Distress and denial

Interview with Yogendra Yadav, leader of Swaraj Abhiyan.

Published : Feb 17, 2016 12:30 IST

Yogendra Yadav addressing a press conference in connection with the drought in Bundelkhand, in Bhopal on January 13.

Yogendra Yadav addressing a press conference in connection with the drought in Bundelkhand, in Bhopal on January 13.

Former psephologist Yogendra Yadav, now a member of the political collective Swaraj Abhiyan, recently toured India’s drought-affected districts. He called it a Samvedna Yatra. During the tour, he took note of the agony in rural areas affected by what he calls “one of the worst droughts in independent India” The drought, according to him, has left farmers and the larger rural community in extreme distress, leading to damaging changes in rural society. He criticised the government severely for not addressing such a multi-dimensional crisis in rural India. He talked to Frontline on various aspects of the drought, its impact, and how the government is blind to such a great crisis. Excerpts from the interview.

You toured many drought-affected areas of India recently. What are your initial observations?

When we travelled in our Samvedna Yatra from Yadgir district of Karnataka to Bhiwani district of Haryana through some of the most drought-affected districts of the country, we realised the depth of the crisis. It was shocking to see how the plight of the farmers was almost invisible to much of the urban middle-class consumers of the Indian media. We realised that we were looking at a multidimensional crisis. It is not merely a drought. It is, in many cases, successive crop failures in the context of a general long-term agrarian crisis, worsened by climate change. In many parts of the country, it is not merely this kharif crop that has been affected. Even the previous kharif crop was affected by drought. The in-between rabi crop was destroyed by hailstorm and unseasonal rains. So, in many cases we were looking at the third successive crop damage/failure. On the one hand, we saw how deep and multi-dimensional the crisis was; on the other hand, we saw how pathetic the response of the state was.

The state either had not acknowledged the effect of this crisis or, if it did, its response was merely token. Almost nowhere did we detect any sign of a systematic, concerted response by the state machinery. Historically, in our country, drought is one occasion when the state—whether it is the independent Indian state, or the colonial state or even the precolonial kingdoms—used to be active and intervened in the situation. And it was shocking to see how even on this occasion the state was lacking in serious concerted response.

Why do you think the state has been apathetic if the conditions are so bad?

First, let me say why I think the state is apathetic. What do you expect a state to do in a situation of drought? One, declare the drought. The fact is that most State governments took their own sweet time to even do this. Even as we speak, Bihar, with 28 per cent rainfall deficit, Haryana, with 38 per cent deficit, and Gujarat—these three States haven’t even declared a drought. The Gujarat government in its affidavit had said that it will wait till the end of January to find out whether there was a drought or not. Other States delayed it. States like Maharashtra declared it but did not call it a drought. It called it “a drought-like situation”. The governments want to escape the legal responsibility that comes with declaring a drought.

Two, the MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act], which is one of the principal instruments available in a drought situation, has not been used for this purpose. We know that the overall employment generated by the MGNREGS this drought year is less than it was in the non-drought years. Even when the work under the MGNREGA has increased slightly in some States, almost nowhere has it been used as a drought-relief measure. Special things done in order to provide employment during the time of drought was simply invisible.

Three, people need food at the time of drought. Food stocks are running out. Some States have made the transition from the public distribution system (PDS) to the National Food Security Act (NFSA). States like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat have not introduced the NFSA. None of the States announced even a single measure to respond to the special needs of people at the time of drought.

Four, notwithstanding a large number of cattle schemes on animal fodder, cattle management, and so on, nowhere did we see even a trace of preparedness or action on the front of cattle fodder availability. This poses a serious challenge. There is a cattle famine in the country.

Finally, the Government of India has a document called the manual for drought management prepared in 2009. You read chapter after chapter of that excellent document. No government, even the Central government, has followed any of the main recommendations of its manual. That is why I say that there is complete state apathy.

Why do I think the state is apathetic? I think the reasons are in the political economy. It is not an accident. You can accidentally be unaware of what is happening to a minority of say a 0.5 per cent, but you cannot accidentally be unaware of what is happening to a majority of your country. The drought, according to the Government of India, affects 38 per cent of the agricultural land of the country. So we are not speaking of small numbers here. It is a clear case of political interest. The political parties and governments do not think that farmers matter. They are not scared of farmers anymore, let’s put it this way. For instance, in the days of Mahendra Singh Tikait [western U.P. farmer leader] or Sharad Joshi, at least for a decade or so, there was a fear of farmers. Now the political parties know that farmers can be managed. Their leaders can be bought over. Their issues can be diffused. And at the time of elections, they can be fragmented on lines of caste and region. Sadly, when farmers face their biggest crisis, at that time their collective strength is one of the weakest in history. This is what enables the government to get away with murder, almost literally.

The present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has increased drought relief by almost 50 per cent. If the situation is so bad, why do you think the reform is not reflecting well on the ground?

