Drought threatens lives, economy

CHENNAI, India – North, central and southern regions of India are in the middle of a severe drought and thousands of lives are in danger. This is the worst drought since 1983, and will likely spread to the rest of the country if the Southwest monsoon fails. All sectors, including the stock market, are affected by this climatic trouble, and the troubles are compounded by government mismanagement.

The agricultural sector and agricultural laborers are the main victims of the drought. The National Sample Survey showed that, in some of the drought-affected states, as many as 50 percent of all rural households are dependent on wage employment in agriculture. These people are affected by the drought in two ways. First, they are not able to earn adequate income and, second, they are squeezed by rising food prices.

Scarcity of agricultural commodities has caused a steep hike in prices, making them unaffordable for most people. According to statistics released by the Ministry of Agriculture, the three crop categories that have been affected most seriously are Kharif coarse cereals, pulses and oil seeds.

At the same time, the central government has enough food grains in their reserve. The main difficulty in getting these food grain reserves to the drought-affected poor is the shattered public distribution system (PDS). The PDS has been diluted as a result of the policies of the government’s globalization agenda. As a result, the government would have to distribute its reserves to the needy through private entrepreneurs, who will likely use this chance to exploit the situation.

The process of globalization that started in 1991 has also worsened India’s irrigation system. Government-made and -maintained water canals had been the main water distribution system. But, as per the directions from the World Bank, governments have withdrawn from the system and canals have gone empty, forcing farmers to depend on tube wells. In addition to being very costly, tube wells are a major drain of ground water.

In the most drought-affected states, even drinking water has become a dream. Drinking water scarcity is an alarming problem; the lack of potable water causes the outbreak of epidemics. The supply of drinking water is directly linked to the availability of water in the main reservoirs. Reservoirs are currently at only 17 percent of their full levels. There has been no definite plan spelled out for dealing with this crisis. The agriculture ministry has asked the departments of rural and urban drinking water supply to draw up a contingency plan to meet the challenge.

Drought relief measures taken by the central government are absolutely poor and biased toward state governments that are allies with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The only state that has received immediate financial support from the national government is Andrapradesh – the only one of the drought-affected states that is ruled by an NDA ally. Most of the affected states have non-BJP or non-NDA ally governments, and have received no immediate help.

The common Job for Food relief measures, normally recognized by international agencies, have not worked in this case. Here, poor agricultural workers have no food and no job. Everybody is trying to sell their properties and valuables to middlemen for rock-bottom prices. This phenomenon will have a long-term effect and will boost the pace of poverty.

Major industries in these states are also facing a difficult time. Power in India is mainly generated from hydroelectric projects. Due to the drought, power generation is at a low and industries are compelled to purchase high-cost thermal-, nuclear- or wind-generated electricity.

Steel and coal are two badly hit industries, and workers in these areas are now facing job cuts. Left trade unions have given strong signals to the government that they will go for a total strike if the government is not ready to solve these workers’ problems immediately.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org