Nearly half of India’s districts drought-hit as crisis accelerates | analysis | Hindustan Times
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Nearly half of India’s districts drought-hit as crisis accelerates

Half the country is drought-hit and the poorest areas edge towards famine. But it would seem India is otherwise engaged.

analysis Updated: Dec 03, 2015 12:21 IST
Samar Halarnkar
About eight of each 10 households in Bundelkhand were eating rotis with spices and salt. Up to 17% of all households had replaced regular meals with rotis made of grass, according to a survey conducted by Swaraj Abhiyan, an NGO.
About eight of each 10 households in Bundelkhand were eating rotis with spices and salt. Up to 17% of all households had replaced regular meals with rotis made of grass, according to a survey conducted by Swaraj Abhiyan, an NGO.(HT Photo)

India, the father of the nation famously said, lives in its villages, or, as many call it, Bharat. There is no doubt that a great shift is underway: As 600 million move out of rural areas over the next 35 years, India will need about 500 new cities. But unless Bharat offers a fraction of the hope that ushered in Narendra Modi’s era, the ongoing urban transformation of India will be no more than a great, ragged hope-demolishing exodus.

For now, Mahatma Gandhi’s aphorism holds good. As many as 833 million people (73% of the country’s population) still live in Bharat, according to the latest data from the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) released earlier this year. Some 670 million of these 833 million people live below the poverty line (Rs 33 per person per day), three of four households earn less than Rs 5,000 per month, 95% do not earn enough to pay taxes and 64.3% are illiterate (but 71% own a mobile phone).

With many indicators closer to sub-Saharan Africa than urban India, Bharat’s livelihood options are limited. Just over half its people (51% or 424 million) are manual labourers, said the SECC, and a third (349 million) live off farming. Other livelihoods include being part- or full-time domestic servants (25 million), begging (3.3 million) and rag-picking/foraging (1.7 million).

The data indicate the essentially dead-end nature of Bharat’s jobs and realities and a worsening farm economy, which grew only 0.2% last year. If it grows that much this year, we should be lucky. The under-reported and largely ignored farm crisis has been made greatly worse and more urgent by two years of scanty rain.

Obsessed with the latest, hyper-emotional social media trend, India’s people and mass media are all but oblivious to Bharat’s emergency situation. The only national newspaper that has consistently followed collapsing farms and failing rains is Mint. As of last week, nine of India’s 29 states had officially declared a drought, and 302 of the 640 districts are living in drought-like conditions. If you ask why none of this is on India’s primetime television shows or splashed on front pages, I will only say that the media, in general, are not interested and neither, dear reader, are we.

Telangana, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh are the states that have officially declared drought. Together, they have asked the Centre for Rs 20,000 crore as aid, and, last week, came the first indication of just how bad things might be in the most bereft areas.

About eight of every 10 households in western UP’s Bundelkhand region — one of India’s poorest, most suicide-prone areas — were eating rotis with spices and salt, reported the only independent survey to assess the impact of failed rains.

Up to 17% of all households had replaced regular meals with rotis made of grass, and half of all households had eaten no vegetables over 10 days, reported the survey, conducted in 108 villages across Bundelkhand by Swaraj Abhiyan, or Freedom Movement, an NGO run by psephologist Yogendra Yadav. It is particularly notable because economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera helped design it.

With 61% of households reporting losses of oilseeds, coarse grain and pulse crop — and 96% saying it was their second consecutive failed harvest (after the winter crop was lost to hailstorms in March and April) — children have been withdrawn from school and put to work and cattle either abandoned or sold.

The lack of public scrutiny allows politicians to treat the farm crisis in cavalier fashion. Two weeks ago, as UP declared a drought in 50 of its 75 districts and sought Rs 2,058 crore as central aid, Mulayam Singh Yadav, head of the ruling Samajwadi Party, treated himself to a three-day birthday bash with a 76-kg cake, item numbers and Bollywood stars.

In Telangana, which asked for a Rs 1,000-crore handout from New Delhi after declaring a drought last week, chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao has organised a grand five-day state-funded puja later this month, with scores of sacred fires, mantras, ceremonies and more than 5,000 priests in attendance.

Madhya Pradesh, a former basket case that is now India’s second-largest wheat producer, is witnessing about four farm suicides every day since the start of 2014. The government, which has declared 35 of its 51 districts drought-hit, is taunted by the Opposition, which asks why chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who regularly staged protests in Delhi over the last decade, does not show as much combativeness for aid. The state has asked for Rs 2,500 crore, but a central team is now assessing how much should be granted.

There is almost no independent media reportage of the drought, and governments, who should be under pressure, are not unhappy, although they might want to consider the political effects of ignoring the farm crisis.

Bihar’s recent humbling of the BJP might or might not have persuaded Modi to be more humbler. But it did reveal just how differently Bharat and India think. Modi’s signature programmes — Swachh Bharat and Make in India — celebrated in urban India, had little resonance in a state where 98% of the rural population have no toilets and 89% of the people live off the village economy.

The election season is, currently, over and there is no public or media interest in Bundelkhand’s drift towards famine and Bharat’s downward spiral into despair. And, of course, no one will remind Congress scion Rahul Gandhi of what he said during a 2013 election meeting.

Bundelkhand, Gandhi declared, would become Bengaluru. He continued: “You say Bundelkhand should be linked to Delhi, but I say Bundelkhand should be linked to America!”

For now, it would be a significant feat if Bundelkhand — and Bharat — could be linked to India.

(Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit. The views expressed are personal)

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