, farmers need security from excessive interest rates, repressive debt, and destruction of crops. Built-in regulatory protections which codify safety preconditions for farmer loans can accomplish just that. Farmers should also have options to restructure debt, especially for those entrenched by generational liabilities. Too many individuals have resorted to ending their lives because of the unbearable hardship they endure. Supporting farmers in their vulnerability is the morally righteous and economically just policy.

In sum, India’s domestic woes related to monsoons, water, and agriculture are vast and numerous. No silver bullet can alleviate all burdens simultaneously, but comprehensive and enduring solutions are readily available. Political willpower will be the key determiner to achieve success, and Prime Minister Modi’s government is poised to deliver for all of India.