The Supreme Court on Tuesday reminded the Centre of its responsibility to declare drought in the states and ensure timely relief after the government revealed that 256 districts were struggling under an acute early-summer water crisis.
The government’s figure is perhaps the first clear acknowledgement of the scale of the catastrophe as two straight years of monsoon failure have pushed 40% of the country’s total area under drought.
But the Centre argued that it had no role to play in declaring a drought, prompting the top court to remind the government of its duty to advise the states if a drought-like situation is foreseen.
“You have satellites to give you weather forecast and the Centre must caution the state if you learn about the possibility of a drought in a district, even if it reports a good crop season,” the court said.
Additional solicitor general PS Narasimhan presented data from 10 states that listed drought in 256 districts, home to 33 crore people or 25% of India’s population.
“It is not necessary that everybody in a drought-hit district was actually affected,” the law officer said, clarifying to the bench of Justice MB Lokur and Justice NV Ramana that not all people in these districts were farmers.
Dry, pre-monsoon heatwave-like weather shocks have engulfed almost the entire country, pushing large parts of Maharashtra, Telangana, and the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh into the throes of a severe drought.
Water riots and rationing were reported in the Maharashtra countryside and the high court threw out the lucrative Indian Premier League cricket matches from the drought-battered state, underscoring the magnitude of the crisis. The Ganga is drying up at vulnerable spots, and at least 100 people have died in states reeling under a baking sun, mainly Telangana.
The drought situation prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declare a “massive effort” on Tuesday for water conservation and storage under the rural job guarantee scheme, MNREGA.
The Centre released Rs 19,555 crore under MNREGA to drought-affected states this fiscal while banks could reschedule loan repayment installments for farmers, the government’s counsel told the top court.
Immediate measures were called for to prevent suicides of debt-ridden farmers, which spikes during such distressing times. Three bad agricultural seasons because of poor monsoon have already crimped food output and farm incomes in almost half of the country’s 640 districts.
The weather office has predicted a good monsoon this year but it is still more than a month away. Until the rain arrives, the country’s stares at a humanitarian crisis with scarce drinking water.
The monsoon is vital because only 46.9% of the country’s 141 million hectares of arable area have irrigation access.
The top court, hearing a public interest litigation, told the Centre that it must issue regular advisories to states — starting from August to January —about the monsoon’s progress and the likelihood of a drought in case of deficient rainfall.
It cited Haryana’s example of not declaring drought yet: “The state claims to have adequate irrigation facilities but if you get to know that it will receive less rainfall, you must caution them.”
The court had indicated on April 7 that it might appoint a commissioner for a ground report on the drought situation in the country.