How India made it harder to declare a drought

Ishan Kukreti
publishing partner
Rubin D'Souza
In 2016, a government manual complicated an already fraught process. This made it significantly more difficult for affected farmers to seek relief.

In good monsoon years, the rains arrive in Chikani village between June 10 and June 20. They turn its brown ochre mud-houses a shade darker and dampen the soil, after which the paddy-sowing kharif season begins. The village, much like the others in Naugarh block of Chandauli district in eastern Uttar Pradesh, is completely dependent on rain for agriculture.

But in 2022, almost no rains arrived. Data from Chandauli’s agricultural office shows that the district saw annual rainfall of just 286 mm in 2022, against a normal of 929 mm – this was the lowest in the district since rainfall records began to be maintained in 1901.

Indian Metrological Department data is also revealing of how stark the shortage was. Not a single drop fell from the sky in Chandauli in the first six months of 2022. East Uttar Pradesh, the meteorological sub-division that includes Chandauli, fared poorly in general – in the first six weeks of monsoon, from June 8, when a good rain is crucial for paddy, the region’s primary crop, the region recorded a rainfall deficit ranging between 66% and 97%.

Like Chikani, Bargad village, around six kilometres away on a kuccha road, also saw little rain. “The entire crop on my one-acre field died last year,” said Mahendra Kharwar, a farmer in Bargad. “If the rain fails this year too, then only god can save me.” He recounted that the last time there had been a comparable lack of rain was 2014, but even that “wasn’t as bad as last year”.

The situation in 2022, he added, “was even worse than 1966”, the first time monsoon failed in independent India, and one of the worst droughts the country has ever seen.

But it wasn’t just the low level of rainfall that made 2022 a worse year than 2014 – it was also the government’s response to the situation. “We got compensation in 2014, but not last year,” Kharwar said.

Indeed, despite facing the worst monsoon in over a century, the residents of Naugarh block of Chandauli received no relief from the Uttar Pradesh government, because the state government did not declare a drought – an essential step before the government kickstarts its relief process.

This wasn’t merely an anomaly or oversight. Rather, it was partly a result of official changes in policy that were implemented in 2016. That year, the country’s Manual for Drought Management, the blueprint for identifying, declaring and managing drought, was revised by the Central ministry of agriculture. This revision has made the process for declaring a drought in a state in India significantly more cumbersome than it was earlier.

Since then, several states have struggled to meet the criteria laid down to qualify as drought-hit, despite facing massive deficits in rainfall.

Further, the Central government has also diluted its own financial responsibility towards states in mitigating the impact of drought – whereas earlier, states could seek financial assistance from the Centre’s National Disaster Relief Fund for both moderate and severe drought, after the 2016 revision, only states hit by severe drought were eligible to seek Central assistance.

Chikani, in Chandauli district, is entirely dependent on rain for agriculture. Last year, Chandauli received just 286 mm of rainfall, against a normal of 929 mm, the lowest in more than a century. Photo: Ishan Kukreti

Scroll’s reporting from the ground in Naugarh block suggests that in Uttar Pradesh, these administrative hurdles were compounded by the state’s apparent disinclination to declare a drought. Though official documents, accounts of affected farmers and observations from government officials in the district all made clear that the block met the criteria for being considered drought-hit, the state government simply did not declare a drought in it, or anywhere else in the state.

Without any government assistance, those who were affected struggled to make ends meet, and many migrated in search of work.

Across the border, Jharkhand’s Garhwa district offered a stark contrast in how the administration responded – there, several teams of officials visited villages to gather information, and declared a drought by October. But even there, Scroll found, inefficiencies crept into the process thereafter, leaving many without the relief that was due to them.

These failures are particularly grave given that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted in its 2022 assessment report that South Asia and Southeast Asia would see an increase in droughts in coming years. It noted, further, that this “will have adverse impacts on food availability and the prices of food, resulting in increased undernourishment in South and Southeast Asia”.

To understand the problems with India’s drought policies, one has to begin by tracing their evolution, back to the famine of 1966.

That year, the country saw a 20% rainfall deficit, which led to a 19% decline in foodgrain production. In response to the food crisis, the government launched the Green Revolution, a nationwide programme to modernise agriculture, under which it introduced a wide variety of new seeds and fertilisers across the country.

