India drought crisis: Situation dismal, says SC food panel member

In an interview to Seema Chishti, despite Monsoons having come to south-west India, Biraj Patnaik speaks on the details of how millions of lives remain impacted by little or no action.

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi |

biraj patnaik, inflation, supreme court, drought, drought victims, bjp, narendra modi, drought problem indiaBiraj Patnaik, Principal Adviser to the Supreme Court. (youtube screengrab)While the monsoon, though delayed by a week has hit India, the impact of the drought, among the worst in independent India continues to leave its impact on about one-fourth of India’s population and a significant portion of rural India.

On May 11, the Supreme Court, in an unprecedented order, laid down certain directions for the Centre and state governments of drought-affected regions to follow.

The Principal advisor of the Supreme Court Food Commissioner’s office (mandated to monitor the food schemes of the government in the ‘right to food’ case) Biraj Patnaik has expressed concern that despite the recent tough, clear and unambiguous directions from the Supreme Court regarding the drought-affected areas, nothing has happened or moved on the ground.

Patnaik: While we are not monitoring the drought situation specifically as Commissioners, since this is a different litigation, the overall situation, even with the routine food schemes we monitor remains quite dismal.

An important part of what the SC had said was around the availability of food, and said that irrespective of being in the BPL list or having a ration card, families in drought-affected districts could avail of food grains from Public Distribution System (PDS) outlets. Not a single state has operationalised this.

The Court also directed the states to provide mid-day meals to children even during the summer break, but states like Jharkhand had not even bothered to go to the Centre for funds, till the summer vacations had started. All the other drought-affected states had informed the central government and got the additional funds released before the vacations started.

In many blocks of Jharkhand, some of the most marginalised communities like the Ho tribal communities have not got even their regular PDS food grains for two months now.

In Maharashtra, which is facing the most severe of droughts in the country, mid day meals are still not being served in many schools in the affected districts.

Not a single state has issued instructions to make provision of food grains through PDS universal. Even the roll out the National Food Security Act (NFSA) enacted in 2013 is not completed. In UP, for instance, only the names have been added to the website, and no distribution of cards has happened except in parts of Bundelkhand. UP is therefore also losing out on central funds as it has not even identified the priority groups which has been a requirement under the NFSA three years ago

Much of this is happening because of the delay in the implementation of the NFSA. The NDA government at the centre chose to extend the deadline for compliance for the Act, three times since it came to power, as a result of which implementation has been continuously delayed. Such ‘extensions’ cannot be done through an executive action, but need Parliamentary sanction, which was not taken in this case.

The CAG has found this irregular and in my view it is also completely illegal since the NFSA should have been rolled out as specified in the Act and if there was a delay, it should have had Parliamentary sanction.

Has this affected the lives of people during the drought ?

Of course. It exacerbated the problem of hunger in the drought districts. If this had been the third year of the implementation of the Act, the systems would have been in place to reach out to 75 % of the rural population across the country. Both the centre and the state governments have been complicit in this delay that deepened rural distress.

The Centre, in not implementing some basic legal entitlements under the NFSA, like the maternity entitlement, of Rs 6000 to all pregnant and nursing mothers. It has not been rolled out nation-wide and is still being implemented by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, as a badly designed pilot in 53 districts with new and tricky requirements (like the two-child norm, or dictating the minimum age for pregnant mothers).

This despite the fact the government of India had submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court last year that it would implement the scheme across the country within a year.

The total budget required to meet this component of the NFSA would be around Rs 15,000 crores, but the Centre has budgeted just Rs 400 crores this year for it. It had spent Rs 438 crores on the pilot last year, which indicates how it intends to cut it further down even by its own reduced standards. The Ministry’s budget for the flagship ICDS program, also a part of the NFSA has seen severe cuts in the last two years.

The SC had mandated mid-day meal schemes for drought-related areas in particular during the summer vacations? Is this being implemented?

As part of the right to food case that our office oversees, the Supreme Court has mandated the serving of meals in all drought affected districts even during the summer vacations.

There has been compliance this year of the orders and in most states, the allocations were made by the central government as soon as the drought affected areas were notified.

But the overall allocations for the mid day meal program are far short of what is required for it. Only Rs 9,700 crores have been allocated in the budget this year, in contrast with Rs. 13,215 in 2013-14.

The Supreme Court directed government to provide eggs, milk and other nutritious food to children in addition to the meals in their directions but neither the central nor state governments have chosen to act on it.

The MNREGA works that the Centre had promised it would look into now and said allocations have been higher?

The standard response for any drought situation has been the drought-relief works, creation of employment and assets that help people battle the drought. This has been in place since before independence in the form of ‘Famine codes’. But our flagship employment programme, the MNREGA has been a victim of budgetary cuts, with no amelioration or attempts to bolster spending in the present year. The ‘hike’ in MNREGA with a total allocation of Rs 43,000 crores, but in reality, this masks the burden of last year’s unpaid wages that have been included in this, so you can subtract Rs. 12000 crores from this right away.

In a drought year, the tragedy is that the allocation is less by 220 million MNREGA days as compared to previous years !

The water trains were sent to Latur and also to UP, and almost 5 lakh litres of water per day was sent in the first train to Latur and publicised. What of that?

The media covered these water trains with much fanfare and provide a photo-op to political leaders. As far as the train to Latur in Maharashtra goes, the first train delivered just 1.5 litres of water per capita to the parched town.

Sadly enough, in Jim Corbett national park, to quench the thirst of 160 tigers, watering holes in the forest are being filled each day with 1.5 lakh litres of water, and this is something that happens each year at this time, not just in Jim Corbett, but many other national parks, as reported in the media.

I salute those who are making these efforts to save our tigers and it is the right thing to do. It is outrageous that we can provide close to a thousand litres per tiger, each day to save our tigers but we are providing just 0.15 percent of that to human beings.

Even after the high profile IPL case in Bombay High Court, there has been no bid to make wasting water a crime nor larger commitments to save water. It has been business as usual, which suggests complete apathy for what rural India is going through.

While we wait for compassion to be institutionalized in governance, what do we do about the lack of societal compassion? Or the indifference of our media?

Even in an unequal society like the US, the response of the government and society at large has been far better. California, has been facing its most severe of droughts this year and executive orders were put it place making watering lawns, wasting water, filling of swimming pools as offences. Californians responded to the drought this year by reducing their water usage by 23.9 percent – enough to provide 6.5 million Californians with water for one year. Can we ever expect to see such a response in any part of India, anytime soon?

We have preferred to just move on, unmindful of the costs of ignoring rural India and its grave consequences – the distress migrations and suicides being only some of the more visible signs of it.

There is an old Marathi saying that drought is ‘not aasmani but sultani’ referring to droughts as a failure of administration rather than the failure of rains. Sadly this centuries-old saying holds true even today, in this era of ‘no vision all television’ model of governance that India is exemplifies.