Delay, flawed strategy

Print edition : March 26, 2004

In Maharashtra, at the core of the problem of recurring drought is the decreasing expenditure on water management, mismanagement of funds, and the absence of a prevention-oriented approach.

in Mumbai

EVEN as late as October last year, grape-growers in Sangli district of Maharashtra had not lost hope of a delayed spell of rain. After all, most of the areas in the State had had a good monsoon and it was a matter of time before the monsoon revived and made good the deficit in their district, they reasoned. But that was not to be. By November more than 80 per cent of the crop in Sangli and Tasgaon tehsils had perished. Other areas too fared as poorly.

The kharif crop failed in 71 tehsils of 11 districts and distraught farmers did not even plant the rabi crop. It was the fourth consecutive year of drought in these parts of western, central and southwestern Maharashtra. The State government took until November to recognise this and declare the districts scarcity-affected.

With the general elections just round the corner it was inevitable that the drought would be politicised. The first indications of this came in January when the Congress(I)-led State government complained of "stepmotherly" treatment by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre.

In response to the State's demand for a Central assistance of Rs.1,708 crores and 10 lakh tonnes of foodgrains, the Centre sanctioned what the State described as "a very small sum of Rs.44.25 crores and two lakh tonnes of foodgrains, which do not cover even the expenses incurred by the Maharashtra government in one month". An enraged State government threatened to return the "meagre assistance", calling it a deliberate insult. The Centre defended its decision by saying that Maharashtra had defaulted by not distributing foodgrains worth Rs.316 crores it had given earlier. Furthermore, the Shiv Sena-BJP Opposition in the State said the government had not acknowledged the Centre's allocation of Rs.129 crores from the drought mitigation fund.

After a number of high-level meetings, the Centre ultimately released a total of Rs.71.66 crores from its share of the National Calamity Relief Fund. The Prime Minister also allowed the Maharashatra government to raise Rs.1,500 crores as negotiated loans to meet drought-related expenditure. An industry source, who requested anonymity, said: "Maharashtra has tapped the Life Insurance Corporation of India and Nabard (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) to lend it Rs.3,600 crores in order to undertake relief measures in 10 drought-affected districts. The government is spending Rs.5 crores a day on the problem and has spent Rs.575 crores till date. This has worsened an already-severe financial crunch."

Comparing the present drought to the one that ravaged the entire State in 1972, Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde listed the measures taken by the government. These, he said, included a daily expenditure of Rs.1.5 crores for distributing drinking water and Rs.3 crores on providing employment under the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS), and Rs.1,108 crores spent in the last six months on different relief measures. He said the government supplied drinking water in tankers to nearly 2,067 villages and 4,300 hamlets and had provided jobs under the EGS to more than six lakh workers from the affected areas. The government had spent Rs.1,072 crores on drought relief so far and the expenditure was likely to cross Rs.2,000 crores by July 2004, according to Shinde.

But the inadequacies of the State government stood exposed, particularly in respect of the EGS. Once the pride of the State, the scheme is now seen as more of a liability rather than the helping hand it was designed to be. Hinting at irregularities in its implementation, Shinde recently told a seminar on the EGS, attended by government officials, that the works undertaken under the scheme had to be "durable" and "result-oriented".

While seeking Rs.1,708 crores for drought relief from the Centre, the State government inadvertently exposed the mess in the EGS. It said Rs.725 crores had been spent on the EGS so far. The professional tax levied on salaried employees in the formal and organised sectors, with a matching sum provided by the State government, makes up the EGS fund. The fund is meant to create employment for unskilled workers in rural areas in times of distress.

Professor H.M. Desarda, a member of the EGS Review Committee, said the State had not contributed its share for the past three years. So far Rs.3,500 crores had been collected as professional tax for the fund. With a matching amount from the State there ought to have been Rs.7,000 crores in the fund. According to the Chief Secretary, the opening balance in the fund at the end of March 2003 was about Rs.5,400 crores.

Apparently, the money was diverted into various other works, which the government claimed were generating employment but which did not fall under the purview of the EGS. Much of these funds went into paying compensation to sugarcane workers and as expenditure on National Highway Authority projects and large dams and supporting canal works. These projects do generate employment, but spending EGS funds on them violates the mandate of the scheme, which is to build rural roads and small soil and water conservation works.

Fund diversion is permitted only if there is no need for job creation under the EGS at that time, that too on the condition that the money is returned to the fund. Here both conditions have been violated. Furthermore, if Rs.5,400 crores was declared as the opening balance, why did the State ask the Centre to foot the EGS bill? More important, why did the State have to borrow money from the public by issuing irrigation and other bonds?

At the core of the problem of recurring drought is the decreasing expenditure on water management by the State. Said Dr. Ashok Dhawale, State joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha: "Such expenditure has been cut drastically in this period of globalisation. High-technology and infrastructure projects like roads and power are given precedence over something as basic as water. Low spending on basic necessities is the trend now, and expenditure on water management has dropped drastically even in times of extreme drought."

Dhawale cites statistics to show that the share of water management and irrigation in the total budgetary expenditure has fallen phenomenally in all States. In Maharashatra, it fell from 14.7 per cent in1995-96 to 5.1 per cent in 2002-03; in Punjab, from 9.7 per cent to 5.2 per cent; in Gujarat, from 15.3 per cent to 9.5 per cent; and in Karnataka, from 12.2 per cent to 9.2 per cent. Overall, in the 29 States, water management expenditure fell from 8.5 per cent in 1995-96 to 5.6 per cent in 2002-03. "With such a drastic drop, it is not surprising that the country is continuously ravaged by drought and floods," said Dhawale.

Another reason for the failure to drought-proof the State is summarised in the Report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India for the year ended March 31, 2000, (Civil) Government of Maharashtra. It says: "Diversion of funds under Drought Prone Area Programme. Implementation of the watershed development programme under DPAP through NGOs having expertise of carrying works in rural areas, particularly in water conservation was approved by GOI in 1994. Accordingly the DRDA (District Rural Development Agency) paid grants to NGOs for implementation of such works. The following audit points indicate lack of proper supervision and monitoring of the work of the NGOs by the DRDAs, which led to considerable financial loss. In Dhule, Pune, Satara and Sangli districts contracts with 15 NGOs were terminated after incurring expenditure of Rs.3.57 crores during 1995-96 to 1999-2000 due to poor progress of work, malpractices such as financial irregularities, expenditure incurred not being in accordance with Central government guidelines, etc. After termination, the works remained incomplete (March 2000), resulting in blocking of funds of Rs.3.57 crores. The unspent balance of Rs. 37.04 lakh remaining with eight NGOs (Dhule, Pune, Satara) had not been recovered (March 2000). Recovery of inadmissible expenditure of Rs.9.56 lakhs from three NGOs was pending."

Poor planning has resulted in the local administration using a response-oriented rather than a prevention-oriented strategy to react to crises. Drinking water is a case in point. A comparison of statistics released by the State government is revealing. In November, 1,660 villages and 3,462 hamlets were supplied with drinking water in tankers as opposed to 280 villages and 466 hamlets in November 2002. Thus, more villages required assistance in 2003 than a year earlier, despite the fact that scarce rainfall and drought was a State-wide phenomenon in 2002 and not restricted to 11 districts as is the case this time.

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