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A hole in the piggy bank

Considering the obscenely extravagant scale of these advertisements, crores of public money must have come out of government coffers for the Rajiv Gandhi birthday blitz, writes Nayanjot Lahiri.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2009 23:44 IST

How bad is the drought in India? Indicators of a crisis in the countryside — distress sale of cattle, scarce water and fodder, failure of crops — have recently been vividly described by P. Sainath, the eminent rural affairs editor of The Hindu newspaper and author of the bestseller Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Truckloads of cattle are leaving villages, a situation which the country has not witnessed in the last 25 years, while ten states have already declared 246 districts as drought-affected.

How the parameters of drought are defined in India, because of this crisis, has become a matter of discussion in university classrooms. History students, for instance, are deeply interested in how these parameters have changed. More than a 100 years ago, the Irrigation Commission had considered that the year in which the deficit of rainfall was upwards of 40 per cent would be a drought year.

Today, as economist Bibek Debroy explains, three types of drought are recognised: a meteorological drought when rainfall is either deficient (20 per cent below normal) or scanty (60 per cent below normal), a hydrological drought where there is a depletion of surface water, and an agricultural drought where there are crop shortfalls. Indices show that drought conditions of all three types can be seen in many parts of India.

If, on the one hand, changing definitions are being examined, a more serious issue is how the government plans to deal with this drought. My colleagues in the Delhi School of Economics (DSE), for instance, have pointed out that while the drought is unlikely to be as severe as the drought of 2000-01, the government has reacted slowly. It needs to swiftly put specific measures in place — advice which they hope will be taken seriously by our economist prime minister who also taught at the DSE in 1970s.

But more than what the government proposes to do — and what has caught public attention — is how the Congress party aims to earn some brownie points from the drought. All national newspapers prominently carried a story on August 20 about the Congress ordering a 20 per cent salary cut for its elected functionaries because of drought conditions. This includes members of state legislative Assemblies and mPs belonging to the party. This austerity message was strongly underlined in newspaper reports which said that the party meeting decided that “the way we conduct ourselves in our private and public life must reflect our concerns for the less fortunate”.

Ironically, newspapers that published this story also carried advertisements issued by government ministries on the birthday of Rajiv Gandhi, which too happens to fall on August 20. Considering the obscenely extravagant scale of these advertisements — two of the leading English language newspapers carried as many as 15 and 11 such ads respectively — crores of public money must have come out of government coffers for the birthday blitz. It must have also cost much more than what the party-ordered salary cut can possibly save.

Perhaps it is time for Sainath to write a sequel called ‘Preaching Austerity and Practising Profligacy in the Time of Drought’.

Nayanjot Lahiri teaches at the Department of History, University of Delhi

The views expressed by the author are personal