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Govt tries to douse drought panic

New Delhi, Aug. 11: More than a quarter of the 620-plus districts face the threat of a drought this year, raising the spectre of brutal food price increases in the country by December.

Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee admitted today that sowing of rice was down 20 per cent because of an erratic monsoon.

“We have declared 161 districts as drought-prone,” Mukherjee told reporters on the sidelines of a conference.

On Monday, the Met department had lowered its monsoon forecast for the second time since June. It said rain during June-September would be 87 per cent of the average against the 93 per cent it had forecast earlier — placing it on a par with the rainfall deficit in 2002 when the country last faced a drought.

But Mukherjee tried to douse panic by saying the government had a contingency plan and referred to the country’s experience in tackling droughts. “There is no point in pressing the panic button. This country managed the century’s worst drought in 1987. We transported drinking water through railways. We organised fodder for the cattle. This country has the experience of handling the situation and I will advise not to press the panic button.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh exuded the same optimism and told a team of business leaders that his government would tackle inflation and had enough food stocks to deal with any shortages.

“He (Singh) was quite confident that the government would be able to handle the food inflation,” Ficci secretary-general Amit Mitra said after leading a delegation for talks with the Prime Minister.

A flurry of meetings was taking place at Krishi Bhavan, which houses the agriculture ministry, and at North Block.

The drought-prone districts are not large crop producers but the rain deficit raised fears that the kharif season could turn out as bad as 2004 when the summer crop fell by 12 per cent.

Agronomists expect this year’s rice crop to be 12 million tonnes less than the 99.4 million tonnes produced last year. However, the country has large grain buffer stocks of over 52 million tonnes, including rice stocks of almost 20 million tonnes.

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister brought close aide and noted economist C. Rangarajan to head the Prime Minister’s economic advisory council — a position he gave up last October when he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha.

Rangarajan is expected to guide the crisis management plans to tackle the drought and will also negotiate with the World Bank and the IMF for a greater voice for India.

The reconstituted advisory council also took on board two agro-economists — Suman Bery, director-general of the National Council of Applied Economic Research, and V.S. Vyas, former director of IIM Ahmedabad.

Officials, however, admit that the big worry is over essential commodities like sugar, pulses and edible oil whose prices have surged in recent months. India is the largest consumer of sugar and has already indicated that it will be importing both raw and white sugar this year.

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