The invisible drought

We have turned our back to the intense food and drinking water distress across states

Written by Harsh Mander | Published:February 8, 2016 12:00 am

India has transformed spectacularly in innumerable ways in the last two decades. One of the least noted changes is in the way the country — governments, the press and people — respond to drought and food scarcities.

Back in the late-1980s, many states across India were reeling under back-to-back droughts for three consecutive years, not much different from the circumstances of India in 2015-16. I was district collector in districts of MP and Chhattisgarh during those years. At that time, for Central and state governments, as for the media and public opinion, there was little that was weightier than responding, or being seen to respond, to the ongoing drought. Collectors had extraordinary rights to draw on the state exchequer without prior sanctions. Our mandate was paramount and unambiguous — to do all we could to save lives, and mitigate food, fodder, drinking-water and migration distress. We organised feeding centres for the destitute, fodder stalls for cattle, and transported drinking water over long distances. At the peak, we were creating one lakh person days of work in relief works every day in my district.

During the long, dusty, hot summers, officers like me would be out in our Jeeps from 5am until late at night, inspecting relief works, and ensuring that people and livestock had food and water to survive those hard months. Administrations did slip and falter: Runaway corruption in particular was not uncommon. But there was no doubt what the preeminent duty of the state was when its people were assaulted by drought. To do all it takes to ensure food, water and work for all. To save lives.

It is a lesson completely forgotten in the India of today. Farmers and landless workers in 11 states are crushed by drought, often for three years in a row, but if you scan newspapers or television screens, debates in Parliament and meetings in state secretariats, it would appear that this is a figment of some imaginations. This, indeed, is what some senior journalists and officials said to me, or implied — that we are inventing the story of drought hunger. I decided to travel to the rural backwaters of Bundelkhand in UP to see for myself.

In villages that I visited in district Banda, followed by a public hearing attended by 500 people, I encountered desperate people eating just one meal a day, and that too coarse ground grain mixed with wild leaves. I bit into one such roti, and found it bitter and foul. Villagers said it was difficult to persuade children to eat this but they had no option as there was nothing else for them to eat. They explained the virtue of these wild leaves: Once you eat them, you don’t feel hungry for a full day. A rapid survey by some activists and lawyers found that already 86 per cent of families reported cutting down their dal intake, 79 per cent were eating roti and rice with salt or chutney, and 84 per cent had cut down milk for their children. In an estimated seven out of 10 households, not just men but often entire families had migrated to places as far as Punjab, Hyderabad, Surat and Delhi. Schools, therefore, were rapidly emptying out.

I found evidence of widespread intense food and drinking-water distress — and this when the summer months are not even upon us yet. There were also alarming reports of farmer suicides. The current drought was preceded, ironically, by a hailstorm that destroyed all standing crops. Many farmers, unable to pay off mounting crop debts, killed themselves after these recurring crop losses. But unlike in many other regions of endemic farmer suicides, we heard of landless labourers and marginal farmers also ending their lives. Their debts were not to banks but to usurious moneylenders who loaned at compound interest rates of 5 per cent per month. Shakuntala of Oran village, for instance, owns just two bighas of land. After sowing, her husband went to Punjab to find wage work but came back empty-handed even from there. He found that hail had destroyed their crops. Interest on loans by moneylenders of Rs 50,000 was mounting relentlessly. He needed to get his 18-year-old daughter married. Crushed, one day he hanged himself.

The response of the state administration to looming drought is disgracefully dismal and listless, lacking entirely in both urgency and compassion. People showed us empty job cards; public works under the MGNREGA, the most effective instrument to prevent distress migration, were nowhere to be found. Wages from earlier work had not been paid for over a year. Even more gravely, neither the Central nor the state government is serious about rolling out the National Food Security Act that should lawfully have commenced a year and a quarter ago. It would have ensured the availability of half of each household’s monthly cereal requirements almost for free for more than 80 per cent of households.

