The Government of India told the Supreme Court recently that one-third of the country’s districts are currently facing a severe drought. This means that at least 33 crore Indians are affected by the crisis. In an open letter, around 170 academics and activists in an open letter have asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take urgent and appropriate relief measures.
Among those who have signed the letter include Aruna Roy, senior activist, Rajasthan; Jean Dreze, senior economist; writers Ashok Vajpeyi and Arundhati Roy, well-known writer; Admiral Ramdas, former Chief of Naval Staff; actors Naseeruddin Shah, Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi; well-known social activist Medha Patkar; dancer Leela Samson; senior jurist Justice Rajinder Sachar; advocate Vrinda Grover; former Planning Commission member Syeda Hameed; filmmaker Shyam Benegal, filmmaker; and environmentalist Himanshu Thakkar
We wish to convey our deep collective anxiety about the enormous suffering of the rural poor in large parts of India’s countryside as they are battling drought, often for the second or even third consecutive year. In areas where rains have failed, farmers who depend mainly on rainwater to irrigate their crops have no or very low crop yields. Those who rely on irrigation are also affected, with groundwater sinking and streams and reservoirs drying up. All this adds to chronic agrarian distress reflected in a massive slowdown in agricultural growth during the last few years, with no imminent signs of recovery.
The consequence of this adversity is massive distress movement of populations, causing broken childhoods, interrupted education, life in camps, city pavements or crowded shanties. Add to this the old and the infirm who are left behind, to beg for food or just quietly die. The cattle for whom there is no fodder, sold at distress prices or just abandoned to fend for themselves. And the drying up even of sources of water to drink.
However, the response of central and state administrations to looming drought is sadly listless, lacking in both urgency and compassion. The scale of MGNREGA works is way below what is required and wages often remain unpaid for months. Even more gravely, the central and state governments are doing far too little to implement the National Food Security Act, three years after it came into force. Had the Act been in place, more than 80% of rural households in the poorer states would be able to secure about half of their monthly cereal requirements almost free of cost. In a drought situation food security entitlements should be made universal.
In addition, we find no plans in most of the drought-hit regions for feeding the destitute, especially old persons left behind when families migrate, children without care-givers, the disabled and other vulnerable groups. ICDS centres could have been upgraded to supply emergency feeding to the destitute during the drought, but this has not happened. Under Supreme Court orders, school meals should be served on all days, including holidays, in drought-affected areas, but this is rarely the case. Arrangements to augment drinking water supply, including ensuring that marginalised hamlets have functioning tube-wells and transporting water where necessary, are awfully inadequate. There are also few attempts to create fodder banks and cattle camps. Most of these measures used to be a routine part of state response to drought, and were often undertaken with a great sense of urgency, but they are barely being considered today.
The highest priority of the central government in a drought situation should be to ensure the creation of millions of additional person-days of work in all affected villages. Instead, the government has not even allocated enough funds this year to sustain the level of employment generated last year – 233 crore person-days according to official data. At current levels of expenditure per person-day, this would cost well over 50,000 crore rupees. Yet the central government has allocated just 38,500 crore rupees to MGNREGA this year, of which more than 12,000 crore rupees are required to clear pending liabilities.
These liabilities only prove the distress crores of workers have been put through because of wages left unpaid for months at a time. Unemployment allowance and mandatory compensation for delayed wage payments are also not paid, citing “insufficient funds”, resulting in a failure of the Act, and its legal safeguards. Most alarming today, is that instead of expanding, MGNREGA is all set to contract in this critical drought year, unless financial allocations are vastly expanded.
The enormous distress – of food, drinking water, work, fodder for animals, and dignity – of hundred of millions is utterly unacceptable. We demand that the central government under your leadership acknowledges these failures and makes rapid amends, by implementing all the traditional relief measures as well as by ensuring full implementation of the National Food Security Act 2013 and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 in letter and spirit.