The government has done two things which on paper are positive. One, in April 2015, much before this drought, they lowered the threshold of damage to make people eligible for crop loss compensation; earlier it was 50 per cent, the government reduced it to 33. It is welcome. The problem, however, is that all this assumes that there is an objective way of calculating it. Sadly, there is no such objective measure available. It is critically dependent on the assessment of the lower officials, particularly the patwaris. Earlier, if the State government was unwilling to pay higher compensation, it would send a message to the patwari saying “don’t show more than 45 per cent damage”. Now they will give a message “don’t show more than 30 per cent damage”. So, on the ground the situation does not change that much. Here the thing is so subjective anyway, it’s a wink and nod from the top, and the patwaris prepare accordingly.

The second thing that the NDA government has done is to increase the cap of MGNREGA—the maximum number of days the MNREGA is available, from 100 to 150. It’s a joke because the percentage of job-card-holding families is not more than 4-5 per cent. The real challenge is not to take people beyond 100 days but how to take them beyond 10, beyond 15. In reality, people are not getting more than 10-15 days. It really does not make that much of a difference. What was really needed from the Central government was to indicate to States that even if you have negative balance, go ahead with the MGNREGA without any worry. And that it will make the money available.

What the Modi government has done is merely token. They now claim to have announced insurance claim for crops. One must remember it’s not the first time but probably the fifth time in the last 15 years. A new crop insurance scheme has been introduced with the same fanfare and bombastic claims, despite the results of the past not being very encouraging. What is now being presented as a new final solution for the farmer is a slightly altered version of two existing government schemes. There is some minor improvement, no doubt. For example, the provision that farmers will pay more than 2 per cent or 1.5 per cent and the rest will be paid by the government, the simplification of the scheme and the inclusion of some additional forms of losses are welcome features. Yet, the basic problems of the previous schemes have not been addressed. One, those were not universal schemes. This is also not a universal scheme. They manage to cover 23 per cent, this one can go maximum up to 30 per cent. Two, the determination of crop loss was arbitrary and subjective, and it is the case in the present scheme also. Three, most farmers did not even know they had insurance. These aspects have still not been addressed, to my mind. I think the government’s claims are much exaggerated.

You have said many times that this perhaps is the worst drought in many decades. What makes you say so? What is the ground-level impact that you see?

I do not think this particular drought is the worst in terms of rainfall, etc. What makes it particularly bad is that it is a second year of a back-to-back drought. So the cumulative impact is very severe. There are three or four overall impacts that we can witness. One, severe drinking water shortage, especially in places like Marathwada and the Madhya Pradesh side of Bundelkhand. We could be looking at a drinking water emergency in the month of April/May. Two, on the front of the cattle, as I said earlier, in large parts of the country, cattle have been let loose in millions because people simply cannot afford to feed them. There is a shortage of drinking water and fodder, which has already reached an emergency situation. Three, there is a decline in food availability for the poor. Nutrient levels have fallen, the unavailability of nutritive material like dal and milk is stark. In many places, nutrient levels in food have gone down critically. Our survey suggests that in places like Bundelkhand, 39 per cent of families have not consumed dal from 30 days before the survey; 60 per cent have not been able to afford milk for children. People are beginning to search for foodgrain substitutes. The point about ghaas ki roti was sensationalised in the media. All that indicated is that in some parts of the country, very isolated pockets, people are searching for freely available wild things other than wheat and rice, which they cannot afford. I would not use the word famine right now, but in select pockets, especially where this current rabi crop has also collapsed, in those areas the next crop is due in the month of October. What will the people do? In a situation like this, we must remember what Amartya Sen’s research told us—famine does not take place due to lack of foodgrain stock, famine happens due to lack of purchasing power of the poor. Right now we see something like that. Four, there is a loss of job opportunities in rural areas. Farmers don’t have much and they don’t have crops, they cannot offer much work to the landless labourer. We witnessed massive exodus in some areas—in Telangana, in Marathwada and in Bundelkhand. The quantum of exodus has hit new and dangerous levels. So that is why we are looking at a multi-dimensional crisis.

Which States are the most affected?

It’s hard to see the picture if we go only by official statistics. How badly the State has been affected and what the State has done do not match. For example, Andhra Pradesh had slightly above average rainfall, but it has declared a drought. Karnataka, which is somewhat less affected, has declared a drought. Bihar, which is so severely affected, has not declared at all. Gujarat, so severely affected, has not declared it. So if you go by paper, it might seem as if the drought is most severe in Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh. My sense is that the most affected place is, of course, Bundelkhand; in many ways it is the epicentre of this drought.

I would think Marathwada is one of the worst. Fortunately this time, Vidarbha was spared, although farmer suicides continue there. Third, eastern U.P. and Telangana are also severely impacted. These are the areas that have been badly affected. All these are personal impressions of a traveller, and one who speaks to activists, but unfortunately we have no systematic estimate in the country, notwithstanding so many agencies and so many statistical mechanisms of the Government of India. This is one thing we do not measure. We know rainfall, but rainfall does not tell you the full story.

