Drought and deaths

Print edition : April 14, 2001

A tale of persistent and avoidable human misery in Rajasthan.

ALL of 50 million tonnes of foodgrains stored in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) across the country has been able to do little to mitigate the suffering of the lakhs of starving people of Rajasthan, which is in the grip of a severe drought. The grains, some of which is rotting in the godowns, could not come to the rescue of Veera Hona (29), Mala (65) and Rota (75) of Medi panchayat in Kotada tehsil of Udaipur district, whose lives hunger claimed in February. The district administration was quick to claim that the death of these persons, all belonging to the Gamar tribe, was not owing to any famine.

A scene of drought in Rajasthan in March 2001.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Look at the circumstances under which the three persons died, and what unfolds is a tale of growing unemployment, vanishing livelihoods, mounting debts, dwindling food resources and falling nutrition levels. This is the stark profile of poverty and hunger that you would come across anywhere in the southern and western parts of Rajasthan where acute famine conditions prevail as a result of three successive years of drought.

Veera of Nakola village, mortgaged his only piece of land, which measured just one bigha (one bigha is an extent of one-third to two-thirds of an acre), when it stopped yielding anything. Early this year he could find no work in neighbouring Gujarat where he goes in search of work during what is for him the lean labour season every year. With no money for the return trip, Veera trekked 70 km to reach Nakola on February 2, only to see an empty barn and his wife and three children with empty stomachs. With no work in the village - or in the fields or at government relief sites, where relief work was yet to start - and not enough forests around to sustain the village, he was worried about his family.

For two days he and his family tried to live off kajari seeds which they gathered from the forests and sold to the local shopkeepers. Soon, there were no more of these seeds, from which oil is extracted to make soap. They were again left with no work and hence no food. The children kept crying for food. Unable to stand this agony, Veera committed suicide by consuming a pesticide. In accordance with the local tribal custom, beside his grave were kept for a few days two earthen cups, one filled with offerings of a little rice and another with milk, both luxuries for Veera when alive.

In the case of Mala of Medi village, drought and illness together forced him to mortgage two years ago the only piece of land (two bighas) in his possession. Last year his child's illness saw his debt mount by Rs. 2,000 more. Malnutrition claimed the lives of three of his children, aged between one year and five years, in the last five years. Out of his four surviving children, Makana (14) has a walking disability. With no crop in the field and no employment, Makana left for Gujarat. When he could find no work there, he trekked 80 km to return home. Mala had also gone to Gujarat on an errand and returned disappointed only a fortnight before his son's home-coming. By then Mala, who had six dependents, had spent all the Rs.600 he had received in December as arrears of his old-age pension. He had no cash, food or work. As if it were not enough, he had a swollen foot. Left with no option, he became a beggar. His wife Jeeja collected firewood from the fast-shrinking forests, and that fetched her Rs.10 or 15 once in two or three days, barely enough for the family to prepare corn gruel (raabri) on alternate days. Meanwhile, the swelling on Mala's foot worsened, and he fell ill. He died on February 10.

The story of Rota Gamar of Koldara is no different. He and wife Jeera lived with their nephew Limba and his family. Driven by the drought, Limba migrated with his family to Gujarat around Deepavali last year. He left behind his 10-year-old daughter to take care of the old couple. Suffering from polio in one foot, Rota had a mule to take him to his kuccha house on the hill. The mule was the first to fall victim to the drought. Its death forced Rota to live in a one-room thatched hut at the foot of the hill. Rota's food stocks exhausted, and he could get no help from Limba. With a meagre daily earning of Rs.20-25, which he had to share with five family members, Limba could hardly send any money to his daughter and the old couple back home. Rota ran out of money when he had spent the old age pension of Rs.100 he had drawn in January. (That Rota had to spend Rs.50 every time he had to visit the teshil headquarters, 25 km away, to receive this Rs.100 is another story.) He turned a beggar, but could not get enough to eat. He fell ill, and died on February 10.

