On October 23, the chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, formally declared 182 talukas in the state drought-prone. He offered relief to the affected talukas in terms of water supply through tankers, waiver of land revenue, electricity bill for agricultural consumption and education fees.
This drought declaration was done keeping in mind the rainfall departure in state during the southwest monsoon season, which got over last month. Lack of sufficient rainfall has affected kharif (summer) crop yields in thousands of villages spread across the state, an important indicator of drought.
The 182 talukas listed as drought-prone are in 31 districts of the state (which has a total of 35 districts).
A report of drought conditions in the state will now be forwarded to the Centre, whose team is expected to visit the state and assess ground-level situation to provide drought relief under the National Disaster Response Fund.
The neighbouring state of Karnataka, too, has declared drought in 100 talukas spread across 24 districts with an estimated loss of Rs 16,500 crore. The southern state has sought drought relief of Rs 2,434 crore from the Centre.
Meanwhile, situation is grim in east and northeastern parts of the country as well. Of the four broad homogenous regions in India (northwest India, central India, south peninsula, east and northeast India), east and northeastern region has the highest rainfall departure this southwest monsoon — about minus 24 percent.
Last month, Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, declared 33 out of 38 districts of the state drought-hit. Paddy farmers in the state are said to be the worst affected due to deficient rainfall.
"This is just the beginning of drought-like conditions. Keeping in mind the deficient monsoon rainfall and the negative soil moisture index in various states, water scarcity is expected to worsen by early next year," said Vimal Mishra, associate professor at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Gandhinagar. Mishra also manages the South Asia Drought Monitor issued by the Water & Climate Lab at IIT Gandhinagar.
As per its latest drought forecast on October 22, states such as Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Jharkhand, Bihar, parts of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, and the northeastern region could face short-term or long-term drought in the coming months (see map: Drought forecast by South Asia Drought Monitor).
'Below Normal' Monsoon Rainfall
The southwest (SW) monsoon, also known as the Indian summer monsoon, is a life-giving force to the country. The period from June to September is known as southwest monsoon season, which is the principal rainy season for the Indian subcontinent.
It is claimed that during the southwest monsoon season, India receives nearly 75 percent of its total annual rainfall. And, this rainfall is crucial because almost 52 percent cropped area in India is unirrigated and depends on the monsoon rainfall.
Over 73 percent oilseeds and 80 percent pulses grown in the country come from rainfed areas. Similarly, 68 percent cotton produced in the country is through rainfed agriculture. It is also estimated that rainfed agriculture supports 40 percent of the Indian population.
Like every year, this year too in the month of April, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) issued its first stage long-range forecast for this year's SW monsoon, predicting "normal rainfall" of 97 percent of the long period average, or LPA, with a model error of plus or minus 5 percent.
The LPA is the weighted average of rainfall that India received in June-September from 1951 to 2000 and is pegged at 89 cm.
Below Normal Rainfall
Finally, on September 30, the SW monsoon season of this year ended with an all India rainfall departure of minus 9 percent, which is categorised as 'below normal' rainfall.
Of the total 36 meteorological subdivisions in the country, 23 have received 'normal' rainfall (minus 19 percent to 19 percent), whereas 12 had 'deficient' rainfall (minus 59 percent to minus 20 percent). Only Kerala, which faced unprecedented floods in mid-August, recorded 'excess' rainfall (23 percent) this SW monsoon season.
At state level, various states have ended up with 'deficient' rainfall —— Gujarat (minus 28 percent), Bihar (minus 25 percent), Jharkhand (minus 28 percent), West Bengal (minus 21 percent), Arunachal Pradesh (minus 32 percent), Meghalaya (minus 41 percent), Manipur (minus 54 percent) and Tripura (minus 22 percent).
As against a normal rainfall of 1007.3mm, Maharashtra received 925.8mm rainfall (minus 8 percent rainfall departure) in the SW monsoon. And, its 13 districts are in 'deficient' rainfall category. Marathwada sub-division has recorded a rainfall departure of minus 22 percent, whereas Madhya Maharashtra and Vidarbha regions have rainfall departure of minus 9 percent and minus 8 percent, respectively.
"This year's below normal rainfall has come mainly because of an unprecedented deficient rainfall over northeast India. Only four times in the past we had deficiency exceeding 20 percent over northeast India," said Madhavan Rajeevan, secretary, Union ministry of earth sciences.
"Monsoon seasonal forecast is a challenging problem… It is primarily probabilistic in nature," said Rajeevan. "Our forecasting efforts are supported by hard core research of our own scientists and also support from international academic institutions funded through our Monsoon Mission… We do not many things of the Indian monsoon. But, we are sure no one else knows better than us about the Indian monsoon," he added.
Crop Losses & Poor Soil Moisture Index
The "Manual for Drought Management", released by the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare in December 2016, prescribes clear scientific methods to declare drought in the country. The state governments are expected to follow these guidelines while assessing drought and categorising it as 'normal', 'moderate' or 'severe' drought.
The Manual prescribes five categories of indicators: "rainfall, agriculture, soil moisture, hydrology, and remote sensing (health of crops)". Rainfall indices are mandatory indicators, whereas the other four are impact indicators. While "severe" drought requires at least three impact indicators to be in the severe category, for "moderate" drought, at least two impact indicators should be in the severe category.
