A drought-like condition is prevailing in at least four districts of West Bengal affecting 28 lakh people, said minister Subrata Mukherjee on Wednesday, stopping short of calling it an outright drought since his public health engineering department is not authorised to say so.
Agriculture minister Purnendu Basu told HT that a district is declared “drought hit” only when more than 33% of its crop is destroyed. “To decide whether and how many districts have reached that stage we have asked for reports from the respective districts. You can expect a decision very soon,” Basu said.
Mukherjee pointed out that the districts already affected are Purulia, West Midnapore, Bankura and Burdwan with the first two being the worst affected. This is the second year running that these parts of Bengal are facing a drought.
“Water crisis is looming large. We are taking all precautionary measures, both short and long term. A single department is not authorised to declare drought. The announcement has to come from the chief minister or the chief secretary,” said Mukherjee, who is the senior most member of the outgoing Mamata Banerjee cabinet.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Supreme Court criticised some of the states for showing an “ostrichlike attitude” when it came to declaring drought. Some states have not declared drought despite having a rainfall deficit.
At least 33 crore people across 10 states are reeling under drought and drought-like conditions this year.
Asked whether agriculture would be hit in these four districts, Mukherjee claimed: “I am not the agriculture minister. But if there is a water crisis, everything would be affected, from farming to cooking.”
On Wednesday, Mukherjee held a high-level meeting with officers of the PHE department, district officials and zilla parishad members to take stock of the situation.
The public health engineering department has deployed around 19 mobile treatment units that can churn out 70,000 litres of drinking water from river and ponds in just one hour. This drinking water is being distributed in 250 ml pouches to villagers in affected areas to prevent breakout of enteric diseases.
There are reports that some people have already been affected by enteric diseases in one block of West Midnapore as they were forced to drink water from ponds.
Tankers carrying drinking water have also been deployed and defunct hand-pumps or tube wells are being repaired. The department has also taken up some long-term measures since 2011 in which piped water has started reaching some of the villages.
The minister said the quick response team is working 24X7 to tackle any eventuality in coordination with the district administrations.
The district magistrates and zilla parishads have been asked to maintain a strict vigil so that water-borne diseases do not break out. Each zilla parishad has been given around Rs 75 lakh to tackle the crisis.
In March this year, abysmally low level of water in the Farakka Feeder Canal forced National Thermal Power Corporation authorities to shut down five units of its power plant at Farakka in Murshidabad.
Scientists of the Indian Meteorological Department warned in February that West Bengal would hardly receive any rain and thundershowers in pre-monsoon season this year because of the El Nino effect.
“The situation is, however, still under control. There is no reason to panic. We are keeping a close watch on the situation,” said Mukherjee.