LIKE their deaths, the belongings as well as the debts the three persons left behind reveals a pattern. Their belongings, like those of many of their fellow villagers, were a single-room kuccha hut, a rickety charpoy (cot), a rag for the whole family to sleep on, one or two earthen pots, one or two aluminium or stainless steel utensils, a grinding stone and a slab, a small structure made of bamboo and mud to store foodgrain, a stone chakki, and a bigha or two of mortgaged land. The poorest of the three, Rota, had even less.

All three left behind debts running to not less than Rs. 10,000. Their debts too shared a pattern with those of most others in their villages. But for three government employees (two teachers and a postman) and a handful of non-tribal shopkeepers, almost everyone in the three villages has incurred a debt that ranges from Rs.10,000 to Rs. 40,000. The loans are of three kinds: sarkars, sahukars and sunars, that is, from the government (mostly from cooperative land banks) for digging wells and for other similar capital investments), from moneylenders (usually local shopkeepers), for mostly health reasons, and from pawn brokers (against their women's jewellery), as a last resort.

NOW, the response of the government machinery. The sarpanch of Medi panchayat attended Veera's funeral in Nakola a day after his suicide, but did nothing about it afterwards. He also certified Mala's death, but despite the insistence of his kith and kin, said nothing in the certificate about the circumstances under which he died. After Rota's death, the local schoolteacher wrote to the sarpanch requesting him to certify that the death was caused by hunger. The sarpanch refused to do so and issued only a death certificate.

Astha, a non-governmental organisation working in the panchayat, was the first to bring to the notice of the district administration and the press the circumstances under which Veera and Mala died. Astha workers described these cases as "famine deaths". However, they did not know of Rota's death. Anyway, one wonders why NGOs that worked in the area did not sound an alarm well in time.

On February 16, Udaipur District Collector P.C. Mehra sent a team of officials, including the Tehsildar and the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, to Nakola and Medi. The Tehsildar asked Jeeja and Savi, widows of Mala and Veera respectively, why they did not approach the administration earlier when they were passing through the crisis and were in dire need of assistance. Under a drought relief scheme in Rajasthan, the State government is supposed to allot two quintals of wheat to every sarpanch for free distribution among starving people, to be distributed at the rate of 5 kg a family. Before the Tehsildar's visit, nobody in Medi, as in most other villages, had heard of this scheme.

On February 19, nine days after the death of Rota, 32 families in Medi panchayat received free supplies of wheat under this scheme. The families of Veera and Mala received 15 kg each. Based on the report submitted by the officials, the district administration issued a press release, which denied that the deaths of Veera and Mala were caused by starvation. Until then the administration did not seem to have any knowledge of Rota's death.

Whether the deaths of Veera and Mala could be described as "famine deaths" or not, the way the district administration messed up some of the basic facts relating to the two deceased persons illustrates the confusion that the government machinery often finds itself in when it deals with human suffering. The press release interchanged the villages of Veera and Mala and also mixed up the circumstances under which they died. It stated that while Mala committed suicide, Veera died of old age. While denying that the deaths were hunger-related, the press release made much of the fact that a government relief work was in operation in Medi panchayat, which provided employment to a larger percentage of the population than other projects in the region.

The administration glossed over the fact that the relief work provided jobs to only 60 of the 5,000 adults in Medi panchayat and that too for 15 days in a month. Even this relief work started only on February 9, a day before the death of Rota. The press release did not mention the fact that the 32 starving families received their first free supplies of wheat more than a week after the deaths were reported. The villagers of Medi panchayat were angry with the government officials who visited the panchayat and issued the denials, and with the local newspapers that carried these.

Any discussion on the deaths of Veera, Mala and Rota would lead one to a study of the lives of the people in the region, particularly under drought conditions. Hunger haunts most of Rajasthan's 30,583 drought-affected villages, which have a total population of over three crores. But, for a closer focus, let us confine ourselves to Medi panchayat.

