India declares worst drought in 12 years, calamity relief fund for farmers
Singh was speaking at the end of an emergency meeting in New Delhi of agriculture ministers of 12 drought-hit Indian states.
"The worst and most widespread drought in 12 years has gripped the country. About 320 out of 524 districts in the affected states have been hit by an extraordinary dry spell," Singh told the Press Trust of India news agency after the meeting.
The minister said that government, in an attempt to alleviate the situation, had asked sugar mills to immediately pay outstanding dues of 10 billion rupees (208 million dollars) owed to drought-struck cane growers.
India's rural credit agency, the National Agricultural Banking and Rural Development Board (NABARD), has at the same time been instructed to "postpone its debt recovery" from affected farmers, added Singh.
"The assistance decided at this meeting is only preliminary and elaborate relief and financial assistance will be finalised by officials later after a thorough assessment of the ground situation," assured the minister.
"Assistance under the federal Calamity Relief Fund which is normally available to farmers owning at least two hectares (4.94 acres) of land will be extended to all farmers in the drought-affected areas," he added.
The distribution of rainfall in India this year has been very uneven.
Flash floods triggered by monsoon rains in northeastern and western India have already killed hundreds of people and marooned thousands more.
The worst-affected states have been Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat and Maharashtra.
On the other hand, central and northern India have been starved of rain.
The annual monsoons which first hit the southern state of Kerala in June this year have been particularly slow in reaching northern India, which is India's "food bowl."
"This year, states like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have been the worst-hit by scanty and deficient rainfall," said Singh.
"Although substantial damage has already been inflicted on the country's maize, pulse, oilseeds, and paddy crop, monsoon showers in the affected states in the next five to 10 days could bring about some agricultural recovery," he added.
The monsoon rains are India's economic lifeline because over 70 percent of the country's billion-plus population depends on agriculture for a living.
Economists and analysts said another week's delay before the monsoon hits Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi and Punjab would lead to a fall in the estimated gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the financial year to March 2003.
The Confederation of Indian Industry, the leading industrial lobbying body, said a drought could lead to a 0.5 percent drop in GDP growth.
Copyright (c) 2002 Agence France-Presse
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 07/24/2002 15:04:51
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