As the agricultural sector expanded, it needed increased irrigation capacity nationwide – with the government’s support, the country saw what some scholars have called the “quiet ground water revolution”, in the form of a rapid increase in the number of borewells. “Water extraction increased rapidly, under the influence of subsidies on electricity, lack of metering, credit availability, and the commercialization of agriculture,” the scholars Vasant P Gandhi and NV Namboodiri, wrote in a 2009 paper.

This increased capacity to extract groundwater protected India in years with poor rainfall. In 1987-’88, for instance, when the country saw rainfall that was 17.5% below normal, food production declined by only 2%.

But in focusing solely on extracting groundwater, the country omitted to plan adequately for its management. “Since the 1960s, surface irrigation has been replaced by groundwater irrigation and that has led to the water table going down,” NS Saxena, a former secretary of the Planning Commission of India, told Scroll.

He added, “Fighting drought requires watershed management, which means that right from the place where water is falling, you have to ensure that water is absorbed by the top soil. This requires community management and people’s participation, but this has not happened.”

This led to problems by the year 2002, when India received 22% less rainfall than normal, following two years that had also seen low rainfall. “Surface reservoirs were all but empty; and depleted groundwater storages had little chance to recover,” wrote Avinash Kishore, Hemant P and Tushaar Shah in a 2009 article in the Economic and Political Weekly. They added, “Conditions were ripe for a meteorological drought to turn into a hydrological drought” – that is, for low rainfall to lead to shortfalls in surface and groundwater sources. Such a situation can further lead to a socioeconomic drought, where the lack of water breaks the back of an agrarian economy, causing indebtedness, migration and in the worst cases, hunger deaths.

The year 2009 saw yet another drought, with 23% less rainfall than normal. In response, the ministry of agriculture, the nodal ministry for all matters related to droughts in the country, created the Manual of Drought Management. The manual laid out the protocols that would guide the declaration of drought in the country, and the measures to be taken after.

Under the 2009 document, a state could declare drought, at either the level of a gram panchayat or a block, solely based on crop sown area – specifically, if the area sown was under 50% of the normal sown area. Alternatively, the state could also declare drought if rainfall was deficient, and if two other conditions were met – that is, a parameter known as “vegetation index”, which measured the condition of crop, was low, and soil moisture was low.

Once a state declared drought, it was required to provide assistance from the State Disaster Relief Fund. If it needed more funds, the state could also approach the Centre for financial assistance.

But when drought struck in 2014, several states failed to declare it – while states that did failed to provide adequate relief to those affected.

In 2014, drought struck large parts of India, but several states failed to declare it, despite the fact that a 2009 agriculture ministry manual laid down guidelines for the declaration of drought. 

In 2015, Swaraj Abhiyan, then an NGO, now a political party, conducted a survey across the country and approached the Supreme Court with its findings.

The petition, which was heard by a bench headed by Madan Lokur, ordered the states to provide relief to those affected by drought. As activists and experts have noted, the judgment also effected a shift in the way that droughts were viewed in the country. “The failure of these States to declare a drought (if indeed that is necessary) effectively deprives the weak in the State the assistance that they need to live a life of dignity as guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution,” the judgement stated.

Avik Saha, a founding member of Swaraj Abhiyan, noted that earlier, states saw droughts as inevitable, and extended help when they could. “But what the 2016 order of the court did was to change this welfare language to the language of rights,” Saha said. “The order brought drought relief within the ambit of Article 12, Right to Life, and ordered the states to ensure that that right is upheld.”

In response, the ministry of agriculture revised the Manual for Drought Management and released it in December 2016.

But rather than ensure that the process of declaring a drought and providing relief would be smoothened, the revised manual only complicated matters. “Between the 2009 and the 2016 manuals, the latter made drought declaration really difficult,” said Vikas Dubey, the district agriculture officer of Chandauli.

For one, where earlier, only one set of evaluations needed to be carried out, the new manual created a two-step process.

For the first step, the state would have to declare a drought based on a deviation of rainfall from the normal.

