The State may not admit it but India is facing a full blown drought, thanks to two consecutive years of poor monsoon, water shortage in reservoirs and lowering of the groundwater table. Government estimates (usually much lower than the actual scenario) say that 10 states and 330 million people are affected by the calamity. Along with the impact on human lives, this drought has also affected the economy badly. According to a study by Assocham, the impact on the economy will be no less than Rs 6.5 lakh crore.
One would have thought that the State’s disaster management systems would kick in hard by now to tackle the challenge, but a trip to the drought-affected areas will reveal a grim picture: The political machinery and leadership is either unable or unwilling to take charge of the situation, and extend help to those — mainly the poor — who have been worst affected by it. In fact, the failure is not only of their inept handling of the situation, but also the lack of any plan to pre-empt such a crisis when there are early warning systems available. So, even though the legislative arm of the government seems miffed, the Supreme Court’s remarks on the inefficient handling of the drought were not only timely but also necessary.
On Wednesday, the SC said that both the Centre and the states had shown a “lack of will” in combating drought and saving lives. It pronounced the Centre guilty of “washing its hands of” a national disaster that consumed one-fourth of the country. The Supreme Court pulled up Gujarat, Bihar and Haryana for adopting an “ostrich-like attitude” towards declaring drought and driving the people to suicide, starvation and mass migration. It also pointed out how the two guidelines in tackling the problem — the Manual for Drought Management (2009) and the National Disaster Management: Guidelines for Management of Drought — remain largely on paper.
It also spoke of the need to start a mitigation fund. A day later, it directed the States to appoint food commissioners to oversee effective implementation of the Public Distribution System to tackle drought. Observing that the States cannot hide behind the excuse of lack of funds to not act on the drought crisis, the court directed that the mid-day meal in schools be given throughout the summer season in the drought affected areas.
During the UPA 2’s tenure, the Centre and the states had deliberated on the mitigation fund but it was decided that instead of locking up huge contingency funds at the central level, it would be best to allow states to devise such projects. The NDA is also continuing with this line of thought. While many experts have said that the ruling, though strongly worded, is not enough to address the immediate crisis, the verdict will, hopefully, send a strong message across the bureaucratic and political world: There is absolutely no time to lose and play dirty politics. It is an emergency situation; and like in any crisis, the Centre and the states will have to work with whatever is available.