This SW monsoon season, deficient rainfall (mandatory indicator as per 2016 manual) has been recorded in several districts of the country. And, this has had a direct impact on crop yields and drought conditions.
For instance, Maharashtra's Marathwada region, a semi-arid zone, is in the grips of drought. "Except a handful of talukas, the entire eight districts of Marathwada are facing drought. Aurangabad, Jalna and Beed seem worst affected, as water availability has become a big problem," said Mohan Bhise, former agricultural officer of Latur district in Marathwada.
According to him, both soybean and sugarcane crops in Latur have taken a hit. "Because of lack of rains, especially in the month of September, and long dry spells, 40 to 50 percent yield of soybean crop in light soil areas [with low water holding capacity] of Latur district has been reported lost. In black cotton soil areas, the yield loss is up to 25 percent," said Bhise.
In case of water-guzzling sugarcane crop, grown on 55,000 hectare area in water-scarce Latur district, there is 65-70 percent reduction in crop yield in old plantations. In case of new plantations, crop yield loss is about 40 percent, added Bhise.
Situation is worrisome in other districts, too. "In Parbhani district, farmers have reported up to 70 percent decline in soybean crop yield and about 60 percent reduction in Bt cotton crop yield," said Manik Kadam, president of Marathwada division of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, a farmers' organisation in Maharashtra. Just two years ago, in 2015-16, the Marathwada region faced an unprecedented drought.
Farmers in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra are no better. "As against a normal output of six to seven quintals cotton per acre, we have got only one to two quintal this kharif season. Soybean yield is also down to three to four quintals per acre against an average yield of seven to eight quintals per acre," said Gajanan Divekar of Waghapur village in Yavatmal, which falls in Vidarbha region.
Recently on October 24, the district administration of Yavatmal declared 68 villages in the district affected by water scarcity and headed towards a drought. The district faced drought in the last rabi season, too, as farmers were unable to grow rabi (winter) crops due to lack of rainfall.
"Farmers who are better off and have some access to water will grow rabi crops this year, but area under rabi will come down drastically," said Divekar.
Meanwhile, the soil moisture index in several parts of the country is in negative. "This could be due to deficient rainfall or increase in temperature that depletes soil of its moisture. And, soil moisture is an important parameter for declaring drought," said Mishra.
"Deficient rainfall does not impact all the regions of the country in a similar manner. States or regions that have reservoirs and irrigation facilities are less likely to be impacted by reduced monsoon rainfall," said R R Kelkar, former director general of IMD. "In Marathwada and Vidarbha, deficient rainfall is a huge concern, as a large number of farmers practice rainfed farming. Erratic, untimely rainfall means crop losses, as is being witnessed this kharif season," added Kelkar.
Agriculture in Marathwada is primarily rainfed with only 12 percent area under irrigation. Meanwhile, as per the erstwhile Planning Commission's "Report of Fact Finding Team on Vidarbha", released in 2000, barely 19 per cent agricultural land in Vidarbha is irrigated.
The live water storage in large, medium and small projects in some regions of Maharastra doesn't seem promising. According to the Maharashtra Water Resources Department, as of October 26, all the projects put together in the state have 60.91 percent live water storage as against 76.25 percent last year.
In the case of Marathwada, as against 78.98 percent live water storage last year, this year only 24.83 percent water is available. And, this water has to last for the next eight months. Paithan project in Aurangabad has 32.04 percent water. Last year, it was 100 percent full. Similarly, last year Manjara and Majalgaon projects in Beed were 100 percent full, but as of October 26 this year, both have zero live water storage.
"Manjara dam, the only source of water for Latur, has only dead water storage, which has been reserved for drinking water purposes. Situation is critical and farmers are already waiting for the next southwest monsoon," said Bhise. He claimed that a large amount of water from Manjara dam and its barrages was lifted for sugarcane cultivation, thereby accentuating the drought-conditions. In April 2016, water train had to be run to transport drinking water to Latur due to acute water scarcity.
"Deficient rainfall, dipping water levels in reservoirs and fast drying up of surface water sources will put an additional pressure on the groundwater, which will make the drought situation worse," warned Mishra. Groundwater is like an investment for the future and it takes thousands of years to replenish, hence its use must be regulated and managed, added Mishra.
Groundwater levels in several pockets of Maharashtra are already critically low. A recent survey by Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency (GSDA), under the Water Supply and Sanitation Department of the state government, has found 71 percent talukas in the state facing groundwater depletion.
In over 3,342 villages, the groundwater level has dropped by over three meters, whereas in another 3,430 villages, it has fallen by two to three meters. Meanwhile, in 7,212 villages in the state, groundwater level has reduced by over over metre.
"Over-exploitation of groundwater makes drought worse, as there is no water from above [rainfall] and no water down below [groundwater]. Mining of groundwater is also a threat to our food security because a large number of farmers in the country depend on groundwater to irrigate their crops," said Mishra.
Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government is still working on finalising the proposed Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Act to check exploitation of groundwater in the state.
Questions are also being raised over the state chief minister's Jalyukt Shivar Abiyan, under which he had aimed to drought-proof Maharashtra by 2019 by undertaking watershed developments works. However, within two years of the unprecedented drought of 2015-16, the state is again staring at another severe drought.
Nidhi Jamwal is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.