Following this, officials from the district and state level would have to conduct a “ground-truthing” of the situation – that is, carry out a ground-level assessment to confirm their conclusion. To do this, they would have to collect data on four other parameters – crop sown area, crop condition, soil moisture level and level of water in storage structures.

If two out of these four parameters were below a specific threshold, the drought was classified as “moderate”. If three or four were below the threshold, the drought was classified as “severe”. While in either case, the state would have to provide relief if it had the funds to do so, under the new manual, the Centre would only have to provide assistance for severe droughts.

Documents related to the revision of the manual, which Scroll accessed through Right to Information requests, reveal that states had raised concerns about these changes.

In November 2016, for instance, Tamil Nadu wrote to the agriculture ministry and suggested that the Centre should be obliged to provide assistance even if only two indicators were below a specified level. The state’s suggestion was not accepted, and the manual remained unchanged.

Vijay Soni, undersecretary at the agriculture ministry’s drought management division, noted that if states lacked funds, “even in the case of moderate drought, money is given from the National Disaster Relief Fund”.

Experts also note that the criteria themselves were flawed. “Vegetation index is ambiguous,” said Subhash Chandra, a retired Karnataka government official, who was part of the discussions between the Centre and the states around the revision of the manual. “In areas with thick vegetation, if there is a drought, the satellite imagery will show you something. But take the case of an area where there is not a lot of vegetation – the contrast will not emerge on what has been the impact of drought.”

Some states also lack the capacity to monitor these indicators.

The 2016 manual notes that state governments “are expected to develop monitoring systems at the smallest administrative unit levels (e.g. Hobli/sub-division/Tehsil/Taluk/ Block/Mandal/ Gram Panchayat etc.), to enable generation of sharper and credible observation data that are reflective of ground realities”.

But Alok Ghosh, director of Bihar’s agriculture department, noted, “Not all states have the capacity to generate data, and that makes drought declaration difficult. We have the data on crop coverage, rainfall, water level, but there are indicators like soil moisture and vegetation index which are based on remote sensing data, which is not available at the desired level of the panchayat.”

In Jharkhand, a disaster management authority official told Scroll, “We don’t use soil moisture index in drought declaration, because we don’t monitor that.”

Communications between the Centre and states on the matter of drought declaration, which Scroll accessed through RTI requests, also revealed this problem. In 2018, for instance, Rajasthan collected data on all four impact indicators at the district level – when the Central team commented that these should be monitored at the block level, the state responded, “currently there is no availability of these data at tehsil level” and that “establishing a system/infrastructure to generate these data at tehsil level will require 4-5 years.”

Scroll encountered this problem in Chandauli too. “Rainfall levels are needed at a micro level,” said Dubey, the district agriculture officer. “But in Naugarh, there is not even a rain gauge to measure rain at the block level. Rainfall measurements of the Chandauli block are used for Naugarh.”

In response to queries about this lack of monitoring capacity, Vijay Soni, the undersecretary at the drought management division, noted that the Centre planned to launch a portal, made by the Indian Space Research Organisation, where “the data for all the indicators will be there in one place”. This data, he added, “will be at the district level”. But he noted that agriculture “is a state subject, so that state should develop its capability to generate this data”.

In the case of Naugarh block in 2022, these administrative complications seem to have been compounded by administrative apathy.

The government’s own documents acknowledge that vast areas of the state were rain deficient – that is, that the conditions for the first trigger were met in these areas. According to the minutes of a September 2, 2022, meeting of the Crop Weather Watch Group, a Central government body which has representation from all the states, and monitors indicators for drought, “Out of 75 districts, 19 districts are in large deficient category; 47 districts are in deficient category & the rest 09 districts are in normal category” – that is, 66 out of 75 districts were rainfall deficient.

Further, even under the more cumbersome requirements of the 2016 manual, at least three further conditions were met for Naugarh block. Maps attached to the minutes of a meeting of the Crop Weather Watch Group showed that vegetation index levels of Chandauli district were lower than the specified level. And Vasant Dubey, the district agriculture officer of Chandauli told Scroll that in Naugarh, “The crop sown was around 20% of normal, and because of the rainfall deficit, the three dams in the district were also only at 20% of their normal level” – both well below the levels specified in the manual.

