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May 11, 2016

Droughts of governance precipitate death

[This is an AHRC Statement]
For millions of Indians hit by the devastating drought, death comes in myriad forms. Farmers’ suicides – oft reported by the media and denied by the State – are one of them. A recent and surprising pattern of drought death is heart attacks to those waiting in water collection queues.
This is what killed 12-year-old Yogita Desai. Last month, April 2016, she collapsed while standing in a queue for water in her village in Beed district of Maharashtra. It was her fifth consecutive queue on that day. Doctors diagnosed that the cause of her death was heart attack and dehydration. They found the immediate cause of death, but other factors deserve consideration. Why, for instance, was a 12-year-old, and that too one suffering from dysentery for a while, having to go fetch water five times in a row under the scorching sun.
Squaring up with this question exposes the real reason behind her death: apathy and inaction of the government and public institutions. But, that would have been too embarrassing for the regime, which claims to be on course to becoming the next world superpower.
Kevalbai Kamble, a 45-year-old woman, met the same fate the day before yesterday, in Latur, Maharashtra. Standing for more than 2 hours in a queue for water, she collapsed, and was declared brought dead to the hospital.
A question like, why was she forced to stand in a queue for over two hours, under the scorching sun, is a question that would be beyond the brief of the government doctors. And this is so for obvious reasons. However, it must not be so.
Drought has not caught the governments, both at union and state levels, unaware. Many of the regions worst affected, for example Marathwada and Vidarbha in Maharashtra, Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh, parts of Telangana, and so on, have been under long spells of drought. The impact of the same has also reflected in the corresponding numbers of farmers’ suicides, despite the best attempts by the governments to fudge the data.
The response of the governments to the situation, aggravating with every passing year, have bordered on criminal negligence. They have also largely followed a set pattern, irrespective of the party in power. Let’s examine this pattern on display.
First, the governments will not officially declare the ‘drought’ and will choose to study the “drought like” condition. Maharashtra is one of the better-known examples of this, but it is not the only one. Uttar Pradesh did this last year. And, it finally declared, on 19 November 2015 – i.e. well after Kharif crops (paddy in the main) were destroyed – that drought was affecting 50 of its 75 districts. Telangana waited even longer. It declared 231 out of 443 of its rural mandals (sub-districts) drought hit, only on 24 November 2015. It was waiting for the “detailed report” over crop damages, which are only accessible after harvest.
Official declaration plays a crucial though stopgap role in addressing the crisis and mitigating the drought, as relief measures cannot be released without the drought declaration. The relief measures, howsoever abysmal, are the only lifeline left for the rural population in such situations. How poor is the relief? It is a miserly, bordering on insulting, Rupees 2,750 per acre in rain fed areas and Rupees 5,465 per acre in assured irrigation areas under the National Disaster Relief Fund norms. This relief is capped at Rupees 13,475 and Rupees 26,778 for rain-fed and irrigated areas, respectively. And even this relief cannot be disbursed unless there is an official declaration of a drought.
The second stage of the drama that recurs involves a fervid blame game between the state and union government, especially if they are led by rival political formations. The provincial government accuses the union government of sabotaging drought relief by not releasing funds; the union responds by blaming the state government with underutilisation of funds that have already been disbursed to the state. This continues for a while with no regard to lives being lost to distress suicides, heat strokes, and all other manner of ailments that travel along with.
Next, the third stage involves cosmetic, and tragicomic, relief measures taken by both bickering governments amidst full throttle attempts by both to take credit. This can even go to the extent of rushing Water Trains without a drop of water, as it so happened yesterday.
The Union Government of India, yesterday, rushed a train to Bundelkhand, which is part of the Uttar Pradesh state that is already in election mode. The state government refused to accept the charity, saying it had enough water and only needed tankers to distribute them, and did not need a water train. The Union Minister for Water Resources accused the Chief Minister of the state to be arrogant for refusing water and blamed him for putting politics over people. It was then found out that the train they were bickering over was, in fact, empty. It carried no water at all. Not even a drop of it.
The fourth and final stage of the annual drama is the partial natural mitigation of the crisis with onset of monsoons followed by winters. The climatic changes bring a dip in temperature and replenish water bodies at least to subsistence levels. This reflects in a decline of suicides and deaths by all other means. The drought is then forgotten or replaced with some other topic, only to return to haunt the people next year.
Sadly, at no stage of the drama do the governments make any attempts to walk their talk, for instance rainwater harvesting that they preach about, conservation of water, building more reservoirs, and so on.
Consider Maharashtra closely for an active demonstration of this set pattern. The state authorities have been more than aware of the disaster coming their way. The Marathwada region of the state was reeling with just 6% water available in all its reservoirs against 18% last year. The region had also seen 370 farmers’ suicides by 30 April; the state already had 124 farmer suicides in the first 45 days of the year, i.e. nearly 3 farmer suicides a day in the state. But the state authorities sat on the information till disaster struck.
Next, it is not as if the government didn’t do anything. It made the appearance of acting. The government organised a full cabinet tour of Marathawada, rather than do anything substantive like revamp dysfunctional public institutions on a war footing to arrest the impending crisis.
Even the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground did not stop it from allowing cricket matches of the Indian Premier League to be hosted. These matches, played in a profitable private league, guzzle thousands of litres of water.
The state government also did not curb water supplies to 17 breweries, until the Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court instructed the state government to cut off the water supply to the breweries for 40 days. It also, meanwhile, kept constructing new helipads, like one that used 10,000 litres of water in Latur, so that Ministers could “take stock” of the drought situation. Latur, incidentally, is a district so badly hit by drought that it is getting water from trains (full of water it is hoped) that have been earmarked for the purpose.
Therefore, it is but “natural” that the government was found wanting, when the full scale of the disaster finally struck, both in the form of farmers suicides and in all manner of other associated deaths, such as heart attacks in the water queues.

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