Families other than those of the three government employees and the shopkeepers have small landholdings - not more than three bighas of low-yielding land. They do not have any other source of income that can ensure a livelihood or food security in times of distress. All these years they supplemented their meagre agricultural income by crossing the border into Gujarat and working in farms. They also drew sustenance to some extent from the forests, from the government's famine relief schemes, and from the development works carried out by the gram panchayats.

Crops on all the meagre holdings have dried up. One can see the rabi crop only on the fields of the more privileged ones. With forests having been degraded to a great extent, there is not enough of minor forest produce such as tendu leaves, tendu fruits, lac, kajari seeds and firewood to sustain the village economy. Successive droughts have also taken a heavy toll of livestock and fowl. There is little work across the border in Gujarat, again because of the drought. With no harvest and no cash, foodgrains elude the needy. The people are neck-deep in debt, most of it incurred for treatment of diseases caused mainly by malnutrition.

Medical assistance is available only 50 km away from Medi, where some doctors and quacks fleece them. The cushion that the Public Distribution System (PDS) offers is negligible - only 20 kg of foodgrains a month at the rate of Rs.4.60 a kilo, and that too only to families Below the Poverty Line (BPL).

Very few are employed in relief works in Medi panchayat. And, against the legal minimum wage of Rs.60, the employed ones receive only Rs.30 a day. Members of most families eat by rotation and on alternate days. That too nothing more than corn gruel.

In Medi and elsewhere in Udaipur district, the people recall that the conditions during the prolonged drought of 1986-88 were the same as those that exist now in terms of the failure of the rains and crops. The present drought is, however, much worse than the earlier one in terms of human misery.

Dharma Gamar, the Mukhi or Patel of Nakola, says: "You could draw 10 kg of wheat per person on your ration card at a price well below the market price during the last drought. This means, for 10 members in your family you received 100 kg. Now if you are lucky to be in the BPL category, you get on your card 20 kg of wheat at Rs.4.60 a kg. For most people, even this is beyond their means. Left out of the poverty category, your card gives you wheat at Rs.8 a kg - above the market price - which nobody can afford." The elders with him say the price of Rs.30 for 20 kg in 1986-88 was affordable. Karamchand, slightly younger, said that during the previous long spell of drought most of the people could find work under relief programmes as early as February. Even the forest offered them more of its small produce to supplement their income, one of them said.

At Koldara, Mala's 70-year-old sister-in-law Kesari Bai concurred with this view. "Although you can still see people carrying small bundles of wood to sell in Gujarat, the people of Koldara tell you that the availability of other kinds of forest produce has dwindled. In fact, distress selling has depressed the market for minor forest produce. Tendu leaves, which sold at Rs.5,000 a quintal a few years ago, is Rs.500 now. Highlighting the inadequacy of the present relief works, Udailal of Medi said about the situation in 1986-88: "Us akal mein mazdoori itni khuli ki kheti ke muqabile bhi zyada paisa kamaya kai logon ne" (There was so much of relief employment that many of us earned more than what we did from our fields.)

Corruption also eats into what workers can earn at the relief sites. People said in Medi that apart from increasing corruption, there was now greater manipulation of the muster rolls. Because of this, those employed at the relief sites get only Rs. 25-30 a day against the government-fixed minimum wage of Rs. 60. During the earlier droughts, the villagers recall, such manipulations were not of this magnitude.

A tour of Udaipur district makes it clear that the profile of drought that Medi reveals is not an isolated case. The villages of Kotada tehsil on the way to Medi from Udaipur constitute a bleak and arid landscape. The villages of Dhariawad tehsil present small patches of greenery in a parched expanse, thanks to the opium crops cultivated by the wealthy and politically powerful farmers. Forced to fall back upon the depleting forest resources, the people of the villages in the tehsil complain of corruption by forest officials adding to their misery. The womenfolk also talk of the inadequacy of and corruption involved in the PDS.

