Parched lands

Print edition : May 13, 2000

As lakes go dry and the groundwater level drops, 26 Rajasthan districts face an acute drinking water crisis.

SUNNY SEBASTIAN

THERE was a time when sunburnt Rajasthan advertised its drought and scarcity conditions in order to make a case for Central assistance or to borrow funds for relief measures. These conditions, occurring almost with regularity, provided opportunities for the cash-starved State, whose 11 districts form part of the Great Indian Desert, to spend on relief works such as supply of drinking water, distribution of fodder and generation of jobs. They also provided that extra money for middlemen and politicians.

A young woman serves her father a drink of precious water.-V.V. KRISHNAN

With the younger generation at the helm, there is now a perceptible shift away from projecting Rajasthan as a State of hungry millions, a member of the BIMARU (Bihar-Madhya Pradesh-Rajasthan-Uttar Pradesh) States that have lagged behind the rest of the country in socio-economic development.

Rajasthan was handpicked by the United States administration for a holiday for President Bill Clinton during his visit to India in March. The curiosity generated abroad about Ranthambore, the tiger reserve, and the grandeur of the Amber Fort, obscured re ports about the calamitous conditions - of cattle dying and people migrating in large numbers.

The hype surrounding the Clinton visit and the assumption that either the situation would improve or the Rs.1,145-crore Central assistance that the State government had sought in October 1999 would arrive were perhaps the reasons why the authorities did not announce the drought situation.

Jokes abound about how a famine in Rajasthan makes many quarters happy for it brings money. Between 1956-57 and 1989-90, Rs.1,799 crores was spent on relief activities. But the benefits did not really help create permanent assets to mitigate the sufferin g of the affected population. At Banswara district's Patan gram panchayat, this correspondent found 120 persons, mostly women, at work in two different locations. They were digging a dry lake bed and spreading the scooped-out soil along the embankment. T he futility of the work could not have escaped the rustic wisdom - the first rain will wash the soil deposited on the bank back into the lake. But then, the relief money had to be "utilised".

Owing to the failure of the monsoon for the second consecutive year, and the third in some areas, 26 of the 32 districts of the State are in the grip of drought. Some 2.5 crore people (almost half of the total population of the State), and 3.5 crore head of cattle in 23,406 villages have been affected.

Water scarcity, a regular feature in the west Rajasthan districts of Jaisalmer, Barmer, Jodhpur, Nagaur, Pali and Jalore, has been experienced this time in a severe way in south Rajasthan too. Earlier, even when the tribal belts of the southern districts faced food scarcity, large water bodies such as Fatehsagar, Picchola, Swaroopsagar (Udaipur) and the Mahi dam (Banswara, Dungarpur) never went dry. This year the water levels in these lakes have fallen drastically. As a result, the wells and ponds have dried up.

The water levels in Udaisagar, Jaisamand and other lakes near Udaipur have also depleted. According to Dr. C.P. Joshi, Minister for Panchayati Raj who is in charge of relief works, the situation is unprecedented.

In fact, the Governor, Justice Anshuman Singh, cancelled his customary summer trip to Mount Abu in Sirohi district, as the famous Nakhi Lake there is dry and the town is facing a drinking water crisis. Big water bodies, such as the Jawai dam and the Ramg arh lake, have also dried up.

At Virpur village, located on the banks of a tributary of the Mahi in Banswara district, the local Patels, who have dug borewells to a depth of 400 feet, supply water at the rate of Rs.25 a month to the Bheels and Yadavs of the village.

On the Banswara-Dungarpur route in Rajasthan, carcasses are an all-too-familiar sight.-GOPAL SUNGER

RAJASTHAN, which constitutes 10.4 per cent of the geographical area of the country, has no perennial river system, other than the Chambal in the southeastern region. If one discounts the waters of the Indira Gandhi Canal, which come from the Himalayan re gion, the State has to depend on groundwater for its drinking and irrigation needs.

When the current crisis emerged, at least 50,000 of the five lakh-odd tubewells in the State were under repair. The contingency plan prepared for the season included digging 421 ponds, installing 2,317 handpumps, and repairing 53,000 handpumps. Participa ting in a debate in the State Assembly in April, Public Health and Engineering Department Minister Ram Singh Vishnoi unravelled a Rs.2,000-crore plan to implement various drinking water schemes.

