The monsoon has failed badly this year as it did in 1965. But it’s little more than an inconvenience this year, whereas in 1965 it was a monstrous calamity. The drought-proofing of India is a success story, but one widely misunderstood.
India in the 1960s was pathetically dependent on US food aid. Even in the bumper monsoon year of 1964-65, food aid totalled 7 million tonnes, over one-tenth of domestic production. Then India was hit by twin droughts in 1965 and 1966. Grain production crashed by one-fifth. Only unprecedented food aid saved India from mass starvation. Jawaharlal Nehru talked big about self-sufficiency. Yet he led India into deep dependence on foreign charity. The 1966 drought drove India into a ship-to-mouth existence. Hungry mouths could be filled only by food aid, which reached a record 10 million tonnes.
Foreign experts opined that India could never feed itself. William and Paul Paddock wrote a best-seller titled Famine 1975, arguing that the world was running out of food and would suffer global famine by 1975. They said aid-givers couldn’t possibly meet the food needs of high-population countries like India. So, the limited food surpluses of the West should be conserved for countries capable of being saved. Countries incapable of being saved, like India, should be left to starve, for the greater good of humanity. Indians were angered and horrified by the book, yet it was widely applauded in the West. Environmentalist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, praised the Paddock brothers sky-high for having the guts to highlight a Malthusian challenge.
The US was never happy with India’s non-alignment. President Johnson made Indian politicians and officials beg repeatedly for more food. This prevented mass starvation, but left Indians writhing with humiliation.
Then came the green revolution. This, it is widely but inaccurately believed, raised food availability and ended import dependence. Now, the green revolution certainly raised yields, enabling production to increase, even though acreage reached a plateau. But it did not improve foodgrain availability per person. This reached a peak of 480 grams per day per person in 1964-65, a level that was not reached again for decades. Indeed, it was just 430 gm per day per person last year. Per capita consumption of superior foods — meat, eggs, vegetables, edible oils — increased significantly over the years. But poor people could not afford superior foods.
How then did the spectre of starvation vanish? Largely because of better distribution. Employment schemes in rain-deficit areas injected purchasing power where it was most needed. The slow but steady expansion of the road network helped grain to flow to scarcity areas. The public distribution system expanded steadily. Hunger remained, but did not escalate into starvation. By the 1990s, hunger diminished too.
Second, the spread of irrigation stemmed crop losses. The share of the irrigated area expanded from roughly one-third to 55% of total acreage. Earlier, most irrigation was through canals, which themselves suffered when droughts dried up reservoirs. But after the 1960s, tubewell irrigation rose exponentially, and now accounts for four-fifths of all irrigation. Tubewells are not affected by drought.
More important, tubewells facilitated rabi production in areas with little winter rain. Once, the rabi crop was just one-third the size of the kharif crop. Today both are equal. This explains why in 2009, which witnessed one of the worst monsoon failures for a century, agricultural production actually rose 1%: good rabi production offset the slump in kharif production.
However, arguably the biggest form of drought proofing lies outside agriculture. Rapid GDP growth has dramatically raised the share of industry and services. Agriculture accounted for 52% of GDP in 1950, and for 29.5% even in 1990. This is now down to just 14%. Even if one-twentieth of this is lost to drought, it will be less than 1% of GDP.
Back in the 1960s, India couldn’t afford to import food, and depended on charity. But today GDP is almost $2 trillion, exports of goods and services exceed $300 billion and forex reserves are $280 billion. Even if we had to import 10 million tonnes of wheat at today’s high prices, the cost, $3 billion, would be easily affordable. In fact, no imports are needed: government food stocks exceed 80 million tonnes.
This is the real reason that droughts have ceased to be calamities. Foodgrain availability remains as low as in the 1960s, despite the green revolution. But rapid GDP growth, by hugely boosting the share of services and industry in GDP, has made agriculture a relative pygmy, greatly reducing the economy’s monsoon dependence. There remains a catch: a drought may no longer mean mass starvation, but still means food inflation.