In addition, I found no plans underway for feeding the destitute, especially old persons left behind when families migrate, the disabled, and single woman-headed households. ICDS centres were in a shambles, otherwise they could have been upgraded to also supply emergency feeding to the destitute during the drought. Schools only occasionally supplied khichdi to a small number of children. There were no arrangements for augmenting drinking-water supply, including ensuring that Dalit and Muslim hamlets had functioning tubewells, or for transporting water where necessary. I found no attempt to create fodder banks and cattle camps.

All of these are fundamental elements of sound district administration, for which every young civil servant of earlier generations was trained and held strongly accountable. But no longer. Even British colonialists developed elaborate protocols for such times codified in famine codes. In Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle against Hunger, I reviewed these colonial codes and demonstrated how they did attempt to save lives but at minimal cost to the exchequer, disrespectful of human dignity and the equal worth of subjects. However, in contemporary neo-liberal times, attempts to avoid “burdens” of high public spending on people coping with acute drought and hunger have revived. There seems even less preoccupation with saving lives of dispensable, invisible rural poor populations. In today’s times of rapid economic growth and overflowing grain warehouses, what can be more culpable?

 

Mander is a human rights worker and writer

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  1. B
    Bhogendra Thakur
    Feb 10, 2017 at 1:12 pm
    We are not ashamed of our atude towards our fellow countrymen and claim we are becoming superpower! Forget Modi, Manmohan Singh as PM refused to distribute grains free of cost even when the Supreme Court asked for it. There is no party, no government and no administration for the poor in this country. When will they rise and claim their right?
    Reply
    1. K
      K SHESHU
      Feb 8, 2016 at 11:06 am
      The present droughts and food problem have long chequered history of neglect. The systematic destructon of forest wealth and encroachment of encatchment areas on river beds have contributed to lower rainfall and depletion of water tables underground. Thanks to liberalisation, every resource is subjected to 'liberal'per --by corporates, foreign investors or government. Political influence is ruling social welfare. Despite struggles by villagers and forest dwelling adivasis,mining industrialists are out to destroy large tracts of forests and rivers are being surrendered to contractors for constructon of dams displacing people and razing out heir dwellings and livelihood. What more can one witness except farmers suicides? Hunger? Poverty? Water scarcity and imbalanced climate? And, desease and death due to infections?
      Reply
      1. A
        A
        Feb 8, 2016 at 1:50 am
        OSUs like GAIK are out to destroy small farmers by aligning their gas routes via their small holdings and giving them a pittance as compensation where in the other states they have routed the line through NH How the above was approved and why these poor farmers were treated as non enies is a million dallr question. Even the Jallikattu bulls have sympathisers but not the hard working farmers
        Reply
        1. M
          mitra
          Feb 8, 2016 at 8:32 am
          A good script for TV sop ( Sob ?) opera ! Mander ! you were DC in 1980s. This is 2016 please!
          Reply
          1. D
            DA
            Feb 8, 2016 at 3:51 am
            Yes I remember. The then PM Rajiv hi would travel to all locations, and this made for stomach churning visuals on Door-darshan news everyday. No doubt that constant exposure resulted in fatigue. And, to compound it all, the PM seemed genuinely sympathetic when visiting Congress ruled states, but seemed distinctly hostile (even on TV), when in non-Congress states. It appeared more theatre than any real, meaningful operation. I think the essence of all this was captured in P Sainath's work "everyone loves a good drought."
            Reply
            1. D
              D
              Feb 8, 2016 at 8:29 pm
              Rajiv hi created Technology missions,,Disaster management missions that included drought. The problem of this government is that it is still in opposition - To a depleted congress! Instead of governing,they think that eradication of his-Congress will give them unbridled control of India.They have not grown up yet! Even Tavleen Singh is disillusioned.
              Reply
              1. G
                Gyanendra
                May 5, 2016 at 6:21 pm
                The real problem is apathy or even antipathy to poor/unprivileged people. This is socio-political problem. Other wise how you explain - million tons of wheat/rice lost each year due to lack of storage space and millions of people hungry. Even supreme court has commented on this situation with any result.
                Reply
                1. D
                  Das
                  Feb 22, 2016 at 1:43 pm
                  India needs to think long term solution, better irrigation (not marred by corruption), saving water management (drop irrigation, replenishing ground water, improve recycling water used by industry etc) and India has big coastline and so much sunshine hence mive desalination.
                  Reply
                  1. D
                    Das
                    Feb 22, 2016 at 1:49 pm