It is time the Government woke up to the situation on the water front and learnt from the examples of the water conservation efforts of Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), an Alwar-based non-governmental organisation (NGO). The TBS, under its secretary Rajendra Si ngh, helped revive the Arvari river in Thana Gazi tehsil almost 30 years after it had gone dry. The TBS' initiative in rainwater harvesting in the villages of Alwar district, by constructing check dams, helped recharge groundwater sources. There are abou t 238 water harvesting structures in the catchment area of the Arvari alone.

Another notable instance of conservation is the work executed by the Udaipur-based NGO, Sewa Mandir, in the tribal-dominated Jhadol block in south Rajasthan. Its initiatives to regenerate pasture lands have solved water and green fodder problems. In fac t, a team of CAPART (Council for Advancement of People's Action and Rural Technology) officials, who visited the Khandavli cluster of villages in Rajsamand district, found that there was no drought in the area.

Former Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, however, feels that the situation is not as bad as it was in 1987-88. That year Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sanctioned Rs.700 crores towards relief operations and a record number of 19.92 lakh persons were p rovided employment. From 1991 to 1998, when Shekhawat was Chief Minister, the State did not experience a severe drought. In 1995-96, the number of persons provided employment under relief schemes was 7.28 lakhs.

The relief measures are costing the State Government Rs.4 crores to Rs.5 crores daily by way of expenses on fodder, drinking water and jobs. According to Relief Minister Gulab Singh Shaktawat, a labour ceiling of 7.5 lakhs has been fixed for May. More th an 5.55 lakh persons are employed in 14,803 relief works and other departmental works across 26 districts.

The ship of the desert kneels as his master pours water into a canvas sac slung across its back.-V.V. KRISHNAN

But a hard day's work does not fetch more than Rs.40 in most cases, although the promised daily wage is Rs.60 for a 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. job. "The payment is on the basis of the work accomplished. Full wages are for those who complete mud work of 10 ft X 10 ft X 2 ft. It is an impossible task," says Rakma of Devgarh in Banswara tehsil.

At two drought relief works, the government offers 120 jobs while those who are in need of work is 10 times more. "Everyone is Below Poverty Line (BPL) here. Even Rajputs are engaged in drought relief work along with Adivasis. When there is scarcity, the re is no discrimination," said Gauji Bhai, a tribal youth of Haldupada hamlet in Patan.

THE State Government sent its first memorandum to the Centre for the sanction of Rs.1,145 crores towards drought relief on November 5, 1999. In response to this, the Centre sanctioned a meagre Rs.102.93 crores under the National Calamity Relief Fund (NCR F), on March 31. The memorandum had informed the Centre that the State required to employ two lakh persons in November, three lakh in December and four lakh each in January and February. Neither the State Government made any attempt to act upon its asses sment, nor did the Centre try to help out the State with immediate assistance.

In fact, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot persuaded Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to sanction the supply of grain to Rajasthan from the country's overflowing granaries. He took up the matter with the Prime Minister on November 16, and followed it up with a req uest on December 2. In his letter to Vajpayee on December 2, he said: "Rajasthan is passing through a severe famine for the second year in succession. Unlike last year, the rainfall during this year was both erratic and highly deficient... The reserves o f the Calamity Relief Fund have been fully exhausted and the instalments available during the current year would not be adequate to meet the requirements of Rs.1,300 crores for relief. With the fragile financial condition of the State there is hardly any scope for mobilising resources to meet the famine relief operations." On January 24, 2000, the State's Chief Secretary sent another letter. Gehlot raised the matter also during his meeting with the Prime Minister in New Delhi on April 1 and at the meeti ng with Sunderlal Patwa, Union Rural Development Minister, on April 18. The Centre accepted the proposal on April 24 and sanctioned 15,000 tonnes of foodgrains.

The relief operations are also mired in controversies in view of the rift between Gehlot and Pradesh Congress(I) Committee president Girija Vyas. Egged on by the detractors of Gehlot, Girija Vyas fired the first salvo against the government in April stat ing that the drought relief operations were grossly inadequate. But it cannot be said that Vyas' concern was misplaced. The relief operations were getting delayed, triggering off the migration of cattle and people.

The cancellation of the scheduled visit of Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi to Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur too is suspected to be part of the current tug of war between the warring groups in the party. Officially, Sonia cancelled her one-day tour sc heduled for May 5 owing to indifferent health, but it is believed that she took the decision after some party leaders complained to her that the areas chosen for her visit were not the worst affected ones.

Testing times are ahead for the Gehlot Government as the worst part of summer is not yet over.

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