Pathror was among the villages in Naugarh that were hit by drought in 2022. Even under the revised guidelines of the 2016 manual, the block met all the criteria to be declared drought-hit. Photo: Ishan Kukreti

Thus, in Naugarh at least, all the conditions were met for the declaration of a severe drought.

But rather than declare a severe drought in Naugarh and other similarly affected areas based on these conditions, the group noted, “Most of the areas of the State have irrigation facilities. The State is analyzing the various drought parameters to assess the drought situation.”

The group also made claims of the situation at the level of the state that were starkly at odds with what officials like Dubey observed on the ground at the district and block levels.

In the meeting on September 23, Uttar Pradesh government officials said, “The State has achieved overall crop coverage of 99% over the target. No district of UP has less than 75% of sowing during the current Kharif season. The State has completed the Kharif season sowing.”

Eventually, the state government did not declare a drought. Soni said, “It is the responsibility of the states to declare drought, we only process the files which the states send.” Scroll phoned and sent messages to officials from the state’s agricultural department, to seek comment on the state government’s failure to declare drought last year. As of publishing, they had not responded.

If drought had been declared, those affected would have received assistance such as compensation for crop loss, additional work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, subsidised seeds and feed for cattle. Since it was not declared, they did not receive any such assistance. “In 2014, when drought was declared, we got compensation for crop and feed for the cattle,” said Rajendra Kharwar, a resident of Chikani. “It wasn’t much, but it helped. If I had got similar assistance last year, I would not have to go out of the village to look for work.”

The financial toll that the drought took in Naugarh at least, is indicated by data from a loan-granting firm which works in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, among other states. An employee of the firm told Scroll that the total loan amount taken in Naugarh almost doubled in September 2022, compared to the amount taken in September 2021, from around Rs 40 lakh to Rs 78 lakh.

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Among those who took such a loan last year was Mahesh, a resident of Bargad. “I was waiting for the rains and had taken a loan of Rs 30,000 to do agriculture,” he said. “I waited till July end, and when I was sure the crop had failed, I went to Mughalsarai coal market to work as a daily wage labourer.”

He added, “I would have gone there in September, but I knew nothing would grow and I would have to arrange the money for repaying the loan, so I left early.

Mahesh, a resident of Bargad, took a loan last year after his crop failed. Many villages in the region were forced to rely on borewells dug by NGOs for their drinking water supply. Photo: Ishan Kukreti

Such migration is an indicator of a socioeconomic drought. Scroll’s reporting from Naugarh revealed a detailed picture of how such droughts can unfold.

Conditions for drought were initiated by the low rainfall last year of 286 mm against the normal of 929 mm. They were aggravated by the fact that of the net sown 5,785 hectares in Naugarh, more than 2,000 hectares are not irrigated. Further, of the 3,758 hectares that are irrigated, 3,604 receive water through canals from the Naugarh Dam – and according to the district agricultural officer, last year, owing to the large rainfall deficit, storage in the dam was 80% below its normal level. Thus, the block saw a meteorological drought, which resulted in a hydrological drought, which eventually caused a socioeconomic drought.

In Pathror, a village around 30 km from Chikani, 80-year-old Srinath Kharwar remembered the drought of 1966 vividly. “Not a single drop fell from the sky, and there was no vegetation anywhere,” he told me, as we sat under a mahua tree in his village.

He added, “I remember the first time the district collector came to our village that summer. He asked if he could get soap anywhere. I told him, ‘There is nothing to eat in the entire village and you want soap?’ We survived only because the government started providing khichadi once a day to everyone.”

Last year, too, he said, those affected by drought “survived only because of the Covid double ration” – a reference to extra rations of rice and wheat provided by the Central government for different categories of beneficiaries. “But you need much more than just wheat and rice to live,” he said.

As I listened to Srinath recount those times, I couldn’t help but notice the mouth-drying landscape that surrounded the village. A hand pump, with a black cross on it, had stopped lifting water since Holi, in March. A thin film of yellow dust, formed by the erosion of the region’s clay-loamy soil, covered everything, from the trees that dotted the dried fields to the wilted shrubs of van tulsi, an invasive species.