                    Just check out the number of farmers who committed suicide during Congress misrule. In fact this problems exist as during sixty years of misrule Congress was only successful in corruption and it failed: 1. Irrigate vast tract of land 2. Failed to move farmers from farming to manufacturing (transition seen in China) 3. Failed to implement modern methods of irrigation, such as drip feeding 4. failed to find long term solution of water scarcity, such as water conservation, recharging ground water, mive check dams. 5 Failed to create viable insurance schemes.
                    Reply
                    1. D
                      Das
                      Feb 22, 2016 at 1:51 pm
                      You must be naive beyond imagination (I being deliberately plight) if you think problems is created in 22 months,or the festering and worsening problems left over from sixty decades of legacy mismanagement can be addressed in such short time.
                      Reply
                      1. J
                        john williams
                        Feb 11, 2016 at 4:37 am
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                        Reply
                        1. A
                          ashok
                          Feb 8, 2016 at 7:31 am
                          We must ask ourselves how much of the economy's present distress can be attributed to the NAC's baleful influence. Always the same narrative of victimhood; the state owes everyone everything with nary a thought to how it will be paid for. Legislate, and the manna will drop from heaven.
                          Reply
                          1. H
                            hughakston
                            Feb 8, 2016 at 9:00 am
                            Mulayam or Sharad Pawar will be PM in 2019. To defeat Modi the coalition has to include Congress, Mulayam,LaluandNitish, Mamata, Jagan Reddy from AP, Karunanidhi, and Pawar. Maybe even Kejriwal, Patnaik from Orissa and the near-extinct Communists. Nitish won't be PM,as he will have very few MPs. Largest block will be Mulayam's. Akhilesh has already said Rahul hi can be deputy PM and Mulayam PM. Sharad Pawar also has his eyes on the post since 1991. Rahul hi can also be PM if Congress emerges as the largest block.
                            Reply
                            1. A
                              appu
                              Feb 8, 2016 at 6:11 pm
                              Dear Harshji, This country is yours as much as anyones! Please join the PM to bring the change that is required instead of writing and talking negative as if Modi is responsible for all the problems of India. If Congress ruled India, they too should be held accountable for their share. Please do write your next article articulating those years in an objective manner! Would highly appreciate your action in this direction. thank you
                              Reply
                              1. R
                                Rohan
                                Feb 8, 2016 at 7:00 am
                                Can be summed up as this Govt's "Achche Din" for farmers and poor....
                                Reply
                                1. R
                                  Rahul Singh
                                  Feb 8, 2016 at 1:39 pm
                                  Harsh mander is not a human rights worker, he resigned from service after 2002 riots and now he runs his ngo funded by ford, where was he from 2004 to 2014, he belongs to award wapsi cabal ( SLOB - secular liberal outrage brigade), i did not read the article because i already know that this is one more hit job by these commies. this guy is writing articles against modi since 2002, a known sonia chamcha
                                  Reply
                                  1. R
                                    Rahul Singh
                                    Feb 8, 2016 at 1:49 pm
                                    this sonia chamcha thinks that supporting yakub menon( which he did) makes him a human rights worker.
                                    Reply
                                    1. S
                                      santosh
                                      Feb 14, 2016 at 6:32 pm
                                      Drought this year is too much. I think the problem right now is to feed people. Urgent need is feeding the needy, nothing else.
                                      Reply
                                      1. S
                                        Sambit datta
                                        Feb 8, 2016 at 2:42 pm
                                        Recently, in kolkata at a symposium, I was listening to a secretary GoI. I wondered whether their training allows them to function in the specialised and technocratic spheres of decision making needed in the modern Indian economy. Reading mr Mander I realised that they serve as a crucial functional interface between the state and the people. This is especially true in times of need when the machinery of the state is needed to ameliorate the suffering of the people.
                                        Reply
                                        1. G
                                          gshree
                                          Feb 9, 2016 at 12:47 am
                                          If in 80s administration was so efficient then we should not have faced these problems today.
                                          Reply
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