Drought 2014-15

Jaya Mehta

On 20th June 2016, the national daily Indian Express reported, ‘Monsoon finally arrives in drought hit Marathwada. Ninety percent of Maharashtra is lashed with rain.’ Three days later on 23rd June the Times of India reported, ‘Insufficient rains slashes sowing activities.’ The report gave details of minuscule sowing in the region. Marathwada is subdivided into two divisions Aurangabad and Latur. In Aurangabad division the major crops are Maize, Bajra and Jowar. Normally Maize is cultivated in 2251.8 hectares of land. Till date sowing has taken place only in 71.81 hectares, which is 3.2 percent of usual area. Bajra has been sown to the extent of 8.3 percent of usual area and Jowar to the extent of 1.4 percent of usual area. Similarly, in Latur division sowing has taken place only to the extent of 3.3 percent of the usual area under cereal crops.

Two years of scanty and erratic rains and hailstorms have ravaged rural Marathwada and Vidarbha regions creating conditions of unimaginable sufferings for the people.

In Katchincholi village in Beed district women get up at 3 a.m. and go to the bone dry bed of Godavari River with as many pots as they can carry. They dig the gravel with their hands till a muddy pool of water appears. They scoop the water in their pots and then strain away the sludge and stones. This is how drinking water is procured in the village. A single pot takes around 2 hours to fill and three pots mean a woman spending 6 hours a day to get ‘drinking water’ for the family. (Times of India 25th March 2015).

Yogita Desai a class V student of Sabalkhed Village in Beed district fainted and died while fetching water from a handpump. The number of trips that she made in scorching heat proved fatal for the 12 years old. Another 11 years old boy fell down into the well while trying to get water. A 45 years old woman fainted and died standing in a queue to fetch water from a hand pump in Atola village in Latur district. (PTI April 21 2016)

In Latur, civic authorities stopped supplying water in the pipeline since February 2016. Water is reached through trains and supplied by tankers in Latur town. Crores of litres of water have been sent to Latur from long distances. This has indeed made big news in the country.

In Yevalevadi village of Beed district all the young men and women have left looking for harvesting work in sugarcane fields leaving the children and elderly behind. Hansa bai’s two sons went away leaving one bagful of Jowar for her and her husband to consume. When the Jowar was finished Hansa bai went looking for work in the parched neighbourhood fields of Jowar. If she found work she got Rs.100. It meant 8 to 9 hours of back bending harvesting work. Her greatest fear was the eventuality of falling ill. If she fell ill her husband would not be able to even accompany her to the hospital. (Times of India, 24th March 2016).

There are stories of farmers committing suicides and even their adolescent children committing suicides.

Sandeep Pendse was a 27 years old small farmer in Patoda taluka in Beed district. Sandeep had not got a single decent crop for last three years and had collected debt worth Rs. 1.2 lakhs. The cotton crop on his tiny field got destroyed by drought last year. This year he sowed Jowar and hoped that he would at least have sufficient grain to eat. Unfortunately, just before the crop was to be harvested, untimely rain destroyed it. Sandeep ended his life by hanging himself from a tree. His widow Shobha now has two small children and a large debt to take care of.

Mohini Bhise from Latur district, wanted to become an auxiliary nurse midwife. Her father could not afford the required donation and fees. Her marriage would have also cost him a lot of money which he could not afford. When she heard her parents discussing selling of their land she could tolerate it no more. She committed suicide. (Agriculture is injurious to health, Atul Deulgaonkar and Anjali Joshi in Economic and Political Weekly, 7th May 2016.)

Times of India reported that just in the first three weeks of April, as many as 65 farmers committed suicides in Marathwada region. Since January, 2016 the number has totaled up to 338. The highest number of suicides is reported in Beed district (Times of India 28th April 2016).

Stories can continue and Marathwada is not alone. In the year 2015, as many as 302 districts in 11 major states were declared as drought hit. The affected states include Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and others. The drought 2015 has covered the entire country.

May be 50 years later all these people will just become numbers in the history records. Considering that around 60 percent of Indian households depend on agriculture and allied activities for their livelihoods, such vast areas affected by declared and undeclared drought conditions spell disaster for thousands and thousands of men and women. It is estimated that as many as 300 million people are in dire state because of consecutive failure of monsoon for two years and erratic rains and hailstorms.

