Drought, state and the people

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DROUGHT is increasingly becoming a chronic phenomenon in several parts of India. At least seven states are currently in the grip of severe drought leading to chronic hunger, starvation deaths and mass migration of thousands in search of food and livelihood. Attempting to address this issue, a day long, national level symposium on Drought, State and the People was organised by the Centre for Equity Studies on 28 June 2001 at the India International Centre, Delhi.

The symposium was organised with the understanding that (a) Drought is more a human made calamity than a meteorological phenomenon; (b) It deprives people of their basic sources of livelihood, leading to chronic hunger, starvation and mass migration and thus needs long term preventive measures; and (c) It has differential impact on different communities with the landless, marginal farmers, women, children and the old suffering the most.

The symposium was divided into five sessions (i) Voices of the unheard, (ii) Understanding drought, (iii) Status of PDS and food security, (iv) Response of the people’s movements, and (v) Major issues of concern and future strategies. More than 70 drought affected persons, social and grassroot activists, researchers, representatives from NGOs, lawyers, students and media persons from different parts of the country participated in the deliberation.

The session began with an introduction by Harsh Mander (Centre for Equity Studies) outlining the objectives of the recently set-up centre: to study government laws, policies, programmes and social processes which have a direct bearing on the poor, and evolve workable alternatives from their perspective.

Demolishing the popular perception of drought as a result of shortage of rainfall, he referred to Bolangir in Orissa, where despite adequate rainfall the people face severe and chronic hunger. Drought is caused more by distorted economic, political and technological policies as they increasingly reduce people’s ability to withstand even slight variations in nature. According to Mander, drought happens when: (a) People lose control over natural resources such as land, water, forests; (b) inappropriate technology is used in production; and (c) government fails to respond adequately. He said that the crisis is wrought with contradictions as the state godowns are overflowing with food while millions starve every year.

‘Drought does not affect everyone. It hurts the poor much more than the rich’, was the common sentiment that resonated in the session on testimonies of the people. The men and women who spoke were landless persons, poor farmers or community leaders from the drought affected states of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

What happens in a chronic drought situation? Chulha nahi jaltha, pine ko pani nahi, pehene ko kapara nahi, dawai ke liye paise nahi, saare janwar margaye (No food to cook, no drinking water, no clothes to wear, no money for medicines and all our cattle have died). That’s how people from drought affected Chhattisgarh described their condition. The women suffer more in such situations, as they are forced to forgo their share of food and water for the rest of the family. They also have to go long distances to get water. While the men migrate, women and the old are left behind to support the children and suffer exploitation from moneylenders and authorities.

In tribal dominated Madhya Pradesh, the unabated depletion of natural resources such as forests has affected the ecology of the region. Tribals like the Bhils have been reduced from being agriculturists to wage labourers. Some have migrated to Maharashtra along with their cattle. But many women and the old are left behind to fend for themselves. With their natural source of food gone, they live in misery. Seeds are not available in time and there is no fodder for the cattle. In the absence of subsidy, fodder rates are as high as Rs 300 per quintal.

A study conducted in rural Madhya Pradesh shows high incidence of anemia and malnutrition. Out of the 1700 children surveyed, 35% suffered from some or the other disease and 70% were malnourished. According to community representatives, the sale and subsequent prostitution of girl children, sexual harassment, bondage and other forms of exploitations are on the rise in the region.

While describing their experiences with government and its relief measures the general sentiment expressed was that the poor rarely benefit. Even to get a job in famine relief works they are expected to pay bribes. Government relief in Chhattisgarh was available for only 7-15 days in a month, and the programme began after March when most people had already migrated. Those who stayed back got 11 kg rice and Rs 25 as wages, which amounts to Rs 52 as against the statuatory minimum wages of Rs 60. Nowhere in Madhya Pradesh, the people pointed out, is the minimum wage given. Instead of Rs 60, people get Rs 10-15 and some grain. But the magnitude of hunger and desperation is such that the people accept the paltry amount to work. The alternative, they fear, is starvation.

The villagers from Bolangir made it clear that whatever little the government does, the beneficiaries are not the poor or the landless. They pointed out that that most people have lost control over non-timber products, and to meet immediate consumption needs are forced to mortgage or sell their land and livestock. While 20% landowners own 60% of the land, the majority are assetless and in the grip of moneylenders. Villagers narrated incidents about how agents take advances from the poor to get them jobs and then force them to work in exploitative conditions offering little money.

‘The government should realise that it is water and not grain that falls from the sky,’ said villagers from Barmer, Rajasthan. In this state there is an urgent need for the relief works to continue even during the monsoon. There is also a need to monitor relief work as the poor, especially the dalits, are constantly discriminated against by the panchayats. As wages, only Rs 40 was given to the people. The old and the aged were not paid the promised Rs 180 for subsistence. A subsidy of Rs 60 per quintal was given for fodder but only after the cattle had died. Eventually, very little of the money meant for relief work got distributed. Last year, Rs 10 crore came in the Naakha zilla but was not disbursed. The situation was so bad that even pregnant women were forced to work.

Speaking about the rights of the drought affected people, Nikhil Dey (Akal Sangharsh Samiti) pointed out that as per the famine/relief codes, from the day people start working they are to be given 10 kg of grain. It is also mandatory to conduct medical tests before work begins, and if people are not found fit they are to be offered gratuitous relief. But this code is never implemented.

