New Delhi: A staggering 33 crore people, or more than a quarter of the country’s population, are in the grip of drought and consequently face drinking water shortage and agricultural distress, the Centre informed the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The government said it was releasing money to the affected states from its disaster fund to tackle the crisis. Additional solicitor general PS Narasimha, who submitted the data before the court on the basis of figures furnished by 10 states, said Rs 7,321 crore was released on Monday under MGNREGS in addition to Rs 12,230 crore disbursed earlier this month. He said more than 21 lakh households were granted more than 100 days of employment under the rural job scheme in these states.
But the number of people hit by the drought could be higher as Bihar and Haryana haven’t declared such a condition despite shortfall in rain. The report stating that 2.55 lakh villages living in 254 districts are drought-affected was placed before Justice Madan B Lokur and Justice NV Ramana.
Interestingly, the Centre did not mention the crisis prevailing in Gujarat despite the state itself admitting on the last date of hearing that more than 637 villages were facing severe water shortage.
Taking exception to the decision to not include Gujarat among drought-hit states, the Supreme Court bench asked “why special treatment was being given to the state”. The additional solicitor general replied that this was a mistake and “there is nothing behind the scene and the Gujarat figure would also be placed before the court”.
Drought conditions have forced governments to undertake emergency measures like running water trains in Maharashtra while a public outcry over “wasting” water led to IPL matches being moved out of Maharashtra on court orders. Politics has heated up too over incidents such use of water to settle dust at a helipad prepared for a VIP inspection in Karnataka.
Additional solicitor general P S Narasimha clarified that the figures of drought-affected people have been furnished by the states and might be somewhat ‘misleading’ as they had perhaps included entire populations in a drought affected district.
As per figures placed before the court, 254 out of total 678 districts in the country are under the spell of drought; the worst hit state is Uttar Pradesh where 9.88 crore people are affected due to rain deficit in 50 districts.
Narasimha told the bench that the government is taking all effective steps to handle the crisis and more funds are being released for relief and welfare. He said drought is covered as a natural disaster under the Disaster Management Act and money is being released from the national and state disaster funds to the state governments.
The Centre said farmers in drought-hit areas were entitled to get their loan restructured or reschedule their payment as per RBI guidelines which is mandatory in nature.
The Court was hearing a petition filed by NGO Swaraj Abhiyan which contended that 12 states — Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Haryana and Chattisgarh — are facing severe drought conditions and the state governments were not implementing social welfare laws like MGNREGA, Food Security Act and the Centre’s drought manual.
Bihar and Haryana governments contended that rainfall in their states had been normal and they cannot be declared drought-hit. Expressing its limitation, Narasimha told the bench that the Centre’s hands were tied on the issue and it could not force the states to declare drought as it came within the exclusive executive domain of the state governments.
While India has become somewhat better at dealing with the consequences of inadequate rainfall than in the past, there remains a very long way to go before we can say the economy and people have been as ‘monsoon-proofed’ as they possibly can be. Large-scale investment in irrigation infrastructure is an obvious step towards cushioning farmers against the effects of a bad monsoon, but so is much wider coverage of crop insurance. More effective use of forecasts to plan ahead for possible imports would also help in protecting consumers from the worst effects of a drought. In short, action before a drought hits is at least as important as anything governments can do after it does.