There are two aspects to the situation. One is the efficiency of immediate relief measures for the affected people in order to ensure their sustenance till normalcy returns. Second aspect relates to the measures which need to be taken up so that occurrence of such extreme situations can be avoided.

Immediate relief measures

In 1996, the famous journalist P. Sainath wrote a book – ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought.’ He described in detail how funds allocated for drought relief programmes are misappropriated by vested interests at different levels. The poor in rural areas call the drought relief programmes as ‘chouthi fasal’ (fourth crop), which they don’t harvest. The exact account of disbursement and management of relief funds in different states and districts in the years 2014, ‘15 and ‘16 is a matter of comprehensive research, but comments are warranted at macro policy level with respect to the performance of central and state governments.

Repeated failure of crops means no income for the cultivators and no work for agricultural labour households. Therefore, from the time of colonial administrative rule, drought management has involved public works programme in the region to provide basic sustenance to households dependent on wage income. This has been the major relief initiative for agricultural labour households as well as marginal and small farmer households. In the years 2014, ‘15 and ‘16, specific extra programmes are not being thought of. The country already has MGNREG Act 2005, which is supposed to take care of such contingencies. The Act guarantees minimum 100 days of employment at minimum wage to every household that demands work. The employment is supposed to be provided within 15 days of asking. In case employment is not provided, the person is entitled to unemployment allowance. The role of MGNREG scheme as a drought relief measure was recognised by the central government and the promised employment in drought hit regions was increased from 100 days to 150 days.

MGNREGA has miserably failed in providing minimum employment security to drought affected households. In the financial year ending in March 2015, in all 15.2 million people in the 11 drought hit states got employment under MGNREG scheme. Average number of days for which an individual got employment ranged from 30 to 35. Only 2.8 lakh persons i.e. 1.8 percent of the total got employment for 150 days.

The official position is that the scheme is a demand driven scheme and when demand is registered, employment is provided. Figures tell us that in the year 2015, 17.8 million households registered themselves and demanded work and 85 percent of them got the employment. This is a distorted picture. Actual demand for work is much larger than the registered demand. Many of the workers do not want MGNREGA work because the wage given is less than the minimum wage and the payments are often delayed. Sometimes, poor workers have not received their dues for months and years. Secondly, many times when people go to register their demand for work, local administrative units refuse to make job cards, if they cannot provide the work.

The reason behind the lackadaisical performance of MGNREG scheme is the paucity of funds. The central budget has capped the allocation to the scheme which amounts to violating the Act. In the financial year 2015-6, the spending on the programme was only 0.26 percent of the GDP. The state governments accumulated a deficit of Rs. 12590 crores because central funds were short. (Indian Express 18th and 21st April 2016)

MGNREG scheme performance must improve drastically if drought affected people have to be given some livelihood security. The Central government must prioritize the scheme and provide funds as required by the state governments. It is poor people’s right over the government money and any denial of this right makes a mockery of the ‘democracy’ that our leaders and elite boast about in the world.

In addition to giving employment the other major task relates to supplying subsidised foodgrain to affected people. National Food Security Act was passed in 2013. It includes mid-day-meal (MDM) system, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and Public Distribution System (PDS). The Mid Day Meal and ICDS are to have universal coverage. The subsidised grain at Rs. 2 and 3 a kg under PDS is supposed to reach 75 percent of rural population and 50 percent of urban population.

Implementing the Act required huge infrastructural preparations starting from identifying the beneficiaries, giving them ration cards, digitising them and then linking these cards with Adhaar cards. This has to be supplemented by upgradation of physical infrastructure. Additional ration shops and additional transport and storage capacities were required. Obviously this has not been possible in most states in two years especially in view of the fact that the government at center changed in 2014.

From Bundelkhand to Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, the village people are forced to buy grains from open market where prices have gone sky high.

Annapurna Yojna has been operating nationwide since 2001. Under the scheme the destitute population aged 65 years and above is entitled to 10 kg of free grain every month. The grains are provided by the Center. Under the scheme Maharashtra identified 78400 beneficiaries and was getting 225 metric tons of grain from the Center. The Central government stopped supply of grain in March 2014 because of some administrative reshuffle. The supply of grain has not been resumed for 10 months despite the severe drought conditions. The state government could not provide the grain from its own sources and the elderly and poor and hungry population had no other recourse but to buy expensive grain from the market or to remain hungry on most days. (Times of India 22nd Jan 2015).

On 13th May 2016, the Supreme Court of India issued directive to the Central government and State governments that National Food Security Act and MGNREG Act should be implemented throughout the country without any delay. The Center should promptly transfer the required funds to the states. The court directed that in drought hit states no one will be denied subsidised ration even if the person concerned does not have the ration card. The state of Gujrat was specially pulled up second time by the court for not implementing National Food Security Act which was passed by the Parliament. (www.livemint.com).

Long term measures required to avoid the extreme situations

There is a general feeling that the monsoon pattern in the country has changed perceptibly and this may be the consequence of the climate change – issues relating to which are being negotiated at international level according to Kyoto protocol and Paris agreement.

On the other hand, people argue that a careful study of decadal and inter annual variation in rainfall does not give any definite evidence that the drought in Marathwada region can be related to climate change. Bringing in climate change in the discussion leads to diverting our attention away from the immediate socio political factors, which are directly responsible for the massive agrarian distress. In other words, to control erratic behaviour of rains may not be within our reach but vulnerability to environmental contingency can definitely be taken care off. (See Economic and Political Weekly 7th May and 4th June 2016.)

Better water management, crop management and soil management can indeed reduce the vulnerability of the peasant population to climatic contingencies. The model of agricultural development followed in the country since late 60s is primarily focused on yield improvements. Little attention has been paid to the natural resource context and environmental sustainability of production. As a result we succeeded in pushing up food grain production, but the production trajectory led to an intensified use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as well as severe depletion of water resources and soil quality.

The new restructured model of agricultural development must insist on judicious crop choice, discrete use of ground water and local initiatives at watershed management. Along with water conservation soil quality should be taken care of. Healthy soils with higher content of organic matter have better water retention capacity. Use of chemical fertilizers must be restrained.

All these environment friendly suggestions sound good but implementing them is notjust a matter of policy initiative by the government. The crop choice and water management are questions related to inequitable distribution of resource base between rural and urban areas, between agriculture and industry, between regions and most importantly among those whose livelihoods are dependent on agriculture.

Indian economy is entrenched in a deep agrarian crisis for past two decades. The droughts and floods only exacerbate the situation. The land question is central to the agrarian crisis. The numbers of households who are dependent on land for their livelihood are far too many. The land available is insufficient and is depleting fast. According to NSSO data, the land available for household operational holdings has gone down from 125 million hectares in 1992-3 to 94.4 million hectares in 2012-13. There are 109 million operational holdings on this land area, which means an average holding of the size of 0.86 hectares. Further, this land is distributed in most skewed manner. There are only 7 percent holdings which are more than 2 hectares in size. Ninety three percent holdings are small and marginal holdings. Whereas the 93 percent small and marginal holdings cover 53 percent of land area the 7 percent medium and large holdings cover 47 percent of land area. This uneven distribution of land gets sharpened because the control over other resource base like water, credit and access to market, maps on to the land ownership pattern.

According to the official land use statistics, 55 percent of the cultivated area does not have access to irrigation. Although situation varies from state to state, but the rain fed cultivation invariably belongs to small and marginal resource poor farmers. Moreover, irrigation has shifted from canals to tube wells, which means that rich farmers have control over ground water which extends far beyond the actual land that they possess.

In a free enterprise economy when the government is allowing foreign capital to invest in all sectors, how can the farmers be stopped from growing water guzzling sugar cane crop and using up the ground water. And even if the water can be saved and watershed programmes are undertaken, what is the mechanism of reaching water to the marginal farmers with farm size as small as half an acre or one third of an acre.

Proper water management is possible only in a situation where control over land and water is socialised and decisions are taken not on the basis of individual profit concerns but on the basis of what is good for the society.

Unfortunately water management alone does not resolve the agrarian crisis. As many as 51 percent of rural households are agricultural labour households. They need assured employment at reasonable wage rate.

But how can one talk about social good and community benefits in agrarian sector and at the same time allow corporates and urban elite to accumulate private wealth without any restriction.

The tragedies like the one in Marathwada region need never be repeated in any civilised society. But if such large sections of people live on the margins and operate on extremely fragile livelihood equilibrium, then the slightest perturbation is bound to result in a catastrophe. The situation demands not just efficient relief measures and environment of friendly policy initiative, but a radical restructuring of production relations. The restructuring cannot be limited to the agrarian sector; it has to encompass the entire economy.

Without this every initiative will reach an impasse and tragedies will continue as before.

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