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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 12.08.09

When the prime minister of India takes the unprecedented step of attending a meeting of all the chief secretaries of the various states, there is cause for immediate concern. The concern is justified since the agenda for the meeting was the drought and the rise in food prices. Whatever the official figures for the rate of inflation, anyone paying a visit to the market knows that prices are soaring. Similarly, there is no need to be a meteorologist to gauge that rainfall across the country is not sufficient. Lack of adequate rain will adversely affect crops and therefore food supply. This will further aggravate the rise in prices. The prime minister has assured the nation that there are enough food stocks available, and that there is no danger of widespread hunger. But this assurance of the prime minister, if it is to translate into action, will mean smooth supplies and greater co-operation between the states and the Centre. In India, a country haunted by hunger and undernourishment, whose agriculture is largely dependent on the monsoon, the threat of drought needs to be met with the same level of alertness as that with which the country would meet the possibility of war. The prime minister’s presence at the meeting of the chief secretaries shows that the matter is being taken very seriously at the highest level. Quick and timely action is the best way to avoid panic.

There is a graver issue that also demands the prime minister’s attention. A drought will inevitably mean that people connected with agriculture — especially the poorer sections — will have less money to spend. This, in turn, will entail their inability to buy the foodgrain that the government supplies to the market. The conventional answer to such a predicament is the public distribution system whose track record is pretty pathetic in India. Drought thus leads not only to hunger but also to greater indebtedness and loss of cattle necessary to continue the agrarian cycle. The prime minister, one is certain, will take a more holistic view of the threat of drought rather than looking at it only through the prism of hunger. Shrinkage in rural demand will affect the industrial sector too. This will hinder India’s growth prospects. Issues of enormous import hinge on how the government chooses to tackle the problem of inadequate rainfall. The cliché that the Indian economy is a gamble on the monsoon refuses to go away.

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