Disaster response

How to hide a drought

Print edition : July 22, 2016

Migratory flamingoes at the Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary about 70 km from Ahmedabad. They are staying back longer because fish are easy to find as the water level falls owing to drought conditions. Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP

WHILE issuing a series of directions to the Central and State governments to provide drought relief to affected people in 12 States, before breaking for the summer vacation in May, Justice Madan B. Lokur of the Supreme Court quoted Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, as having said: “The problem is not lack of resources or capability, but the lack of will.”

Justice Lokur and Justice N.V. Ramana on the bench, after hearing the petitioner in the case, Swaraj Abhiyan, (S.A.) a non-governmental organisation, and the State and Central governments, wondered why Bihar, Gujarat and Haryana were hesitant to even acknowledge a possible drought-like situation or a drought by not disclosing full facts about the prevailing conditions in these States.

On August 1, the Supreme Court is due to review to what extent the State and Central governments have complied with its directions. In May, the court found that 10 out of 29 States had declared a drought, in 234 districts, representing more than one-third of the districts and one-fourth of the population of the country. Following the pressure, Gujarat declared drought in some districts of the State.

The court found that in October 2015, several districts in Gujarat, Haryana and Bihar were facing drought to varying degrees, yet governments there were in denial mode. Treating drought as a disaster, the Supreme Court directed the Centre to constitute a National Disaster Response Force within six months, with an appropriate and regular cadre strength. So far not even the preliminary steps have been taken to comply with this directive.

The Lokur-Ramana bench directed the Centre to establish a National Disaster Mitigation Fund within three months from May 11. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley questioned the wisdom of this order of the court in the Rajya Sabha during the Budget session.

The court’s direction to formulate at the earliest a national plan for risk assessment, risk management and crisis management in respect of a disaster was partly complied with by the Centre when it made the draft plan public.

The bench directed the Centre to revise the Draft Management Manual (DMM) of 2009 on or before December 31, 2016, to take into account new factors so that the elbow room available to each State not to declare a drought even though it exists was minimised. The Centre has not taken any steps so far to revise the DMM or initiate a dialogue with civil society to revise it suitably.

The bench directed the Secretary in the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, in the Ministry of Agriculture, to meet the Chief Secretaries of Haryana, Bihar and Gujarat within a week from May 11 to persuade the State governments concerned to declare a drought in whichever district, taluka, tehsil or block it was found warranted. The bench also suggested to the Secretary to consider convening a meeting of the national executive of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to issue directions to these States to treat drought as a disaster.

Swaraj Abhiyan noted that the Secretary did convene a meeting of Chief Secretaries of the three States, but its outcome was not known. Besides, no meeting of the national executive of the NDMA has been convened by the Secretary.

The bench made it clear that in drought-declared areas, no household should be denied foodgrains as required under the National Food Security Act on the grounds that the household did not have a ration card. An appropriate identification or proof of residence that was acceptable to the State government should do, the bench said.

Although the court directed provision of midday meals to schoolchildren during the summer vacation in the drought-declared areas, it has not been complied with in spirit, with the State governments issuing orders very late, when the schools were opening. The S.A. alleged that Haryana, Maharashtra, Odisha, Jharkhand and Bihar served no meals to schoolchildren during the vacation, and in rest of the drought-declared States, it was irregular.

The S.A., in association with other people’s movements such as the Ekta Parishad, the Jal Biradari and the National Alliance of People’s Movements, organised a Jal-Hal yatra from Latur to Mahoba (May 21 to 31). Similar yatras were organised in Telangana (June 2 to 4) and from Chambal to Bundelkhand (June 6 to 14). State-level public hearings were organised in Jaipur and Bhopal by the Right to Food Campaign and People’s Action for Employment Guarantee.

The S.A. found that the non-release of funds in time for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme continues despite the scathing observations of the Supreme Court. The S.A. observed, in a press release, that delayed payments and under-performance in meeting targets continued even in times of drought.

Despite the forecast of a good monsoon, the S.A. alleged, farmers in drought-hit areas were not ready for the next sowing because they had not received crop-loss compensation or fresh loans although there was a clear directive by the court to “religiously” implement the government’s policies in this regard.

These are just some of the issues of inadequate compliance of the Central and State governments with the Supreme Court’s extraordinary directions to them to provide relief to drought-affected people. Clearly, the governments need to take extra effort to bridge the deficit in compliance when the case comes up for review on August 1.

V. Venkatesan

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