Only 80-odd MPs were present when the Lok Sabha finally found time on Thursday to discuss the drought, which, by the Centre’s own admission, has affected about 33 crore people across 256 districts in 10 states. Such seeming indifference to an issue that should be the top national concern today is shocking. The public would have benefited from knowing what the representatives of the people have to say on the drought situation as it has unfolded in their areas.
Their views and suggestions, extending to criticism of government measures, would have provided valuable inputs for dealing with a crisis that calls for both immediate and long-term responses. This role, basically that of putting pressure on the Centre and states to act, is something the legislature is expected to perform. The fact that it required the Supreme Court to tell the Centre to provide immediate relief to drought-hit states and release adequate funds for taking up MGNREGA works, only shows how much space the lawmakers have vacated for others to fill.
Such abdication is dangerous. While activist judges and PIL-filing NGOs have done a stellar job in recent times in taking up public causes, they cannot substitute for elected representatives. What, then, accounts for the apparent lack of concern among the latter — at least reflected in their priorities in Parliament — over drought? After all, this is the first time after 1986 and 1987 that the country has witnessed back-to-back monsoon failures. It could be that while they still overwhelmingly hail from rural areas, many of them have sunk roots deep in state capitals and urban centres — and here, sensitivity to the suffering that the drought has brought for their fellow countrymen has been more conspicuously absent this time than in the past.
Previous droughts were inevitably accompanied by a surge in food prices. This time’s drought has been unusual in this regard, as consumer food inflation has been relatively benign at 5.2-5.3 per cent and there isn’t any evidence of hoarding by unscrupulous traders. Prices of many crops have actually fallen, making it a drought essentially for farmers. But since urban India hasn’t been affected as much, it has also not drawn attention of the kind that would have forced Parliament to take more than cursory notice.
Another example is that of the onion crisis. Last August-September, the bulb was making headlines when its retail prices crossed Rs 80/kg. But today, when there is a glut and farmers have been selling at Rs 2/kg or below, no one’s talking about the problem for the farmer. When the list of those not talking includes even the honourable MPs, something is rotten indeed.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘A ringing silence’)