Madhya Pradesh’s recurring droughts: Measuring, responding and reducing the vulnerabilities

Rugged, rocky terrain of Bundelkhand, Madhya Pradesh (Image: Shweta Prajapati)
Rugged, rocky terrain of Bundelkhand, Madhya Pradesh (Image: Shweta Prajapati)
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Climate change has been a popular buzzword for the last two decades in the international policy arena, stimulating multitude of ideas and a few action commitments at different levels of governments. Trickling down from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s global regime to the agendas of several national governments’ and further getting reflected in the sub-national programmes, climate change action has stirred responses from local non-government groups as well.

However, climate change narrative has still not been able to connect and integrate the localised issues very well in a few cases. One such critical case is of recurring droughts in Madhya Pradesh, more specifically in its Bundelkhand region.

Why drought is a state policy subject in Madhya Pradesh?

The Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh has a long standing history of droughts and famines since the Indian famine of 1896–1897 beginning in Bundelkhand in 1895. According to the report on drought mitigation strategies for Bundelkhand by the Inter-ministerial Central Team, the region experienced a major drought in every 16 years during the 18th and 19th centuries, which increased by three times during the period 1968 to 1992. In 2016, 46 out of 52 districts were declared as drought affected by the government of Madhya Pradesh.

After a brief relief in 2017 when a normal monsoon was received in the state, this recurrence of drought again continued for the next four consecutive years. In 2019, 36 districts faced acute drought situation and water scarcity. Even in annual cycles where a normal rainfall (on average) is received by the state, the spatial distribution of the rainfall remains highly skewed with some districts experiencing drought situation, while rest of the state reels under heavy rainfall and floods.

Madhya Pradesh has one of the most diversified geographical profiles with 11 agro-climatic zones. Thus, not only the climatic data such as rainfall is lopsided but the felt impacts of these events also differ from region to region given the variation in socio-economic profile, demographics and natural resource base.

Districts like Jabalpur, Dindori are rich in forest resource, whereas Tikamgarh, Datia, Panna etc. have rocky, rugged terrain with sparse vegetation. These observations indicate micro level issues as well as solutions. In the context of the changing climate and its impacts, it becomes further relevant to understand community level vulnerabilities – factors which aggravate the impacts of extreme climatic events such as drought.

These impacts can also be understood in terms of sectoral impacts – agriculture being the worst sufferer among all sectors. The impact of recurring meteorological and hydrological drought is termed as agricultural drought. It links various characteristics of meteorological and hydrological drought to agricultural impacts, differences between actual and potential evapo-transpiration, soil water deficits, reduced groundwater or reservoir levels, and so forth.

In the context of Madhya Pradesh, exposure to variable climate conditions causes high physical vulnerabilities. Since the region is largely rainfed, it is characterized by variable precipitation trends. The varying temperature conditions influence the crop productivity in summers as well as winters (due to frost).

The region being predominantly dependent upon agriculture as livelihoods, erratic patterns of precipitation have adversely affected the agriculture outputs. Drastic variations in the monsoon in recent years have caused dual losses to the farmers. These frequent drought conditions have also led to unstable socio-economic conditions specifically in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh.

The resource vulnerability of Bundelkhand stems from two major problems; (a) inadequate and erratic rainfall and low water retention capacity of the soil; and (b) human mismanagement of land-water-forest resources. Added to the cycle of ecological degradation are prevailing farming practices of flood irrigation and deep tillage contributing to further damage.

Livestock-rearing, another major economic activity has become unviable due to climate change and loss of green pastures. These kinds of stresses on the agriculture sector have complex implications; endangered food-security, persistent poverty leading to educational and health backwardness and outmigration.

In 2008 various districts were affected by agricultural drought of different degrees. It has been interpreted that Datia district experienced extremely high frequency of drought - 9 out of 12 years. Overall, the agricultural vulnerability was found to be extreme in Datia, Jhansi and Hamirpur followed by severe in Tikamgarh and Banda districts. Thus, agriculture becomes a critical sector where state policy intervention is most often required.

Does the present policy framework in Madhya Pradesh address recurring droughts?

If we look at the existing climate policy framework at the state level in Madhya Pradesh, it is represented by an overarching State Level Action Plan on Climate Change (SAPCC). The plan itself tries to address sectoral issues by connecting climate measures with the existing agendas of all other line departments such as water, agriculture, forest, transport and so on. It is also to be considered that climate policymakers have warned against climate proofing.

While sectoral policies exhibit excellent action plans with measurable outcomes, they often end up in ‘climate proofing’ as they involve screening the existing portfolio of policies and programmes with a climate-lens for identifying possible threats and opportunities for applying solutions. Climate proofing may also result in maladaptation due to its narrow, disintegrated view. In addition to this, most often policy responses either focus on mitigation or adaptation neglecting the interconnectedness of the two approaches for addressing climate change comprehensively.

On the other hand, there are a number of other state government responses on drought. Bundelkhand Special Package for Drought Mitigation and Drought Prone Areas Programme are two flagship programmes implemented by MP state government which focused particularly on addressing drought. Although Madhya Pradesh does not have an explicit drought policy, the large scale impacts of drought events have stimulated focused policy response over time indicating drought vulnerability in agriculture has been recognised as a key development issue of the state.

However, these two policy initiatives seldom connect with each other and represent two parallel tracks initiated by the state government. Due to this reason, while drought has elicited prompt policy responses, there is still an absence of a framework which attempts to understand and address underlying vulnerabilities of drought or any other extreme climatic event.

Connecting dots for drought policy framework

Madhya Pradesh is a state with one of the most progressive policy action on climate change, well reflected in its efforts to measure and document state level as well as district-level vulnerability assessment. This database on district-wise climate vulnerability is a significant step for building a micro level understanding. Regional climatic vulnerability in Madhya Pradesh has been measured in the recent state level vulnerability assessment undertaken by the State Knowledge Management Cell on Climate Change (housed under EPCO and supported by GIZ).

Following the vulnerability approach, the study has ranked all 52 districts in terms of their exposure to climate change, adaptive capacity and sensitivity thus determining the district wise composite vulnerability. While the climatic vulnerability based on indicators such as precipitation and temperature changes shows only four districts as very highly vulnerable to climate stress (Rewa, Alirajpur, Jhabua and Dhar), the additional social complexity due to poor developmental indices such as poverty, access to water resources, sanitation, health facilities, literacy and awareness through media has actually reduced the adaptive capacity of the districts resulting in 12 districts under very high vulnerable category. 

Similarly, vulnerability measures on other resource based indices such as water, forests, economic and agriculture also affect the overall capacity of the region to respond to increasing impacts of climate change.

As one can evidently understand from these datasets, climatic or drought vulnerability is not only defined by access to water or precipitation received – but also by the capacity to cope up in such conditions. Thus, this is a crucial set of data which identifies which district lags behind on which indicators of vulnerability that will further determine sectoral course of action. A micro-level action plan is feasible and suggested based on data inferences from this district-wise vulnerability assessment.

Also, the convergence approach recently being followed by other line departments (more often in agriculture and water departments) can be another mechanism for leveraging financial resources from existing allocations. The only difference in the process will be that the interventions need to be planned on the basis of understanding points of vulnerability for each district.

Building a policy framework along these lines on drought in Madhya Pradesh will represent a more permanent solution, which will eventually reduce the felt impacts of drought on the local communities.