It could well turn out to be a drought crisis that is the worst in a century for this desert State. The State government is trying to do its bit, but it would appear that in the matter of releasing funds and foodgrains, the Central government is playing a few games.
T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Bikaner, Kota and Baran Pictures: Gopal Sunger
FOR the fifth consecutive year, Rajasthan finds itself in the grip of a severe drought. Unless mitigatory measures are taken, it can take a serious toll on humans as well as livestock in the coming months. Unprecedented in its severity in recent times, this prolonged drought is devastatingly unique. The last time the State endured such conditions was in 1987-1988, but at that time it was not a prolonged bout of misery. This time there is a sense of resignation all around. The State government continues to get a raw deal at the hands of the Central government in the matter of allocation of foodgrains as well as cash supplements. Caught in the conflict between governments are the people, especially the poor.
The crisis is not hidden anymore. Government officials candidly admit that there would be a "terrible" drinking water problem in the next two to three months - the hottest period of the season. Water, it is stated in matter-of-fact terms, cannot be imported from other States, unlike foodgrains and fodder.
The overall deficiency of rain is 64 per cent, which official reports say is the lowest level in a hundred years. Some 40,990 villages in all the 32 districts are reeling under acute drought conditions. A population of 4.48 crores is hit. Also affected are some 4.52 crore head of cattle.
The rabi as well as kharif crop have received a severe beating. In a normal year the sown area under the kharif crop is around 129 lakh hectares. Due to the dry spell in July 2002, only 82.26 lakh ha could be sown, of which the crop on 71.97 lakh ha was damaged. In effect, nothing was produced and this resulted in a loss of Rs.4,031 crores. Since 1998-99, more and more districts have been affected by the drought.
The canal-irrigated zones in north and northwest Rajasthan are experiencing an unprecedented level of dryness. Dhulichand Meena, State secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), said it was the first time in 40 years that he had seen such conditions in the command areas. Yet, farmers said that it was only after they launched an agitation power was being supplied for four to five hours a day, as against the promised eight hours. With groundwater sinking to unprecedented levels, more power was needed to run the tubewells.
The drinking water crisis is no less significant. Out of a total of 5,765 irrigation tanks, only 16 overflowed this year compared to 500 that did so last year. All the lakes have dried up, says Ram Lubhaya, secretary, Public Works and Relief Department. Major sources of drinking water, such as Ramgarh, Rajsamand, Jawai, Meja Dam, Fatehsagar and Pichhola have gone dry. Lubhaya estimates that water will have to be supplied in tanker-trucks and railway tankers to about 10,000 habitations and 20 municipal towns.
As fodder production was affected, procurement from outside the State was considered. But the neighbouring States of Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat also face drought conditions, which hit fodder availability there. The migration of pastoralists, which is considered a traditional phenomenon, has ceased too, since fodder sources have dried up. In general, fodder prices have shot up compared to previous years. With little or no purchasing power, it is a Sisyphean effort for the pastoralists to provide fodder for their livestock.
The government statistics say it all. The testimony of the common people match data presented by the government. In any event, it can be safely assumed that the situation on the ground is much worse than what is expressed on paper.
The recurrent drought not only in Rajasthan but also in the neighbouring States has affected the traditional pattern of migration of labour as well as the availability of fodder. Added to this is the prospect of a bleak and almost negligible rabi crop. A visit to some blocks in Bikaner, Kota and Baran reinforced the impression that the worst sufferers, as always, are the landless and the poor, as well as their cattle. After agriculture, cattle-rearing is the predominant occupation in the State, with almost every family owning livestock. Cattle have started perishing, mostly due to the paucity of green fodder. The animals that make it to the newly set up cattle camps and goshalas are those that are abandoned by farmers.
The main objective here is to keep the cattle alive, though it is unclear to many people why resources should be expended to feed cattle that are not going to be of any productive use. Having more fodder depots makes sense as merely paying subsidies for fodder purchase would result in people lifting more fodder merely for the sake of their surviving cattle.