For the people in certain areas, it is thirst that is more troubling than hunger. Amari Bai of Anat, Hamiri Bai of Bawadi Kheda, Anadu Bai of Juna Boria, Jewwan Bai of Hazariguda, Jhooma Bai of Hawala and Jhamku Bai of Suraj, all in Dhariawad tehsil, complain that they have to trek 5 to 15 km to fetch drinking water. Potable water is scarce in Salumbar and Jhadol tehsils of Udaipur district, where people in many areas drink muddy water.

Against a drought-affected population of 20.81 lakhs in Udaipur district, the ceiling for employment in relief works was 11,000 persons in February. The figure for other rural development works was a meagre 15,000. The ceiling in the State for famine relief works was a disappointing three lakh persons in February whereas the affected population is over three crores. This ceiling was raised to five lakhs in March, approximately 1.5 per cent of the drought-affected population. Further, the actual employment provided is well below the ceiling. In February, only 2.5 lakh people were employed.

In the rural areas of Jaipur district, many people have reduced their food intake by nearly half. Large-scale migration of people and cattle has started from the desert districts of western Rajasthan. In the State as a whole, 73.6 per cent of the villages are drought-affected - that is, they have suffered a crop damage of 50 per cent or more. In 47 per cent of the villages, the crop loss is above 75 per cent.

What has been the Central and State governments' response to this? The response at the macro level is a magnification of the one that was witnessed at the micro level in Udaipur district following the Medi deaths.

The cost of storing 50 million tonnes of grain in FCI godowns across the country is more than Rs. 10,000 crores annually. The FCI is running out of storage space, and there has been talk in a parliamentary committee of dumping some of this grain in the sea.

Although the Centre, which is holding back most of this grain, released a small amount for routine distribution (about half a million tonnes over one year), Rajasthan off-loaded only 60 per cent of its quota.

There is no attempt to ensure the delivery of fodder. The government has only a scheme of providing transport subsidy for fodder. Some fodder depots are woefully short of requirement. Delayed payment of transport bills and corruption see to it that the needy people do not benefit from the subsidy.

Government efforts to meet the drinking water crisis do not amount to much. People in many western Rajasthan villages buy water from private tankers at the rate of Rs. 400 per 1,000 litres - a quantity for which city dwellers pay only Rs.2.

It is clear that the human misery in the Rajasthan famine is to a great extent man-inflicted - a result largely of the apathy of the administration and its policy-makers. People's discontent against this state of affairs is building up. On February 18, some 1,500 drought-affected people gathered in Jaipur to share their plight under the aegis of the Rajasthan Network to Fight Drought and Famine and marched in a procession to the Chief Minister's residence. On March 5, they heeded in thousands the call of the Network to demonstrate outside the FCI godowns in about 15 districts. Their demands were:

* Five per cent of the grain lying in the FCI godowns be used in food-for-work programmes in order to generate relief employment. With most of the wage payment being made in kind, this will help the government to tide over the cash crunch. This quantity of grain is enough to give employment to 20 lakh people for the next four months, until the monsoon arrives.

* Since most people in the drought-affected areas, including those nominally above the poverty line, face an intense food and income crunch, at least 10 kg of wheat per person should be distributed through a revamped PDS at a subsidised price of Rs. 4.60 every month.

* The government should ensure the establishment of drinking water points at a distance of not more than one kilometre from each village. The huge disparity between the actual urban and rural water rates should go.

* The government should ensure the delivery of fodder to each village.

* Enough electricity should be made available to farmers to irrigate standing rabi crops.

Two developments on the day the poor demonstrated before FCI godowns in Rajasthan underlined the callous attitude of the policymakers. People who were demanding that employment be generated using the grain they had produced and let the government store, were advised by Union Minister of State for Agriculture Sriram Chauhan to shun their begging mentality. The Tourism Department of the State government announced its plan to build a golf course in each district on village commons as part of its famine relief initiative. One golf course will consume water that can satisfy the needs of 9,000 people in a village.

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