In Chikani, it wasn’t just water for agriculture that was in deficit – when I visited in the first week of June this year, residents were waiting for a drilling rig, sent by a local NGO, to dig a 400-feet borewell that would supply them with drinking water. “There is no water for agriculture,” said Munni Devi, a 42-year-old resident of the village. “At least there will be some to drink now in the village, and I will not have to walk three kilometres to fetch it.” She added that the only other borewell, installed by the district administration, had run dry by March.

Borewells in the region go as deep as 900 feet, the drilling rig’s owner, Pravesh Kumar, told me. “The cost of the bore is Rs 13 per feet, and then an additional Rs 5 per feet after 300 feet,” Kumar said. He noted that the government typically only sanctioned funds for borewells of 200 or 250 feet. “Those bores give water only till March and then dry up,” he said.

Kumar has been busier than usual installing borewells this year because of the rainfall deficit last year. “I don’t have the time to even talk to you,” he said. “Every day I am installing at least two to three borewells.”

In Jharkhand’s Garhwa district, just across Chandauli’s district border, the first trigger for drought declaration was the monsoon deficit in the months of June and August. Against the normal rainfall of 658.9 mm between June 1 and August 15, the state received only 426.3 mm, a deficit of 35%.

Documents that Scroll received in response to an RTI request showed that based on this trigger, the state government formed teams consisting of state and district level officials. The teams randomly selected 10% of the villages in each district, and surveyed them for their performance on the four drought declaration parameters. The surveys, conducted in August, showed that the sown area across the state was only 37% of the normal. The teams collected data on crop sown area, vegetation and water storage at the district level, and, on October 31, the state government declared drought in 226 blocks in 22 districts. The same day, they wrote to the agriculture ministry, requesting financial assistance.

In Jharkhand’s Garwha district, the assessment of declaration of drought in 2022 was relatively efficient. But the disbursement of relief to those affected remains riddled with problems. Photo: Ishan Kukreti

The Central team visited the state in November and against a demand of financial assistance of Rs 9,682.79 crore, sanctioned Rs 1,129.94 crore. (Various state and Central level officials told Scroll it was normal for the state to ask for a certain amount, and for the Centre to provide a lower amount.)

“When the team came, it was already November and the fields did not have any standing crops,” said Shiv Shankar Prasad, Garhwa district’s agriculture officer, when I met him in the second week of June. “But the people themselves told them about the damage and they understood.”

Prasad’s desk was covered with thick stacks of files containing the details of the beneficiaries. “We announced a Rs 3,500 compensation for those farmers who could not sow, whose crop was damaged and agricultural labourers,” Prasad said. “The people had to register on the portal and file their application for crop loss compensation due to drought. We also provided a 90% subsidy on seeds.”

By June 2023, however, just over half of those who had applied for compensation had received it. “There were over 3 lakh applications, and that takes a lot of time,” Prasad said. “The banks are still processing the applications.”

Many have been left out altogether. I visited multiple villages in Garhwa of the Korwa community, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, most of whom had any idea about the compensation.

In Lukumbar village, situated inside a forest, Baldev Korwa had not heard about the relief scheme till I asked him about it. Korwa is an Adivasi who cultivates around three acres of forest land – he has not so far been able to get legal recognition of his rights over the land under the Forest Rights Act. “It did not rain at all last year and I and my family are surviving on gethi and kanda,” he said, naming edible roots found in the forest. He added, “I have a loan of Rs 30,000, which I took last year for my daughter’s marriage. If it doesn’t rain this year too, I don’t know what I will do.”

In the neighbouring Khura village, people are still waiting for compensation. “In August last year I learnt that we had to fill a form to get compensation online,” Triveni Uram said. “I paid Rs 200 to fill the form, but I have not received a single rupee in my account.” Though there was no fee prescribed to submit the form, around 20 families Scroll spoke to in the village all said they had paid between Rs 200 and Rs 500 to data entry operators at the block level office to fill the form.

Some, like Lilavati Devi, could not fill the form at all. “They needed a functional phone to fill the form, but I don’t have a phone,” she said. “Rs 3,500 would have helped me a lot.”

Prasad, the agricultural officer, said that the government had announced the scheme in every village. “But if some failed to apply despite that or because of technical problems,” he added, “the scheme has closed now, we won’t be able to help them.”