Ironically, similar attention does not seem to have been paid to the needs of goats and sheep, which form the largest chunk of the total livestock in the State. The camel too has been ignored. There are no goat, sheep or camel camps. For the cow there is a lot of help from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and as one rich philanthropist pointed out in Bikaner, taking care of the cow was a question of shradda, or respect.
The striking aspect is that the owners of cattle too have benefited marginally from the cattle camps. Facing abject poverty and destitution, some of them see hope in the areas adjoining the camps - they hope that some of the largesse that goes to the cattle will trickle down to them. Suleiman, a herder from Jaisalmer district, expressed his deep gratitude to some of the cattle camp organisers at Bikaner for having given him some clothes to wear. "Their needs are limited. All they need is some roti, some salt, maybe some onion and some chilli," said Ram Krishna Rathi, one of the camp organisers. It seemed so self-evident that the needs of Suleiman and others like him would always be limited, for that was all they had seen and eaten all their lives.
THE cash-strapped State government has encouraged initiatives from NGOs, though representative organisations of farmers, such as the AIKS, are sceptical of such efforts. These organisations apprehend corruption in the running of the camps and feel that they have been sources of employment for people allied to the major political parties with little or no benefit trickling down any further. One of the largest cattle camps is being run at Nal in Bikaner. A settlement of cattle herders has come up next to it and there are some "tent" schools being run by the administration with support from the Lokjumbish project. Here an organiser said that the heat would be unbearable in the coming days and that it could cause fires. He also fears that a serious drinking water problem could emerge.
The State government appears to have taken the crisis seriously, more because this is an election year and the handling of the drought could well become an issue. The main Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has been raising questions about the utilisation of Central funds for drought relief. But the Congress(I) Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot, is emphatic that the BJP would not be able to make drought an election issue as the State government was doing everything in its capacity to mitigate the impact of the drought. This was despite the fact that only limited funds were provided to the State. There was uncertainty with regard to the provision of relief under the National Calamity Contingency Fund.
The Chief Minister said that all 32 districts had been notified as being drought-affected and relief activities were started in August last. But farmers' representatives say the work began only in October after a survey was conducted. The survey process began with information gathering by the lowermost functionary in the village.
In Loonkaransar in Bikaner, farmers came out on the streets, picketed the Collectorate and demanded that relief work be launched immediately. It was pressure from the farmers that persuaded the government to open more fodder depots. The AIKS, which has a notable presence in the State, said that while in the Opposition the BJP had not raised the issue of drought vociferously.
The government admits that the immediate fallout of the drought is a higher rate of unemployment, especially among the landless agricultural labourers, small and marginal farmers, families below poverty line (BPL) and rural artisans. Seventy five per cent of the wage component is paid in kind and 15 per cent as cash. Sixty per cent of the labour opportunities available is reserved for families belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and those in the BPL category. The remaining 40 per cent is reserved for the Other Backward Classes and the poor. The State government had initially decided to provide 15 days of employment a month to the most vulnerable families, but owing to paucity of Central funds, this was reduced to 10 days. It is estimated that in order to provide the minimum level of sustenance for a family of five, employment for at least 25 days a month will have to be provided.
"Please tell the government to give us more drought relief work. How can we sustain a family of eight with 80 kg of wheat for several months? I am prepared to work, but they do not keep me as I am old," said Kasturi of Kishanganj block in Baran district, showing her emaciated palms. "My turn may come after a few months. How will my family survive on 80 kg of wheat for that period?" asked a young man in Gajner block of Bikaner district. With regard to such complaints, a senior government official based in Jaipur said that at most of the centres far too many people were turning up in search of work. Where, for instance, there is provision to accommodate a hundred people, some 500 people would turn up, he said.
The minimum wage of Rs.60 that was being paid was the highest in the country, said the Chief Minister. But AIKS representatives asserted that what was being actually paid was much less than that sum. "Most of the work is task-based and gruelling. If it is not completed, it is evident that they would not be paid even that much," said Lal Chand Bhadu, district secretary of the AIKS in Loonkaransar. He said that in the entire tehsil, barring some 10 villages among a total of 160 villages, people were being paid between Rs.15 and Rs.60. He said he was shocked to see elderly men and women working in the desert heat. The effort needed to complete a certain amount of work in the desert terrain tended to be double that in normal terrain owing to the presence of sand. In the Gosaisar goshala, an employee by name Shiv Narain told this correspondent that the Sarpanch was openly discriminating against people he did not like. He said that the Rs.60 that was to be paid was not being paid in full. Narain also alleged that only some 10 per cent of the 1,800 cattle at the particular camp were healthy and could yield milk. The rest were too old and unhealthy.
