THE DROUGHT CRISIS

Print edition : May 13, 2000

The drought stalking several States is about distribution of scarce natural endowments and institutional rigidities that have rendered a durable public works programme implausible.

SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN

CIRCUMSTANCES beyond human control - the alibi has half a chance of standing when a natural calamity strikes with the ferocity of the Orissa cyclone or the Latur earthquake, when the hapless fall victim to Nature's fury with little forewarning. But gover nments are not permitted the luxury of sleeping on the job or deluding themselves with visions of future glories, as a calamity creeps up with the predictability of the seasonal cycle.

On April 23, after weeks of sporadic and rather indifferent warnings, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made a national appeal for funds to cope with a drought that had been in the making for at least six months. The government had gone on far too long in denial mode, seemingly secure in the belief that the country was heading towards an information technology boom. But the early advent of summer and premonitions that the punishing heat could exact a toll even higher than in 1998, shook the administra tion awake rather rudely.

A few days of hectic activity followed. Official briefings were dominated by details of the funds that had been tapped and the monies disbursed for calamity relief, and statistics about tubewells sunk and handed over to State governments, railway rakes c arrying water scarcity affected areas, naval ships ferrying it to coastal Gujarat, and fodder being procured from surplus areas for cattle that faced imminent starvation and death.

At a meeting of all political parties on April 25, Vajpayee made the fervent appeal that partisan passions be left behind, and discord submerged in the common endeavour of fighting the drought. There were predictable calls for the situation to be declare d a "national calamity", a reprise of a theme that was played out during the Orissa cyclone, though with little further clarity on what such categorisation would mean in terms of practical options.

Both Houses of Parliament debated the drought situation over the next few days. In an ominous indication of apathy and poverty in thinking, few members participated in these debates. And what they had to say went by a predictable script - increasing fina ncial allocations both for preventive measures and for relief. Few members seemed even remotely to imagine that effective management by local communities and alternative techniques may have a bearing on the problem. Originality was severely at a premium as members from Gujarat used the occasion to make another pitch for early completion of the Narmada project. And Agriculture Minister Sunderlal Patwa's reiteration of a bureaucratic verity - that the State governments are entirely responsible for impleme ntation efforts - seemed devoid of any strong rationale, other than the evasion of responsibility.

The media for its part stepped in with searing narratives of human suffering and stress in the drought-ravaged regions. But facts tended to be garbled in the flush of discovery. It became a common refrain that the situation was the worst drought in a cen tury. For the nearest analogue, the more determined analysts chose to scour through the chronicles of folk memory and dredge up evidence from 1899.

All this made for great drama, particularly since it contrasted sharply with the torpor in which the government had been sunk for all the preceding months. When monsoon 1999 had run its course, the meteorological agency and other official monitoring bodi es had pronounced themselves satisfied with its performance. A few murmurs were heard about deficient rainfall in certain areas, but these were dismissed as isolated quibbles that had little bearing on a healthy national aggregate.

A plain reading of the figures would show, again, that this drought is not about aggregates, but about the distribution of scarce natural endowments. Overall rainfall last year was 96 per cent of the normal figure - considerably better than the years 199 1 and 1992, when distress on a similar scale was nowhere in evidence. Considered in terms of distribution, rainfall last year was deficient or scanty in seven of the 35 meteorological subdivisions in the country. This again is a serious situation, though far from grim in comparison with the preceding decade and a half. In 1993, for instance, 10 subdivisions received deficient or scanty rainfall, while in 1991, eight subdivisions were thus afflicted. Yet these statistics pale when compared to the record of 1987, when no fewer than 21 subdivisions received scanty and deficient precipitation. Since it followed a year of similar scarcity in 14 subdivisions, 1987 has been the country's worst year of weather-induced stress in recent times.

WHAT then could account for the magnitude of human distress that is in evidence today? Clearly, the weather provides only a limited explanation. More crucially, it would appear that the social and institutional mechanisms to cope with adverse weather flu ctuations have been rapidly eroded. Local initiatives have been swamped by the overweening presence of the governmental machinery. And when the situation most demands it, this machinery has simply failed to perform.

An entire family moving out of drought-hit Jaisalmer district in Rajasthan.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Official statistics now seem to provide some reassurance that concerted efforts are being made to deal with the situation, but only if it is assumed that a problem is solved by merely throwing money at it. Two sources are available to deal with the situa tion - the Calamity Relief Fund (CRF) and the National Fund for Calamity Relief (NFCR). The Central government's contribution to both these funds is 75 per cent, the remaining 25 per cent coming from the various States.

In 1999-2000, releases from the CRF amounted to Rs.1,384 crores and from the NFCR, to Rs.1,291 crores. Of the latter figure, around 70 per cent went towards mitigating the effects of the Orissa cyclone. Accordingly, the major part of the drought relief e ffort was financed out of the CRF, with Andhra Pradesh being allocated Rs.145 crores, Gujarat, Rs.161 crores, and Rajasthan, Rs.207 crores. The Centre's share was disbursed in four equal instalments, of which the last was released in October in the case of Andhra Pradesh, December in the case of Rajasthan, and January in the case of Gujarat. Relief works initiated through these funds should have, assuming the normal gestation lag, borne fruit by April. It is evident, though, from the extent of distress in these States, that their effect has been minimal.

On March 31, the Central government sanctioned the release of its share of the NFCR to Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Since then, two instalments of the CRF have been sanctioned for both Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Concurrently, the Agriculture Ministry has been asked to arrange for emergency shipments of fodder to all the affected areas. And the first instalments of Central funds for the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme, the Jawahar Gram Samriddhi Yojana a nd the Employment Assurance Scheme, have already been released for Gujarat and Rajasthan. Sanction has been accorded for 2 kg of foodgrain for every man-day of employment generated under "Food for Work Programmes" in the affected areas of Gujarat and Raj asthan.

All these aggregates, of course, carry no sense of how these programmes are managed on the ground. And the available evidence of institutional rigidities and lacunae render it altogether implausible that rather than being a palliative the efforts under w ay are targeted towards a durable solution. Given a certain flexibility of official response, the measures that are now being implemented in a desperate rush should have been initiated at least as far back as October, when the signals of a scanty monsoon available were amply clear. Rather than augment the development effort, though, the government seems last year to have curtailed it. For instance, total expenditure on rural employment programmes amounted to just Rs.3,729 crores in 1999-2000, against a budgeted figure of Rs.3,795 crores. As for rural drinking water supply, the actual expenditure was Rs.1,807 crores against the allocation of Rs.1,910 crores in the Budget.

In framing his budgetary proposals for 2000-01, the Finance Minister again seemed oblivious of the growing distress in the drought-affected areas. He chose to pare the outlay for rural employment drastically, to Rs.2,655 crores, and hold the allocation f or rural water supply at Rs.1,890 crores.

Common sense indicates that a mid-term increase in outlays in these areas last year, may have obviated much of the agony of this drought. With foodgrain stocks in the Central pool today totalling a mammoth 28 million tonnes - over 12 million tonnes more than the norm - the increased outlays could have been easily absorbed without an inflationary impact. At the same time, given sufficient attention to detail, the worst consequences of water deprivation in the affected areas could have been directly addre ssed through a public works programme.

There are indications, again, that an even more harsh reckoning may be in store. Preliminary forecasts indicate that the monsoon this year may depart from the trend of the last 12 years, in being well below normal - implying the prospect of overall preci pitation being 20 per cent below normal. That could put the coping mechanisms in both rural and urban India to their ultimate test.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor