January 17, 2020
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Passing The Bucket

Alleviating the suffering of the drought-stricken gets caught up in ugly Centre-state tussles

Passing The Bucket

Fodder lies in government stores a few kilometres away, but cattle waste away as it can’t be released without permission. Women and men are consigned to day-long labour in the scorching heat at the edge of the Thar in Pokhran, and consider themselves lucky if they get even half the minimum daily wage (Rs 60). In Saurashtra, a water-tank casts its shadow on a village but has no water to dispense; it hasn’t had any since the government built it four years ago. The women of Mahboobnagar in Andhra have taken to smashing their empty pots on the ground in frustration and protest since those elected on promises of providing plenty can’t even provide enough water to wet the parched throats of their children.

The tales are the same everywhere. Of Khem Singh of Sanawada, Pokhran, who worked in temperatures of 45 degrees for 10 days and was given Rs 140 by the contractor as his dues. That’s Rs 14 a day to buy food and water for himself and his family. Of Dudu’s Phool Devi who toils for hours to feed her nine children. Of the thousands of women across Rajasthan and Gujarat whose first chore of the morning is to spend hours trying to draw up clean water from drying village wells. Of the inability of our elected representatives to meet even the basic needs of a thirsty, hungry populace.

For they are busy. State governments in drafting reports to get more Central funds. And claiming that media reports are exaggerated. The Centre in passing the buck to states. A situation all the more unacceptable when meteorological data is available to both in advance and early warning systems should have been in place. "But the problem isn’t with warnings; it’s just that the states did nothing but send us reports months in advance demanding funds. They are caught in a dependency syndrome," says a senior bureaucrat.

The talk in the upper echelons of government in Delhi is all about the states’ "irresponsible behaviour". "It has become a fashion, which Laloo initiated, of milking the Centre for resources and then using the money as a corpus to carry out relief work with the interest," claims a PMO official. The Centre’s argument is that drought-prone states did little homework. There was no attempt to divert resources from other parts of the state to drought-hit areas. They just relied on the Centre to bail them out. The charges come thick and fast: the Gujarat CM was on a jaunt abroad to encourage NRI investment when the drought struck and didn’t bother to issue an appeal; Rajasthan has huge quantities of unspent money and the Andhra CM is using all political tricks as a major NDA ally to get more funds.

Says the official in-charge of coordination at Delhi: "We have limited funds but have made available all resources possible (see box). We’re dealing with the politicisation of calamities, not just by political parties but also by state administrations." The rush of complaints highlighted by the media, says a senior agriculture ministry official, "though not representative of the entire relief work, is good in that it will mount pressure on states to get their act straight." Adds a PMO official: "We may be embarrassed globally at the perception that we aren’t doing enough but post-Orissa, people have realised that it’s the state which has to implement the relief work."

Asks R.C. Panigrahi of the national disaster management division of the agriculture ministry: "Isn’t it obvious that states are in charge of implementation? The Centre’s role is supervisory. It’s for states to tell the railways where they need trains, to ensure that food is distributed promptly and that the enhanced minimum wages are paid. "

But state governments differ. And rather strongly. Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot told Outlook: "Most of what they say is only on paper. A lot of the resources the Centre claims should be used for drought relief are from rightfully devolved funds, whether there’s a crisis or not." As for the charge that the gravity of the situation is being diluted to deflect public ire against the sloppy relief work, Gehlot shoots back: "I may call a situation ‘very grave’ or ‘very critical’; you may merely term it ‘serious’. These expressions are relative." His Gujarat counterpart Keshubhai Patel, "aware" of his responsibility with a BJP government at the Centre, is more circumspect: "I’m in Delhi to apprise the PM of the relief work being undertaken. We’ll seek for more funds, though some were released yesterday," he told Outlook on May 5. And what better time to flog a pet project than in a crisis: "I’ll tell the PM that the only long-term solution to drought in Gujarat is the Sardar Sarovar dam."

Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya was more forthright: "The media coverage of the drought is akin to that of the Dangs attacks; grossly exaggerated. We need more money but work hasn’t stopped due to paucity of funds." Similarly, Chandrababu Naidu insists he has made funds available to "take up relief work on a war footing". The interesting aspect: all states insist adequate relief is being provided but they need more funds. Economist Bibek Debroy agrees with states that there are anomalies galore in the distribution of Central funds.

But the malaise of inadequate relief, outside petty political rivalries, also reflects systemic weaknesses. For instance, denying of minimum wages: graft is so deep-rooted that even in a crisis, contractors aren’t paying up and the administration can do little. Central officials concur, but insist that "our role is limited. We can call in the forces to ferry supplies or ensure the railways makes trains available. But in the end, it is the states which need to be more accountable."

There is, concede bureaucrats, the need to put in place a structured administrative response to natural calamities. "A panel headed by former agriculture secretary J.C. Pant on disaster management has been asked to delay its report to study the handling of the current drought and incorporate its findings in its recommendations," says a top bureaucrat. The hope that this report will at least begin the process of an integrated response to mitigate the misery of millions affected by natural disasters in India each year, however, remains slender.

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