The NDA government has renamed the drought terminology. Now the Meteorological Department would scale drought by naming it as deficient year, medium deficient year, and so on.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency in governments to escape legal-administrative responsibilities that come with the nomenclature changes. But we are technically limited by this alone, there is a memorandum of drought management which carefully tells you that drought has to be measured with reference to rainfall, with reference to moisture levels, and with what is happening to standing crops. So they have carefully laid down parameters about what a drought is. The government knows it, but clearly the factors informing the government’s response is not lack of scientific knowledge but lack of political will.

What is the social impact of the drought that you saw? Or, say, social relations?

Two or three things I can say. One is the enhanced level of conflict over water in areas of severe water shortage. Second, again in areas of severe impact, higher levels of petty crimes. Petty theft levels have gone up: someone walks away with a tin lying in someone else’s home. People have reported higher levels of neighbourhood conflict, partly due to water, and also when cattle are let loose they eat from someone else’s farm, which is a source of conflict. I noticed a tendency to withdraw girls from schools, especially from private schools, because when incomes of families fall, the first to suffer are the women; they are withdrawn. In fact, a scholar in Maharashtra has studied the impact of drought on women. She studied how women are affected disproportionately more than men.

So what needs to be done immediately? What measures should the government take?

The very first step is relief. First of all, we can think of middle- and long-term measures. But the first step is relief, and that is why we have gone to the Supreme Court. The court has laid down clear guidelines. Improve the availability of food through the PDS. And it should be universally implemented in the drought-affected areas, irrespective of whether you have a ration card or not. Simply put, if you can produce an aadhar card, a ration card or a voter’s card, it should be taken as proof of residence. Then he should be given NFSA food credits, which is 5 kilograms of rice or wheat, and, in addition 2 kg of dal and one litre of edible oil. This is essential to deal with the nutritional deficiency. The state should provide cattle fodder and cattle kemps where cattle can be fed. Supplementing midday meals with an egg to make sure the children do not suffer is also necessary. Then, the state should start MGNREGA work in every single village. It has to announce crop loss compensation quickly in a transparent way and announce loan deferment or waive off the loans. These are short-term measures, and all that I am saying is actually written in the drought manual of the Government of India.

I wanted to specifically ask about the impact of such a drought on the landless.

The obvious impact is loss of employment because the farmers themselves can’t earn too much. How will they offer employment then? So loss of employment has been the biggest impact on the landless, which has forced people to migrate. All these areas, places like Bundelkhand and others, have a history of migration, but the level of migration has gone up substantially. While we focus on the landless labourer, we must not forget the marginal farmers. In many ways, in the areas most affected, like Bundelkhand, the condition of the marginal farmer is really bad. In Bundelkhand, I noticed that while they continue to hold the farms, small farmers have been reduced to the status of a landless labourer. They are going out and working as manual labour. So the distance between the farmer and the landless labourer has been substantially reduced this time. Small farmers are the new victims of this, and they are not middle class by urban standards.

We were talking about systems, and you pointed out that systems are inadequate owing to their subjective nature. How, according to you, could we quantify the drought in a better way?

To my mind the problem is not with the methods available for quantifying droughts. We have fairly developed meteorological and agricultural science departments. So the understanding about rainfall, water reservoir availability, ground-level water resources and humidity is already there. These are indicators and they are extended not just to the average figures but the number of days of dry spell—that matters more than the average rainfall. Scientists have evolved a sophisticated understanding of that and that is not what we lack. What we lack is the political will and a systematic response. Droughts do not come in isolation. We have a drought on top of the agrarian crisis. And the agrarian crisis is that the crops do not return in proportion to the input costs and expenditure of the farmer. Farming is becoming an unviable activity. That is the crisis of Indian agriculture that needs to be addressed. And then when a drought takes place in such a situation, it becomes far more crippling. And let us not forget one thing. Some of what we witnessed as droughts indicates climate change. What we used to consider unusual weather—warm January, massive rains in the month of September, hailstorms, unseasonal rain in March or dry spells in August—has become so common. Scientists tell us that extreme weather situations are becoming common. And because of the greater frequency of extreme weather events agriculture gets affected both ways, lack or excess of rain. The calendar of agriculture has not adapted to, and perhaps cannot adapt to, this new pattern of rains, new climatic changes which are so unpredictable.

So this is what the crisis is, we are not merely looking at a drought. We are looking at a back-to-back drought in the context of an agrarian crisis in times of climate change. Hence the response to this cannot be a slew of relief measures, deeper systemic response has to go much beyond that. We need relief measures as already outlined. More than that, a farmer’s income needs to be protected; there has to be an assured minimum income for farmers. In its absence, farmers cannot survive and we need to rethink our cropping patterns and agrarian cycles in the light of what we know today.

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