Bhadu, who has toured the entire district, said that fodder was being sold at Rs.400 a quintal. It was fodder of poor quality, especially that coming from Hanumangarh, Punjab and Ganganagar. He said that the rate for tudi, a kind of fodder produced from wheat, peaked at Rs.150 a quintal last year. This year it was being sold at not less than Rs.300 a quintal. Animals had died in cattle camps, not owing to disease but starvation.
The cattle camps are often a source of income for those who run it. The government had provided a daily subsidy of Rs.12 for every adult cow and Rs.6 for calves to meet their fodder requirements. Bhadu said this was inadequate. This view was echoed by Gopal Das, who runs the Govind Gopal Gaushala in Dungargarh tehsil. According to both of them, each cow consumed fodder worth Rs.1,000 a month and hence the subsidy amounted to a pittance. All the 700 households in Kitasar village wanted to keep their cows in his camp but he was not taking them anymore.
The State government has initiated a series of measures aimed to provide relief to the poorest of the poor, the indigent, the destitute and the landless. But the crisis, as is evident, is also about providing drinking water, keeping cattle alive and ensuring decent employment to crores of people who are at the mercy of the drought. In Pali district, drinking water is made available only once every four days.
THE State government has identified people for the provision of relief under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana and the Annapurna Yojana as well as the Targeted Public Distribution System. Some siphoning off of foodgrains occurs at this level but those who have been engaged in drought relief work have been given coupons to pick their share of wheat later, as ready supplies are not available.
The State government avers that the difference between the APL (Above Poverty Line) and BPL families is rather blurred. The High Level Committee on Calamity Relief constituted by the Centre has provided for Rs.188.82 crores to be paid as the cash component of the wages to only the 20.80 lakh BPL families. The cash requirement for the wage component both for APL and BPL families from May 1 till July 2003 is estimated to be Rs.1,530 crores. The total foodgrain requirement is 56 lakh tonnes, of which only 29.10 lakh tonnes has arrived, according to one senior government official. He said that the Central government was dilly-dallying on the issue.
In this context is mentioned the delay in the setting up of the National Centre for Calamity Management, which was supposed to be constituted by the Ministry of Agriculture to monitor natural calamities and to assess whether a State would be in a position to provide relief in a specific case of calamity of a severe nature from the Calamity Relief Fund (CRF) and from its own resources. The Eleventh Finance Commission had recommended the setting up of such an independent body.
Three Central teams have visited the State over the last 10 months. The objective is the same: to assess the extent of the drought and the drought relief work. The Central government has not sanctioned funds for the material component of the relief works despite a provision for it in the CRF norms. A huge amount of money is being spent on kutcha (temporary) works, which is deemed to be largely useless. No funds have been allocated for gratuitous relief, which amounts to an assistance of Rs.20 a day for an adult and Rs.10 for children and those who are infirm and destitute. Some 4.5 lakh persons have been identified under this category and a requirement of Rs.145.80 crores has been worked out. Similarly, no funds have been provided for supplementary nutrition, input subsidies for farmers and additional feed subsidies for cattle.
Even if the monsoon rains arrive on time this year and prove to be sufficient, drought relief work will have to continue beyond July and till October. Almost no sowing has taken place owing to the prolonged dry spell, and with both the rabi and the kharif crop having failed, provision of alternative employment will remain an important task. But so far there has been no commitment of funds from the Centre. The AIKS has demanded that at least one member from every family be given permanent employment, but paucity of funds may come in the way of meeting this plea.
The State government has at least identified the crisis and set in motion a process. But it needs an enabling element from the Centre - which is not forthcoming. As though summing up the situation, a State government functionary remarked: "What they are doing is almost inhuman."