In the session on Understanding Drought, issues such as who gets affected the most, the role of the state and civil society were raised. Aruna Roy (MKSS) questioned the insensitive and lop-sided priorities of our democratic institutions, arguing that the poor are no longer a priority for the government. All agreed that the issue is not about people’s dependence on government but their right over the government. Roy argued that though over 70% of the people are suffering from severe lack of food, water and fodder in Rajasthan, the government pleads helplessness claiming it has no money. ‘If this is so, then the spending habits of the government need to change.’ She also stressed the need for common people to contribute. Over the years the ordinary citizens seems to have lost their sensitivity. Collective responsibility was missing. And even when they did respond it was only when the rich too were affected, as in the case of the recent earthquake in Gujarat.

Jean Dreze (Centre for Development Economics) extensively referred to the joint survey conducted by the Centre for Equity Studies, Centre for Development Economics and several local grassroots organisations in the drought affected states of Orissa, Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. He stated that in Rajasthan agricultural production has dropped to 20% or one fifth of the normal. Nearly half of the cattle have perished. The adverse impact of drought on the people, particularly the poor, was compounded by the state government’s decision to impose a ceiling on the number of jobs to be given to the affected population. As a result, only one out of eight able persons was employed in the drought relief programme, that too for only three days in a month. This despite the famine/relief code specifying that all those who seek employment have to be provided for. Consequently, employment in 2001 was significantly lower than what it was in 1987-88, except for the month of June.

Further, out of the total households surveyed in Rajasthan, 1/6th families have had to skip meals/ eat on alternative days. Some families had to beg to eat. At least 50% children were malnourished and a large number of women anemic. The survey indicated that the intensity of the hardship was region, class, caste and gender specific. The ceiling on employment as relief resulted in arbitrariness against the poor by the sarpanchs, leading to exclusion of the powerless.

Dreze spoke about the dismal state of the Public Distribution System (PDS). In Rajasthan, wheat was not distributed or lifted in the last three months in one-third of the wards despite availability; the shops were either closed or opened when people didn’t have money. Finally, he pointed out, that ration shops were closing down in many villages with the dilution of the PDS.

Based on the experiences of the people and the study, the following suggestions emerged at the end of the session: Relief should continue during the monsoon months as crops are harvested only in October; the PDS needs to be expanded and made workable and accessible to the poor; labour ceilings be abolished and violation of famine code not allowed; there is a need to review the issue of food stocks and their use; there is a need to recognise the right to work and draw up an employment guarantee scheme similar to the one in Maharashtra.

A central concern voiced by all drought-affected people related to the right to food in which the PDS plays an important role. Vijay Upadhyay (Indian Institute of Technology), speaking on the origins of the PDS, pointed out several anomalies which have negatively affected the functioning of the scheme. In particular, he stressed the role of support price mechanisms, cost of storage in FCI, the government’s export subsidy policies, corruption and people’s lack of buying power in creating a piquant situation of overflowing godowns and low offtake.

Alok Rath (Collective Action for Drought Mitigation, Bolangir) pointed out that in Orissa the below the poverty line (BPL) strata is entitled to 16 kgs of rice at Rs 6.25 per kg (general) and Rs 4.75 per kg (tribal) while the above the poverty line (APL) group has to pay Rs 12.75 per kg of rice. However, the migrant section is left out of these categories. According to him, PDS in Bolangir is very irregular, and supplies come only once in three months. Since the poverty stricken people are unable to spend even Rs 100 at one go, the food gets diverted to the open market. At times, the PDS cards are mortgaged for a little grain. When people migrate they leave their cards behind with relatives or mortgage them for small amounts of money.

Despite this situation, programmes of distributing free rice, such as Annapurna and the Antyodya programme, which provides subsidised rice, were initiated only in April, after the people had already lost their sources of livelihood. The people in the food for work programme got work after having been reduced from farmers to wage labourers. Consequently, the PDS is either being used by the rich or is reaching the market to be resold at higher prices. Similar accounts were presented by participants from other regions.

The final session on major concerns and future strategies stressed that the issue of drought needs to be simultaneously addressed at two levels. At one level the people have to be mobilised and organised to fight for their rights; at the other, there is need to conduct in-depth research and evolve alternative policies from the perspective of the poor. There is also need to connect the micro with the macro experiences and move towards policy alternatives. The participants agreed on:

* A policy on drought, both national and for each state separately.

* A shared understanding on aspects such as drought deaths.

* A review of famine codes to develop a comprehensive and workable drought proofing system after testing at the district level.

* A national food policy and food distribution system. The food policy today is a subset of the agricultural policy that does not talk about drought at all.

* A national network against hunger, involving grassroots movements and common people.

* A comprehensive crop and livestock insurance scheme.

* An employment guarantee scheme, as in Maharashtra, and the issue of minimum wages and task rates vis-a-vis people’s working capacity.

* A systematic budget analysis explaining where and how the relief money is spent.

Arundhuti Roy Choudhury


* I thank Malvika Kaul, S.K. Ravi, Arudra Burra and Reetika Khera for helping me to compile this report.